Class of 09; Chemical Engineering Major
Dr. Miriam Rafailovich, Materials Science & Engineering
You think, what’s the point of learning this, killing myself to understanding this ridiculous three-page derivation unless I know what it’s for? Doing research, you’re going to see why you’re doing it. . . Once you start doing research, and you start working in lab, and you see where and how this stuff can be applied, it helps you . . . You’re actually applying what you’re learning. There’s no better way to understand something unless you’re actually doing it, I think.
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
For Courteney Cannon, the three “R’s” that are the building blocks scaffolding her Stony Brook undergraduate experience have been: Rugby, Rafailovich, and Research!
A junior in the Chemical & Molecular Engineering (CME) program, Courteney has thrived at Stony Brook. She is a team member (and President-08/09) of the undefeated Women's Rugby Club, The Black Widows; and as an undergraduate working with Prof. Miriam Rafailovich, has competed in the research arena with winning results. Courteney took home the first place prize for the paper competition at the recent Mid Atlantic AiChE meeting (April 2008) for her presentation of “Designing Scaffolds with Optimal Chemical and Physical Properties for Tissue Engineering." Courteney and research partner Anna Gromadzka also co-presented this project at the recent URECA Celebration of Undergraduate Research & Creativity on April 30, 2008 (see photos).
Courteney was born and raised in Yonkers, NY and attended Saunders Trades and Technical High School. The summer before her senior year of high school, she interned at Consumer’s Union (publisher of Consumer Reports), an experience that propelled her interest in research. Courteney plans to go into industry following graduation from Stony Brook in 08, but in the meantime, hopes to continue her current project, start another CME project in biofuels research (part of her senior design project), and to keep on playing rugby! Below are some excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: I hear you recently participated in a research competition, off-campus.
Courteney: AIChE (The American Institute of Chemical Engineers), the professional institution for chemical engineers . . . they have a competition where you submit your abstract and give an oral presentation on what you did, with Powerpoint. So I sent in the abstract and presented the research, and won first place. For myself and my co-author, Anna Gromadzska, it was really exciting. Everyone in our chemical engineering program . . .students and faculty, we were all really excited!
At first I was really nervous. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, going in to the competition. But after they’d accepted the paper, I took it as a learning experience, and told myself to just relax and talk about what I did. I had been doing it night and day for weeks, and I knew it like the back of my hand. . . So I just talked about it. I talked about it simply, and tried to make it understandable.
How did you get started on the project?
It started with our junior lab for CME. The ultimate goal was to make a better material that could be used for scaffolds — what we grow cells on. Scaffolds are often made of polymers. We’re trying to see how we could change this polymer and control chemical and mechanical properties of the scaffold. No one had ever done what we had done with the material we had done it with. It has the potential to go pretty far.
What a great experience!
It was a nice segue into undergraduate research. I always wanted to do research, but I didn’t how to, or didn’t know what was out there, what professors to talk to. . .
AIChE was a meeting for chemical engineers. Tell me what the URECA Celebration experience was like for you.
I liked seeing all the students that do research. I saw my friends. . . I saw people I knew from my rugby team . . . people from my freshman chemistry class. I liked seeing the stuff they did. I really like telling other students about my research and seeing their reactions to what I did. It’s nice too to see how broad the research is here at Stony Brook, how many departments were there. History was there, Business was there. . .
When you look at these boards, all these pictures/graphs, mathematical correlations on the posters, you think: "I”ll never understand that." But once you read it, you see where it’s going. It’s nice to see applications to theoretical science, which is why I’m so into engineering: you actually see what’s coming out of these numbers, these graphs and pictures. That’s what I liked about URECA.
You’re doing research next year for senior design. What are your plans currently for after you graduate?
Hopefully work. Get industrial experience.
What do you enjoy about research?
