Chemistry chemicals

Classical Music Meets Chemistry: Micah Heinz

Written by Giannina Imperial

When Micah Heinz, ’18, wasn’t traveling the country or practicing his piano performance technique this summer, he was conducting chemistry research at Hillsdale College through the LAUREATES program, which offers to a select few rising seniors the chance to conduct scientific research on campus and present their findings at the Hillsdale Spring Research Symposium.

While Micah is most widely known on campus as a dedicated concert pianist who won the Hillsdale 2017-18 Concerto Competition, he is an avid chemist as well. His research this summer attempted to create synthetic models of hemocyanin, a protein that carries oxygen in the bloodstream of some arthropods.

“I first heard of this research when Dr. VanOrman gave a presentation on it to the juniors back in the fall semester,” he said.  “I found it intriguing and asked him if I could continue the research.”

Hemocyanin essentially performs the same function that hemoglobin does in mammalian organisms as it transports oxygen in the blood from areas of high concentration to lower concentration. To better understand this elusive molecule, Micah began his research by synthesizing special nitrogen ligands that could bind to copper ions on hemocyanin molecules.

He hoped that these nitrogen-copper complexes could effectively bind oxygen to hemocyanin without tampering with the molecular oxygen’s structure.  Ultimately, this would allow the hemocyanin to easily pick up oxygen where there is too much and easily release oxygen in areas that need more.

“I was particularly intrigued by how little we know about hemocyanin,” Micah explained.  “The mechanism by which it binds and releases molecular oxygen is very poorly characterized, and we were hoping to put some more data on the table for this purpose.”

Past attempts at creating this synthetic model have been less than successful, as the hemocyanin often cannot efficiently release its oxygen where it is needed the most. This is because the hemocyanin tends to form new compounds around the nitrogen-copper complex and thus prevent the oxygen from being released.

During his time in the lab, Micah successfully synthesized the nitrogen ligands but was unable to discover a procedure that allowed for oxygen release without changing the oxygen ions’ forms.

Although his research did not yield the expected results, he found the research process very rewarding and was even inspired to reroute his post-graduation plans.

“I learned a great deal about my subject, my professors, and my fellow students. This experience also opened my eyes and encouraged me to change my career plans. Instead of pursuing medicine, I hope to go to grad school for a PhD in chemistry and begin a career in chemical research. Without this opportunity, I may never have realized how much I love chemistry,” Micah said.

Until his graduation next spring, Micah plans to continue spending his time in both the practice rooms in the music building and the chemistry labs in Strosacker Science Center, diligently pursuing what he loves.

Giannina ImperialGiannina Imperial, ’18, is a psychology major and biology minor from Jackson, MI. If she isn’t in the Psychology Suite running research participants or in AJ’s immersed in her biology textbooks, you’ll find her in the music hall for one of the dozen rehearsals she’ll have that day. She loves God, neuroscience, dancing like no one’s watching, getting ice cream with friends, and trying out every Filipino recipe in her mother’s arsenal of cookbooks.