Researcher of the Month
Electrical Engineering major, University Scholars program, Class of 2018
Research Mentor: Dr. Balaji Sitharaman, Biomedical Engineering
A senior Electrical Engineering major in the College of Engineering & Applied Sciences, and a University Scholars member (class of 2018), Michael D'Agati is a big advocate of research. He enjoys challenges, likes to ask questions, and has thrived in the research environment – being named a Goldwater Scholar (2016), a national honor, in his sophomore year.
Michael’s substantive work in the Multi-Functional Nano-Biosystems Laboratory with his long-time mentor Prof. Balaji Sitharaman ( Biomedical Engineering Department) actually all started in the summer of 2013 when Michael was a high school junior at Miller Place HS and was selected for the Simons Summer Research Program, a 6.5 week summer research program that draws talented high school students from across the country.
Michael re-joined Dr. Sitharaman’s laboratory when he came to Stony Brook as an undergraduate, and has for the last few years been engaged in developing supercapacitors using electrodes made from all-carbon 3D scaffolds for in vivo applications. He also was involved in biomaterials/tissue engineering projects in the laboratory, using multi- and single-walled carbon nanotubes and multi-and single-walled graphene oxide nanoribbons as building blocks to fabricate three-dimensional, macroscopic, macroporous, all-carbon scaffolds for tissue engineering. Michael’s work in the Sitharaman laboratory has been supported by URECA summer funding. Michael also participated in off-campus summer research programs where he gained experience working on 2D nanomaterials, creating black phosphorus ribbons (Northwestern University International Institute for Nanotechnology REU, Summer 2016); and on microfluidics for chemical and bio sensing devices (University of Texas at Austin National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure , Summer 2017). Michael has co-authored several publications, and has presented at the IEEE MIT Undergraduate Research Technology Conference, Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meetings, the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure REU Convocation at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the SUNY Undergraduate Research Conference (SURC).
Michael is enjoying his current senior design project on wireless power transfer: designing a circuit for powering a Bluetooth mouse through wireless harvesting energy. As Michael reflects on his overall trajectory of learning in the research environment of SB, he notes: “While it’s still pretty exciting for me to be able to actually do things physically in the lab, I think what’s more exciting is being able to come up with an idea where I can see what the impacts might be if the project comes to fruition.” Michael also notes that applying for the Goldwater Scholarship in his sophomore year was pivotal in helping him focus his research goals and objectives. Currently he is applying to PhD programs in nanoelectronics and wireless communications and plans to continue to do research in the field of energy storage.
At SB, Michael is involved as a Student Ambassador, serves on the Stony Brook University Senior Legacy Council, and is Vice President of the Eta Kappa Nu Electrical Engineering Honor Society. He is also involved in the IEEE Student Chapter at Stony Brook, the BMES Student Chapter at Stony Brook, the Stony Brook Young Investigators Review; and participates inthe Crew Club.
Michael had many positive experiences in science early on, and appreciates the mentoring experiences he has had. In 6th grade, Michael won 1st place in a BNL science competition for his “nanowire bridges” project. He also participated in Stony Brook outreach programs, including an Engineering Camp (where he got to meet some of his future Electrical Engineering professors) as well as the Simons program (where he first worked with Dr. Sitharman of BME). Michael's hobbies include piano and painting. Below are excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Tell me about your current research, and how you got involved in research.
Michael. Right now, I’m working on making supercapacitors out of carbon nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene for the purpose of putting them in implantable medical devices as part of a diagnostic tool. The idea is that if we can replace batteries for low power operations for sensors inside the body (because batteries can be toxic, and have to be replaced via multiple surgeries)…then we can create diagnostic devices that would be self-sustainable. You would gather energy from the heartbeat or by chemical means and then this supercapacitor would be able to store that energy until it’s needed to send out a signal. That’s the overall idea of what I’m working on.
