Communique Fall 2018

Students Assist Faculty With Research Work for Ten Weeks Over the Summer

SURP studentDexter Cox, a student majoring in chemistry and physics, spent his summer a little differently than most of his peers. He spent ten weeks in a laboratory trying to make something that’s 99.9% air.

As part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), Cox worked with Tim Kidd, professor of physics, to study the influence of sonication parameters on the morphology of nanocellulose aerogels. Basically, they used an ultrasonicator – a machine with a metal probe made out of titanium alloy tank armor – to break up plant fiber molecules into tiny pieces called nanocellulose. Nanocellulose has many varied applications, such as body armor, fruit protectant and oil absorber.

For students, SURP gives them an opportunity to gain experience doing research. Participants in the program assist faculty with laboratory or field research and receive a stipend and course credit for their efforts. Cox’s work this summer focused on optimizing the process of making the nanocellulose by minimizing the time it takes to complete. He was successful in reducing the time required by a factor of three, using automation techniques.

Out in the field, Ai Wen, instructor in the biology department, joined with other professors to study prairies in the Conservation Reserve Program’s Pollinator Enhancement Plantings. They determined how effective the areas are by doing plant and pollinator surveys. She says that the SURP program not only helps to build resumes for students, but it’s helpful for the professors, too. With many different survey sites requiring multiple visits throughout the season, their project might not be possible without the extra manpower. “SURP students help to increase the number of sites and the intensity of survey frequency, and that makes the data a lot more valuable,” said Wen.

While the process varies between departments, there are research opportunities in the biology, chemistry and biochemistry, computer science, Earth and environmental sciences, math and physics departments. This summer, 38 students took part in the program and studied things like cattails, atmospheric haze, data retrieval, watershed delineation, unbalanced sets, the Cedar River and the compound a,a’bis(4-aminopyridine)-p-xylene.

Funding for the research projects comes from various sources, including grants, private gifts, industrial partners, federal work study and internal funding through CHAS departments. Faculty members select which student will work with them on their projects.
At the completion of the ten weeks, there is a research symposium for participants to be recognized and share their work through posters. “The Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium is a nice way to wrap up the program and see what work has been done by all the different departments,” said Laura Strauss, professor and head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Strauss organizes the symposium and manages the summer program in her department.  

For the students participating in SURP, there’s no slacking during the summer. “From the beginning, learning about the process of how nanocellulose aerogels are created and how to work the equipment, to the end when I presented my research ... it seemed like everyday I would learn something new,” said Cox.