Prof. Devinder Mahajan, Materials Science & Engineering, SBU; Advanced Fuels Group, Energy Sciences & Technology, BNL
But not being afraid to ask questions is a big thing. A lot of students are too afraid to ask questions. They think, maybe I should already know this . . . They feel like they will be thought of as stupid if they ask it. But what I've learned is that it's fine to ask questions if you don't know how to do something. You're not expected to know everything. I mean, that's what undergraduate research experience is all about, learning new things.
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
What makes Sheena Joseph run? While pursuing her Chemical & Molecular Engineering bachelor's degree in the College of Engineering & Applied Sciences, Sheena Joseph has managed the duties of Treasurer (August 05-May 06) and President (August 06-present) for Stony Brook's Chemical Engineer's Society (CES) ; served as Senator for the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) as well as on the Whitman Legislature; has received numerous awards and honors (Golden Key, Dean's list, etc.); kept up hobbies of drawing, painting, writing, and doing Indian classical dance; and been actively involved Women in Science & Engineering.
It was actually a chance conversation at a WISE banquet in her freshman year with the future advisor for her major, Prof. Mahajan, that led to a research internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the Advanced Fuels Group , Energy Sciences & Technology Department, for summer 2005. This initial summer research internship clearly sparked her interest, as Sheena would return to Dr. Devinder Mahajan's group the two following summers. This past summer (07), Sheena's work at BNL was funded through a Battelle Summer Research Program award. But more importantly, her ongoing summer research experiences ultimately would clarify her commitment to the field of chemical / environmental engineering, and propel her towards the goal of pursuing graduate study with a focus on alternative renewable energy. Sheena is now studying for GREs and looking into graduate programs, while at the same time eagerly continuing to work on her project: "Green Processes: Synthesis of Higher Oxygenates Using Transition Metal Catalysts in Aqueous Phase." She presented a poster on this topic at the end of the summer at a BNL Research symposium, and plans to continue optimizing the systems for biomass to fuels conversion for her CEAS senior design project — to be presented next spring at the URECA Celebration on April 30th, 2008; and at the on-campus Earthstock. Sheena also aims to present this work at a regional AIChE meeting next spring. This past year, Sheena presented a poster/exhibit on "Polystyrene Electrospun Fibers for Tissue Engineering" at the annual URECA Celebration, showcasing the research done for her CME 320 class while working under the mentorship of Dr. Miriam Rafailovich and Lourdes Collazo, two other great mentors she's had at Stony Brook University.
Sheena Joseph was born in the Bronx and attended Clarkstown High School North. Reflecting back, Sheena remembers being told in 6th grade that "science wasn't her strong point" — something that motivated her to get the highest grade in science the following year. Even now when she meets obstacles, Sheena has a determination to persevere, and find a way to meet challenges: "I think doing research has made me more confident. Now if I am approached with a problem, I can look at it, dissect it, try to answer or solve it the best way I can. Having the hands-on experience helps a lot. " Clearly, there's no stopping her now! Below are some excerpts shared from her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director .
Karen: Tell me how you first got involved in lab work.
Sheena:Devinder Mahajan's group works on advanced fuels. What I focused on was biomass-to-fuels technology. Initially I was trying to make bioethanol this summer. We were concentrating on methanol to ethanol synthesis. I work with batch reactors and metal catalysts. We try to see what catalysts work best for these reactions. That was the gist of my summer work — testing out different types of catalysts and different catalyst concentrations at moderate conditions. We tried Rhodium and Ruthenium catalyst with methanol in a reactor pressurized with nitrogen. But instead of making ethanol, I managed to make another type of biofuel that we weren't looking for: dimethyl ether. It was pretty cool! Right now, it's very small percentages of dimethyl ether. For the coming year, I'm working on optimizing the conditions and the reaction, trying to make the most conversion of my reactants into desired products. I'm going to use this work for my senior design project!
You can't always get count on getting results in such a short time period!
To be honest, in a 10 week period, I did not think I was going to get really far. Graduate students had told me they'd gone 6 months without getting results. On the other hand, for the first 5-6 weeks, I thought I wasn't getting anywhere. . . It was a lot of tedious work. And each week, the Office of Educational Programs would ask for a report. They like to know what progress you've made with your research. It was very discouraging writing at the end of the report, "Results showed no reaction occurring." That went on for 5 weeks! The best part was when I finally got to say, "Ethanol wasn't being produced but dimethyl ether was." I finally had something to write about!
