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CNSE, Chemistry, RPI Team Up with Wells

by Greta Petry (May 6, 2005)

Doctoral student Christopher Wells with his mentor, chemistry professor John Welch.

Doctoral student Christopher Wells with his mentor, chemistry professor John Welch.

Christopher Wells, 26, a third-year doctoral chemistry student from Lake George, N.Y., "likes to boldly go where no one has gone before," to paraphrase a line from "Star Trek."

That line describes Wells's approach to using computational chemistry in nanosciences research. "The existence of unexplored areas in the nanosciences was the interest for me," wrote Wells. "My mentor, Dr. John T. Welch, (Department of Chemistry chair and professor) helped me learn about what there was in the nanosciences and where it needed research for expansion."

Deaf from birth and legally blind, Wells is accompanied by sign language interpreter Donna Kosloske, who assists him in communicating throughout the day.

Early in Wells's studies at UAlbany, Alain Kaloyeros, president of Albany NanoTech and vice president and CAO of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE), met with him and encouraged him to join a collaborative research program on molecular interconnects. In this collaboration among CNSE Assistant Professor of Nanoscience James Raynolds, Chemistry's Welch, Rensselaer Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Timothy S. Cale, and Cale's post-doc "Ben" X.-Y. Liu, Wells has been part of a productive inter-institutional research effort.

"CNSE has made it possible for Chris to work on research opportunities that would not otherwise exist," Welch said. "The cooperation of CNSE with RPI has provided Chris with a rich educational experience."

The research on which the team works was supported by the Microelectronics Advanced Research Corp., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Academic Research through the Interconnect Focus Center at UAlbany and the Materials, Structures, and Devices Center.

Cale brings his research discussion group to Wells; both Cale and Raynolds have spent many hours with him and are heavily invested in his success. Liu, Raynolds, Wells, Welch, and Cale were co-authors on the paper "First-Principles Modeling of Electronic Transport in p Stacked Molecular Junctions," which was submitted to Applied Physics Letters.

In addition to being co-author of several current manuscripts, Wells has been a part of others already in print.

While he was starting high school, Wells noted, "chemistry attracted me like a moth to the lamp." Today, "my support for this interest is nature itself and the great chemistry department at the University at Albany." Wells completed his undergraduate work at Siena College, and switched from UAlbany's master of science program to the doctoral program at the end of last year.

"University at Albany has several factors that were alluring to me, particularly its long experience with students who have disabilities," he wrote in a recent e-mail.

As a computational chemist in the group, Wells deals with theoretical calculations of chemical systems. These calculations apply the ideas of quantum mechanics to give powerful predictions about how model systems should work, and are often effective in comparative analyses against experimental work with actual chemicals.

Kosloske, who lives near Wells, drives him to Albany from his home in Lake George every day. Wells uses the hour-long ride to read and study, and said he has missed only one class day due to an ice storm.

Many of the disabilities Wells handles today are the result of his premature birth and 2 lb., 2 oz. birth weight. He has been on a liquid diet since birth because of problems swallowing. Adopted when he was almost 8, Wells lists his extended family, including his adoptive mother, a registered nurse, as "a significant support system." He added, "I enjoy the big brother role," as he has a 13-year-old brother who was adopted from Romania and who is also deaf.

Wells's home computer is equipped with the same programs found in his lab, and Cale has made it possible for him to have remote access from home to Rensselaer's computer facilities.

"I also sometimes modify some of the equipment so it will work with my visual problems. To deal with my communication issues due to deafness and lack of voice, I use the Internet to communicate with other people while at home," Wells noted.

On campus, Director of Disabled Student Services Nancy Belowich-Negron assists. Belowich-Negron said, "Chris is a striking example of what a brilliant student who happens to have significant disabilities can do when reasonable accommodations are provided and artificial barriers are eliminated. We are fortunate to have a high-caliber student like Chris in our program and we are very pleased that his disability needs are being met so that he can concentrate on being a student/scientist."

Wells won a Disabled Student Services award in April. His long-range goal is to be a computational chemist.

"People at the University at Albany and at RPI are making a significant effort to facilitate Chris's education," Welch concluded. "They are determined to help him succeed."