Chenging the structure of quantum science

While chemistry generally summons images of bubbling chemicals, glistening beakers or pristine lab coats and goggles, senior Ken Cheng conducts groundbreaking chemical research on molecules from the safety of a computer lab. After completing a research paper outlining his work, Cheng is the first student in Walnut High School to be recognized as a Top 300 Scholar in the Regeneron National Talent Search, the oldest and most prestigious science competition in the United States.

His research began as part of an internship at California State University, Fullerton with professor Fu-Ming Tao during the summer before his junior year. Cheng specifically utilized density functional theory — a way of modeling electronic systems using mathematical functions that can be calculated using computers.

“Initially, I wanted to do [the internship] because I was interested in chemistry, and through that internship, the professor at the lab, Dr. Tao, recommended that I submit a paper to a competition,” Cheng said. “Part of the internship’s purpose was to write a research paper and eventually publish it into a journal.”

To prepare for his research, Cheng taught himself how to use the programs to calculate thermodynamic values, which involve the motion of particles and heat transfers between objects including enthalpy and the most optimal structures of molecules and atoms. He continued his research during the summer before his senior year, now with California State University, Long Beach professor Dr. Lijuan Li. With assistance from college students, Dr. Li runs a lab where they study molecules containing nitric oxide and an iron core. Cheng based his research on her data and attempted to synthesize new versions of the molecule by substituting different ligands.

“One thing that I’ll never forget is just how much I had to read in order to gain enough background information to start on my project. I had to read countless articles and published research papers not only to learn about the subject, but also to even find inspiration for a topic to begin with,” Cheng said.

Cheng quickly learned how to use the Gaussian 09 program to model molecules with support and mentorship from the college students, who were simultaneously conducting their own research. Whereas Dr. Li’s research focused on experimental substitution, Cheng used a program to predict theoretical data. By changing the ligands, he would change the structures and energies of the base molecule. Each ligand type has its unique property, giving the molecules specialized functions like regulating blood pressure.

“It was really exciting to be able to work with current college students because they taught me about the program I used to conduct research,” Cheng said. “Overall, the experience has given me a taste of how college works, especially the process of composing and publishing a research paper.”

The basis of Cheng’s research paper was to demonstrate the contrast between theoretical calculations and experimental values, and determine if one can reliably use the theoretical program to predict substitutions of different ligands and their stability at varied temperatures. Cheng used a molecule that Dr. Li had synthesized and tested the same molecule and ligands to verify if the theoretical data matched her experimental data.

“I felt relieved because I had finally finished a two-year-long project, but I also felt really proud of myself for having written so much,” Cheng said. “I had spent the past two summers building a bond with [the students]; They helped me to understand the topic that after everything, I felt like I had to win something — if not for my sake, then for theirs. That’s why I was especially stoked to find out I was awarded.”

By Milo Santiago, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of Ken Cheng