By Tim Linn, Assistant Director of University Relations, Rockhurst University

Lilian Odom, ’20, Petia Bobadova, Ph.D., & David Barbosa, ’20, work together on a computer model of a molecule (photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)

Lilian Odom, ’20, Petia Bobadova, Ph.D., & David Barbosa, ’20, work together on a computer model of a molecule (photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)

In a literal sense, the term trailblazer refers to the person who first clears a new path, thereby making the journey a little easier for those who follow.

There’s a reason the term is also used to describe those who are the first in their professions — their journeys are often difficult, but help break down barriers for those who come after them.

It’s a concept that Petia Bobadova, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry at Rockhurst University, knows from her own family’s history: one that she honors in her own work and the enthusiasm with which she offers research opportunities to her undergraduate students.

Asked about how she became a chemist, Bobadova goes back – way back, to her grandmother, the first female chemical engineer in the history of Bulgaria. Born in 1918, her grandmother was sent by her father to study in the Czech Republic. It was a difficult time — not only was she studying in a male-dominated field, but Germany would invade the Czech Republic during her freshman year of university.

“I can’t imagine how hard that was,” Bobadova said. “I have a lot of respect for her because of that — she managed, she graduated, even with all of that going on.”

Bobadova’s mother followed the same path, making sure to then pass on a love of chemistry to her daughter. Following in those footsteps came naturally because of that influence. Bobadova said, “I got my first chemistry set when I was six years old. I think that kind of speaks for itself.”

And even when she burned a spot on her desk with said chemistry set, her mother encouraged her to keep going. By 14, Bobadova said she was committed to becoming a chemist and was placed in a gifted program in her native Bulgaria. She fully intended, like her grandmother and mother, to work in a laboratory or an industrial setting. But in 1989, everything changed.

“When I graduated in Bulgaria, it was exactly the time that the system changed,” Bobadova said of the country’s turn away from Communism. “All the factories closed, and there were no jobs for scientists at all.”

To continue her studies, Bobadova moved to the United States. As much as chemistry was part of her family legacy, teaching was not. But after spending a few years in a chemistry lab, Bobadova said she ultimately decided to become an instructor of the subject, rather than pursue a career in the industry.

Since joining Rockhurst in 2008, Bobadova has published eleven peer-reviewed papers and presentations in the areas of computational chemistry and materials design – essentially the creation of new molecules using computer modeling. Her most recent work has centered on molecules known as BODIPYs — organic compounds with fluorescent qualities. For many of these projects, she’s had co-authors, including faculty at other institutions and, importantly, her undergraduate students at Rockhurst.

Computer modeling allows Bobadova’s research groups to fine tune the attributes of these molecules, from fluorescence to stability to solubility, that make them useful for specific applications. The fluorescent attributes of BODIPY molecules give them potential uses in diagnostic imaging and as part of cancer treatments, providing immediate applications of the work.

For students, it is a unique opportunity — this is work that will not only bolster their resumes and graduate school applications, but also could lead to new treatments and techniques to save lives. David Barbosa, ’20, a chemistry and physics of medicine major who worked with Bobadova alongside Lilian Odom, ’20, said that the project opened his eyes not just to the important ways that chemistry is employed in our everyday lives, but to a deeper understanding of science itself.

“My biggest takeaway from this experience as a student is a change in my perception of scientific inquiry. In school, knowing the right answer to a question is rewarded with an A on the exam,” he explained. “In research, no one knows the right answer; that is why it is being studied. I liked working on this project so much because it encouraged genuine curiosity.”

Being able to be a part of an ongoing project that could improve people’s lives was an incredible opportunity, Barbosa said. “This concrete application certainly made learning the content more interesting and it gave my studying an added layer of purpose and drive.”

Bobadova recalls her mother taking the time to explain chemistry to her when she was stuck on certain concepts. Something about her explanations made the subject click: she hopes that through teaching and offering research opportunities, she can do the same for others. And it’s not only the students at Rockhurst — Bobadova said she even volunteers at the STEM nights at her daughter’s school, bringing chemistry equipment in for young students to try out. In the process, she might just be securing another generation of family chemists.

Bobadova said, “My daughter currently writes ‘chemist’ in the yearbook, when her teachers ask what the students want to do.”