From Norwalk to NASA research: Emma Dolan’s WCSU degree helps her reach the stars

2021 Western Connecticut State University Biochemistry alumna Emma Dolan in her lab at Boston University, where she is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Chemistry. (Contributed by Emma Dolan via WCSU)

DANBURY, CT – When SpaceX-30 launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in March 2024, all eyes will turn skyward as the rocket ascends toward the International Space Station.  Western Connecticut State University 2021 Biochemistry graduate Emma Dolan might be watching more closely than most, because her research on fluid dynamics will be onboard in the mission’s payload. Dolan, currently a doctoral student in Chemistry at Boston University, seeks to study how fluid reacts in the absence of gravity.

It’s a long way from Dolan’s roots in Norwalk to designing research for NASA, and her studies at WCSU played an integral role. “I wanted to study biochemistry and was really interested in research opportunities,” Dolan said. I was working two full-time jobs and needed to attend a college where I could continue to work, commute to my classes, and more importantly, have the opportunity to conduct hands-on research. I was able to do that at WCSU.”

As a freshman, Dolan took Organic Chemistry with Associate Professor of Chemistry Dr. Forest Robertson, himself a WCSU alumnus. “He talked to me about the research he was doing in his lab,” Dolan said. “He was investigating synthetic routes to access tetrahydrothiophenes (THT) and other sulfur-containing heterocycles, a structural scaffold that is important in medicines like penicillin. He was trying to develop a synthetic methodology that eliminated the use of toxic reagents and prevented the generation of by-products and waste. We were able to make a variety of compounds, and I believe Dr. Robertson will be published for this work soon,” she said.

Dolan took the opportunity at WCSU’s annual Western Research Day to showcase the work she had engaged in in Robertson’s lab with a poster presentation. It earned her the Provost’s Award for the best research presentation as she was wrapping up her senior year.

After graduation, Dolan applied and was accepted to several post-graduate programs. “I only considered graduate school because of my WCSU professors,” she said. “My family didn’t have higher education beyond a bachelor’s degree, and graduate school didn’t seem realistic, but because of the encouragement of my professors, I ended up in the Ph.D. in Chemistry program at Boston University.”

At BU, Dolan is researching biodegradable polymers and flow chemistry – which is where her NASA project comes in. “Flow chemistry takes place in tubing instead of flasks,” she explained. “It’s great for industry, because it can increase the volume of product,” she said, “but it’s also closed to air and can’t release toxins, making it a closed loop – which is why we can study it in space.”

Dolan’s stipend-funded research is being conducted in conjunction with NASA and Redwire Space, an American aerospace manufacturer and space infrastructure technology company that builds reactors and instrumentation being utilized on the International Space Station. The goal is to expand knowledge of reactions. Another aspect of Dolan’s research work at BU has ties to the Department of Defense, where she seeks to help veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder through the use of medicinal chemistry. For her efforts, she has received the Boston University Director’s Award for Excellence.

When she receives her Ph.D. in 2026, Dolan hopes to continue her research with a career at NASA. In the meantime, she helps encourage the next generation of scientists by doing K-12 STEM outreach in East Boston. Her advice to future scientists who are unsure of their path is to shoot for the stars. “This is definitely more doable than I thought it would be,” she said. “WCSU was so helpful in so many ways – financial aid, emotional support. Just don’t give up.”

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2021 Western Connecticut State University Biochemistry alumna Emma Dolan in her lab at Boston University, where she is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Chemistry. (Contributed by Emma Dolan via WCSU)

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