Chemistry Students, Local Brewer Launch Research Project

North River Hops Provides the Beer, Marist Provides the Laboratory

There is always something new to explore in Marist College’s School of Science. This semester, Chemistry students are taking on the role as researchers for an original research experiment in their Introduction to Research Methods class. Five students have begun a semester-long experiment of chemically analyzing beer from a local brewery.

“I wanted an interesting subject for the students to work on,” explained assistant dean of the School of Science Dr. Neil Fitzgerald, who teaches the course. “Beer is chemically interesting and it also ties into the local community, so it’s a great way to combine the two worlds.”

The beer comes from North River Hops and Brewing in Wappingers Falls, NY. Fitzgerald took the students on a field trip to the brewery to see where their samples were coming from. They shadowed the brewers and observed the brewing process firsthand. This allowed the students to become familiar with the product and get a sense of what the process entails.

“The brewing process takes in a whole lot of chemistry,” said Fitzgerald. “There are a lot of chemicals, techniques, and methods that go into it. This project not only benefits the students but the local brewers as well; it’s a great way for the brewers to learn more about their product.”

The goals of the research project are to provide the students with an authentic research experience and an understanding of the many aspects that go along with it. Over the course of the semester, they will gain experience conducting a literature review, designing experiments, interpreting data, while also developing their problem-solving and laboratory skills. By using a variety of techniques and methods from their previous chemistry lab classes, the students are discovering the best approaches to analyze their samples.

“What we’re trying to do here is give them a real research experience,” said Fitzgerald. “This is an original research project and there are no set answers. It’s not written down; they have to figure out how to do everything with the procedure themselves. And if the procedure doesn’t work, they can modify it and find out why.”

To get a detailed analysis of the beer and its contents, the students have been divided into two groups. In group one, Courtney Cousineau ’16 and Jess Emsies ’17 are working with the metals within the beer, specifically Calcium Magnesium and Zinc, to understand their effects on different beer styles. Together, they are experimenting with different methods to find the concentration of these metals. To do this, Cousineau and Emsies are using an inductively Coupled Plasma Atomic Emission Spectrometer (ICP), an analytical technique used for the detection of trace metals.

“As we’re learning to use the different machines, we’re seeing that we have to make sure that our dilutions are made correctly,” said Cousineau as she tested her samples. “We’re making larger standards for our dilutions so that the beer is less concentrated; it’s less likely to put out the plasma in the ICP. Nothing has really worked so far, but that’s all part of the research experience.”

In group two, Taylor Russoli ’16, Elizabeth Leonard ‘16, and Anjalee Patel ‘17 are testing for the alcohol concentration in the beer. Like group one, they are looking to develop a method for measuring the alcohol content and determine the concentration of other molecules responsible for the beers' aroma and taste. Their research will also allow them to compare their methods to the methods traditionally used by brewers, giving them the opportunity to produce data that could help the future of beer production. This group is using a portable Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS), which separates the compounds in the mixture and delivers the results to the database on the students’ computers.

“It’s like finding the fingerprint for each chemical,” explained Fitzgerald. “With the GCMS, we can tell the brewers more about the product they’ve created. If the water they used was dirty and had microbes in it, we could easily find that out. If too much sunlight is getting to the beer, we could tell them at as well. There so much we can do.”

As the semester and the experiment progresses, the students are starting to achieve the original goals of the class and have created new ones for themselves. They feel more comfortable conducting their own original research and look forward to seeing where the experiment takes them.

“In previous labs, we followed strict procedural outlines,” explained Russoli. “But now we have more freedom and flexibility to determine our own procedures and gain experience being a researcher. We’ve become very skilled in what we do and we’re excited to use what we’ve learned.”  

Written by Emily Belfiore '16

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