Our Stories

Exploring the World, Molecule by Molecule

Buck Taylor '07 went from playing the clarinet to playing with molecules during his time at Willamette, starting out as a music major before changing to chemistry.

"I've always liked science, but in high school, I really got into instrumental music and I thought I wanted to be a high school music teacher," he says. "After a year or so as a music major, I realized it was more of a hobby.

"I've always wondered how things work, and that's really what science is about. Chemistry is basically a science that tries to describe how things work on a molecular level, which includes everything in the world."

Taylor's interest and his summer spent working with Assistant Chemistry Professor Sarah Kirk through Willamette's Science Collaborative Research Program (SCRP) led him to examine ways to improve antibiotics. SCRP allows undergraduates to research collaboratively during the summer with natural sciences faculty. Taylor's senior thesis research, "Synthesis of Novel Neomycin-Doxycycline Conjugates," was so impressive, he was named one of 12 finalists last fall for the 2006 Frank and Sara McKnight Prize in Undergraduate Chemistry, given by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

More than 100 undergraduates from 85 colleges and universities applied for this new national chemistry prize, and Taylor's name was alongside finalists from California Polytechnic State University, Brown University, Northwestern University and University of California, Berkeley. He presented his research in November at a biochemistry research retreat in Texas.

"I was amazed I was even there," he says. "I'm from a small liberal arts school where research isn't the emphasis. But even though it's not a focus here, I'm really glad Willamette has the opportunities for students to do the research they want, like through the Science Collaborative Research Program."

Taylor also received help in his research from a Willamette Presidential Scholarship, an award for seniors that provides one semester's tuition and $2,500 for research expenses in the summer preceding a student's senior year. Only two students receive this scholarship annually.

So what exactly is Taylor's research project? It started when he worked with Kirk, whose research involves attaching small molecules to neomycin and studying their potential medicinal properties. Neomycin B is the primary ingredient in the topical medication Neosporin. Taylor came up with the idea of attaching a different antibiotic, doxycycline, to neomycin in hopes of creating a new, more effective antibiotic. The problem with neomycin is that it's toxic if taken orally; doxycycline fights bacteria the same way as neomycin, but its weakness is that it's an older antibiotic and many bacteria have become resistant to it.

Taylor hopes the new drug he creates can be ingested, like doxycycline, yet be more effective against drug-resistant bacteria, like neomycin. If the idea works, it could be used to create an array of new antibiotics by combining old ones. "We really need more internal antibiotics to fight bacteria," he says. "Major health problems are generally internal, so that's what we're working to address."

Taylor hopes to enter a chemistry PhD program this fall to get more research experience and broaden his exposure to other areas of chemistry. His ultimate goal: Become a college professor. He has practiced at Willamette by acting as a tutor and laboratory assistant in organic chemistry. "My experiences at Willamette have cultivated my love for teaching and research," he says. "I want to dedicate my life to the pursuit of knowledge and passing along that knowledge to students. I love helping others to learn and, hopefully, to become as excited about science as I am."