I became involved in research in Prof. Balaji Sitharaman’s lab when I was a high school student, through the Simons program. In my initial application to the Simons program, I had mentioned that I wanted to do something with nanotechnology: I had learned about Dr. Sitharman’s research from his website, and I thought it was interesting. So then when I came to SB as an undergraduate, after having the Simons experience the year before, I asked Prof. Sitharaman if it was okay for me to continue and he said it was absolutely fine. . . I’m actually still using those same scaffolds that I started with in 2013 with the Simons program, though in a different application.
Would you say your work changed a lot over the years?
Initially, I started working with my graduate advisor, Gaurav Lalwani, on creating the scaffolds from carbon nanotubes and graphene; and then characterizing and fabricating them. I learned a little bit about cell culture, about differentiating stem cells on the scaffold, and about tissue engineering applications. … When I applied for the Goldwater scholarship in my sophomore year, I wanted to use what I had learned to develop a more electrical engineering-related application. So I came up with this supercapacitor idea which I’ve been working on in the lab ever since. Prof Sitharaman encouraged me to pursue the project, and it just kind of snowballed from there. My senior design project on wireless harvesting is also related to the research I’ve been doing in the Sitharaman lab on supercapacitors.
I’m sure you can see a real progression in how you’ve developed over these years.
In the Simons program – I had no prior research experience when I came in. From not even knowing how a pipette works, to being able to develop my own research project--that has been really cool.
Let’s talk about the future: what are your plans, post-graduation?
I’m in the process of applying to graduate PhD programs, mostly in the area of nanoelectronics and wireless communications. The work I want to pursue also relates to energy storage.
Did you participate in any off-campus summer research programs?
I’ve participated in two REUs, one at Northwestern, and one at UT Austin. At Northwestern, the project involved characterizing the thermal and electrical properties of black phosphorous ribbons. That was a really interesting project because a bunch of the things that I saw there in that project, and the tools I was using in creating the ribbons were things that I had seen from my lab here with different materials. So it expanded my knowledge on the materials side and gave me more experience in first hand use of AFM, SEM, and Raman spectroscopy. …I got to make my own schedule, plan everything out to fit in the time scale, and design my project from start to finish. It was a good experience because it allowed me to expand my abilities, and to become more independent. The following summer at UT Austin, summer 2017, I worked on something completely different, doing microfluidics with polymers. I also got to do a lot of work in a clean room.
Both summer experiences, I’d say, helped me to grow as a researcher. If my mentors had always been telling me what to do, I would never have been able to figure out what needs to be done on my own. Being able to experiment, to gain the confidence to work more independently, was really valuable. Without those professors, without those grad students I wouldn’t be where I am.
Your mentors have played a key role, then, in your development?
Yes, clearly without them I would not have been able to do anything. That goes also for my mentors here at Stony Brook. The fact that Prof. Sitharaman was even willing to bring me in to the lab in the first place is huge because I didn’t have any experience at that point. I was only a high school student. So I’m really thankful for what he’s provided me.
As a high school student, you know very little compared to what’s needed to run a project or to understand all the ins and outs of a project. And even when I first started out as an undergraduate researcher, I always remember talking to my graduate mentor Gaurav, feeling like I was bothering him with questions. I would constantly ask random questions that I realize now were really fundamental questions. But he was always extremely patient and he would answer to the best of his ability in a way that made sense for the project. He was a huge help in my being able to stay excited about what we were doing and to keep learning along the way.
Tell me about the process of applying for a Goldwater scholarship.
That was where I figured out what it is I wanted to do in a research setting, what area in electrical engineering was going to be my future not only for my senior design project - but also for research in grad school.
My thinking at the time was that I’m going to apply with low expectations. I figured that, even if I don’t win, going through that process of understanding what I want to do in the future was going to be helpful. I also knew I would get more experience with writing and communicating about science – which would be valuable for the future.
That experience of applying for the scholarship must have also been valuable for working
on grad school applications.
