The molecules in associate professor Amelia Fuller’s lab are sticky—and powerful. The small vials of white powder don’t look like much, but they’re contamination magnets when they hit water. The sticky molecules are peptoids, Fuller says, which are N-substituted glycine oligomers. Peptoids are similar to peptides, which are natural compounds—smaller pieces of the molecules that make up proteins. If there’s an oil spill or chemical leak, the presence of multiple chemicals in water can interfere with tests to identify contaminants, ultimately making it harder to clean. The sticky molecules fix that.
The molecules cling to each other, creating a pocket that isolates the pollutant so it can be analyzed and more easily identified for cleanup. “The big-picture goal is to find new ways to look for potential contaminants in water,” Fuller says. “There are ways to do this now, but this would give us a way to do it that’s more portable and sensitive.” Fuller’s sticky molecules earned her the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award for her research—bringing national recognition and support for her team of student researchers.