Breaking Bad 2.0

Evan Haas

One of his many lab hoods (E. Haas ’15)

The wide spectrum of talents in the Groton community encompasses almost anything. From graffiti art to golf and everything in between, the FSA is a golden opportunity for Upper School students to develop and showcase such incredible passions.

One of the more unique FSAs this year belonged to Evan Haas ‘15, who spent his winter term trying to create an eco-friendly catalyst for epoxidation reactions.  In layman’s terms, Evan sought to invent a “greener” way to accelerate the process in which an oxygen atom is inserted into a chain of carbon atoms.  Epoxides, the products of the reaction, are used in the manufacturing of particularly strong adhesives and are critical to the production of important pharmaceutical products, most notably a variety of cancer drugs.

Typically, epoxidation reactions involve bleach, a toxic solution that ruins certain components of the reactants.  Bleach is also difficult to dispose of, making it a harmful contaminant to the environment.  The main goal of Evan’s FSA was to invent a suitable substitute that improved the efficiency of the reaction by replacing bleach with a more biodegradable compound.

Such a lofty goal accomplished in such a short period of time is undoubtedly only made possible through extensive education and training.  The summer after Third Form, Evan interned in the lab of Dr. Elena Rybak-Akimova, a renowned chemistry professor at Tufts University.  “I’d been following her research for a very long time,” Evan said.  “I was very interested in what she did.”

Evan walked in with minimal chemistry experience, mainly doing small tasks for Dr. Rybak-Akimova’s graduate students.  “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said.  Evan garnered as much experience as he could and by his Fourth Form year, he was already taking AP Chemistry and simultaneously teaching himself organic chemistry on the side.

When he returned to the lab the following summer, Dr. Rybak-Akimova asked him if he’d be willing to undertake the project that eventually resulted in his FSA.  “She just said, ‘Could you do this?’ And I said, ‘I’d love to’ and that was it,” he said.

Evan’s FSA proposal was met with gracious support.  Dr. Kelly gathered funding for his research, Ms. Abrams gave extensive logistical support, and Mr. Belsky supported the project throughout the term.  The Bose Corporation and Tufts University also felt that Evan’s research merited their backing and loaned him expensive equipment for his research.

Evan’s process was an arduous trial and error.  An average day in the lab often consisted of a few hours doing alchemy, adding compounds to a boiling pot of alcohol to tentatively test and purify his catalyst before cleaning up and polishing his calculations.  Often, he’d spend nights reading articles that gave hints as to how he should proceed in order to prepare for the next day.   “Reading literature was a big part of my research,” he explained.

In the end, Evan succeeded, agonizingly close to the end of the winter.

“Second to last day of the term,” he said.  “And it worked like a charm.  I ran around the Circle screaming.”

“Thank goodness he wasn’t shouting ‘Eureka,’ naked,” added Michael Ma ’15.

Over the summer, Evan hopes to test and improve his catalyst more extensively at Tufts.  He’d also like to have his findings published in the near future.  Whatever the endeavor, however he chooses to broadcast his discovery, Evan Haas has managed to create an eco-friendly substitute for a toxic compound used in an everyday process as a high school student. All within a matter of weeks.

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