Honestly, the best day is when you see everything come together. (Getting recognition for it, that never hurts either. That was really fun. ). . . But in lab we’re constantly getting information, trying to find trends. It’s when you sit down and look at everything, look at the big picture (Dr. Rafailovich helped with this a lot!) and say, “what can I get from this?” that you put it together. It’s kind of interesting in research. . . because you don’t always end up finding what you intended to find. In the end, what you thought was going to happen doesn’t happen. You’ll find too when you do scientific research, that there’s a lot of waiting involved. You have to make the sample, let it react . . . you have to let it cook. It has to harden. You have to plate cells on it, incubate the cells in human body conditions for a period of days. . . . There’s a lot of waiting! After waiting a week, you might find out that you did something wrong, and that you have to go back and do it again. . .
In this project, the final work or data collection probably only took a week. But it took us months to get the method correct, and the method to be right. To get the results that were dependable and statistically accurate, it takes so much time! I don’t know if I realized how much time the research would take.
What frustrates you the most about research?
The worst days are when you’re sitting there, after a week or so…and you realize that you did one thing wrong, you messed up one number in your calculation, and you have to do everything all again! But you're not alone. A lot of the grad students helped me a lot. All the grad students in Materials Science Department, they’re angels! I was constantly asking them questions. . . I was working with one grad student, her name is Tatyana who was also incubating cells. Once when we were in there, the power went out. There were human cells we were using in the sterile hood . . . so she had twenty or thirty samples that had been incubating for 3 weeks, and she had to start all over and throw them away. Those are the worst days! Hers was a big deal. You go through times where you want to stop because it just doesn’t seem worth it. But then, you keep going. Because you want to figure it out. It becomes personal too.
Would you say doing research has enhanced your education?
It 100% helps you with all your classes. You actually see what you’re learning. Engineering classes, it’s a lot of math, theory. . . a lot of books. Sometimes you never see what you’re actually producing. You never actually build what you’re designing. It’s kind of frustrating…and you think, what’s the point of learning this, killing myself to understanding this ridiculous three-page derivation unless I know what it’s for? Doing research, you’re going to see why you’re doing it. Which is the same reason why I want to go into industry. I want to see where all of this is going. Once you start doing research, and you start working in lab, and you see where and how this stuff can be applied, it helps you because you see the light at the end of the tunnel. You’re actually applying what you’re learning. There’s no better way to understand something unless you’re actually doing it, I think. . . Plus also, I got to know all my professors because I was always around the engineering building!
Tell me about your research mentor.
Prof. Rafailovich is sometimes hard to track down, but she’ll always answer her cell phone. She’s always available and will let you know where she is. . . She knows so much about everything. She’s such an intelligent, well educated woman. . .so good at research. She knows so much about polymer mechanics, she knows so much about the math behind it, and doing statistical analysis of data which is a huge part of research. Presenting it, telling people what this data means.
Any advice to other students?
Do it, just do it. My biggest thing was I didn’t know where to start or ask about it. But really, go to your department…and say "I want to do research." If they’re not responsive, go to a different professor.
Do you wish you had started earlier?
I feel like I could have done so much more if I’d gotten started sooner! I definitely think I should have gotten involved as a freshman. So yeah, I would recommend doing it. But also . . get involved in anything. Getting involved in rugby was probably the best thing I did when I first got here. It puts you in a place, gives you something to do…
Is it hard to juggle doing both research and rugby?
The way I see it, you have to get involved in a lot of things. I found rugby and I stuck with it. I always stuck with it. It was a good club sport. And I became the president of the club. It’s something I really like— my home away from home. It’s a nice escape. Playing rugby is completely different from going to classes or studying in the library. It’s nice to get that contrast.
Did the process of doing a presentation and/or making a poster help you learn?
What I was saying, before, is that the best part of research is seeing it all come together. So writing the report, and drawing the conclusions, and finding out what I could from the information I got. . . myself and Anna sitting there with Rafailovich night after night. . . was a big learning experience. Every week we would sit down and look at the information we had and do it again. We finished it a couple of weeks before the conference. . . . In our first semester junior lab, you learn how to write a scientific paper, how to write an engineering lab report. In practice, I learned how there’s a lot of information you leave out of scientific papers, there’s a lot of sweat and tears that doesn’t go into it. When you start something, you’re not always going to finish how you wanted, or how you thought you would . . . you might not actually get out of it what you were trying to get. You see the project take itself in a different direction. It was definitely interesting, putting it all together. It was fun. I had a good time.