Yes – it’s helped me to have a way to write about the science in a way that’s not too technical. I learned a lot about the process of applying for the scholarship, working with Jennifer Green (External Scholarships). You need to figure out what jargon you can take out to make your project more understandable. Applying for the Goldwater scholarship was the first time I was able to do that.
What do you like most about doing research?
So I think it’s changed. When I came in as a high schooler, everything was super new. Reading the papers was daunting. Just being in the lab was awesome: it was super exciting to be doing hands on research, wearing the white coat, goggles, gloves and everything. Now I’m at a point where while it’s still pretty exciting for me to be able to actually do things physically in the lab, I think what’s more exciting is being able to come up with an idea where I can see what the impacts might be if the project comes to fruition. When I came up with my project for the Goldwater application, I thought: if this becomes something that’s more commercialized and can be mainstreamed, it would help a tremendous amount of people in the world. Thinking about that fact, and being able to come up with some ideas that we could pursue and then to start to work on it—that has become much more exciting to me than I could have imagined when I first started out in the lab.
Do you feel prepared, ready for the next step of graduate school?
I’m excited about graduate school - I think I’m always going to be learning and growing. I’m taking a graduate class right now. It’s very math heavy-- not very easy. But I think with the skills I’ve obtained over the past 4 years, I’m ready to be able to learn how to learn those things I will need to learn.
How have you handled research experiences where things don’t work, or aren’t successful?
My first summer as an undergraduate –I never really found a way to infiltrate the scaffolds with the polymers without the scaffolds degrading…so nothing ever really came of it. And while you could consider that a failure, I definitely learned a lot from it –how to make my own schedule, figuring out what am I going to do, how am I going to go about this--a bunch of problem solving skills. It was a valuable summer experience for me, because I had the chance to work more independently. I was left to my own devices of: how am I going to make this work? What kind of protocols need to be set up and made? That helped set me up for the Northwestern REU the following summer, and for later research projects, in developing my skills so that I could make the most of my time, and work efficiently.
You can’t move forward without failing a few times. I think that first summer – seeing that what I was doing didn’t pan out was important for me because…hey, not everything is going to work.
Did you know for certain you wanted to be an electrical engineering major when you
came to SB?
I wasn’t 100% sure. My dad was an Electrical Engineering major. And seeing the projects around the house that he would do excited me…So I applied as an Electrical Engineering major, always keeping the option of maybe switching to Biomedical Engineering (because of my research involvement). After freshman year, my sophomore classes really convinced me that electrical engineering was the right choice for me. Those classes were really fun. I really liked them. Especially one class –where we did a lot of self-learning in trying things out in simulation on the computer—that motivated me. The labs we had were always really hard. It wasn’t just following lab instructions – it was really working through the lab and I loved it.
Were some of the experiences you had in high school
— programs such as the engineering camp, and the Simons program
— a big influence on you?
Definitely, because they were more hands on. At least for me, having that structure of being in a program vs. trying to figure out on my own was super helpful and helped me to see what science is all about. When you’re just in your high school classes, it can be pretty mundane: you’re not finding anything new; often, you’re just confirming what has been taught to you.
What advice do you have for other students?
If you can, get involved in research as early as possible – regardless of whether you know absolutely what your specific interests are. It helps you to learn more and to grow as a student. Research helps and complements what you’re learning in classes. It also helps you to understand: 1) if you like research; 2) if you will want to pursue that specific topic or not; 3) It helps with writing; and 4) it helps with meeting new people, people who are really smart about the research they’re doing – people you can learn from, people who will expand your network. .
I always really liked the way our biomedical engineering lab was set up. I was able to move to other areas of the lab and see what people are doing. I was able to ask: “what kind of project are you working on?” I met so many students doing all kinds of neat projects. So I’d say, research has a lot more benefits than down sides--if it even has any downsides. My advice is to get into lab as early as possible regardless of whether you know you’ll like it or not. You never know where it can lead to and it makes the experience of school a lot more fun.