What's it like working at Brookhaven?
I really like the informal environment. My particular group is small, very close-knit. There are a few graduate students, a research affiliate, and a few undergrads. We help each other out. Someone is always willing to help you. I can just go into Prof. Mahajan's office and ask him a question.
I also got a lot of hands-on experience with wrenches. Nuts and bolts — nothing I would have gotten out of a book! Knowing how to put a fitting onto my system, knowing how valves work, things like that. For one student that worked with us recently, it was his first time doing hands-on experiments and it was a reality shock for him. It felt good to finally be in the position to help someone else. I got to act like a mentor, to explain this is where this goes or this is how you work with this type of equipment. And he helped teach me new things too.
Have long have you been working in Prof. Mahajan's group at BNL?
I started back in spring 2005 at the end of my freshman year. I met Prof. Mahajan at one of the WISE scholarship banquets. It was a networking event. He was representing Chemical Engineering. I knew that he would be my advisor for CME, and I approached him at the banquet and started talking to him. "What are you doing this summer?" he asked. "Probably going to work, take classes." He responded, "How about doing some research?" He invited a few other students too. We all got a taste of it. We had a meeting our first day there and there were 3 different projects we could choose from. We got to shadow different mentors. I got to work there the next summer too. And this past year, I worked there with funding through the Battelle program. At first, I thought I wouldn't get in to the Battelle program, but I'm glad I persevered. And I always encourage other kids in our club, the Chemical Engineering Society, to apply for summer programs, and to get involved in research, at Stony Brook, BNL, and off campus too. During my winter break, I went searching through lots of the fellowships and internships available online, and compiled a list, and emailed it out to everybody. I'm trying to get the word out there.
What have you learned from the different mentors you've worked with?
The first summer, I was shadowing Nathan Hould (Stony Brook, Class of '06), one of the undergraduate researchers. One experience illustrates his teaching style. He took apart a flow meter that read how much gas was going through our system, left it on the table and said, "Here's the manual, here are the parts. I want to see it put together by tomorrow. If you need help you can call me, but I want to see it back together. Use your skills." I thought, this is going to be kind of tough. But I looked at it, started to see how this part fits with that part, and so on. Before you know it, I had the whole thing going, up and ready. With him, he wanted me to take on learning by myself without being told every little thing, to see if I could deduce how things work. Nathan came out with a paper that summer, and he put me down as one of the co-authors.
As to Prof. Mahajan, he is extremely good at trouble-shooting. He does it for a living. He's great at finding all the problems and being able to help you solve them. I always had pressure leaks. Pressure drops of 10 psi. We wouldn't know where the leak was. I would spend time trying to figure it out myself. But if I really couldn't figure out what was wrong, he enables you to figure it out. He'll ask a few questions: "What's wrong with this? Did you try this? Maybe this?" We had problems with a gas chromatograph. If one setting is off, the whole chromotagram gets messed up. He'd ask several questions to help me figure it out — teaching by somewhat of a Socratic method.
When you came to SBU, was research something you wanted to do?
I really took on the research opportunity that summer because I wanted to know where my major was going to go — whether I wanted to stick with chemical engineering or pursue another route. I had taken the CME 101 class that fall. We had lots of speakers coming in, showing us all the specializations that you could go into. At first I really was interested in going into pharmaceuticals. But once I ended up working with Prof. Mahajan, I realized I want to work on renewable energy. It's a lot more interesting to me! I'm studying for the GREs right now. I want to go for a PhD in chemical or environmental engineering, and continue working on sustainable energy.
How has doing research enhanced your education?
I think I'm at an advantage in my classes in that I'm actually getting to see where all that knowledge and all those formulas get used. I can actually say that I've used these in applications. I've seen the reactors, I know how they really look rather than just looking at a 2-D picture in a textbook. Being book smart, getting straight A's, is always going to help you. But you really need the hands on experience too. Doing research gave me a direction to where I wanted to go.
Tell me about the presentation experiences you've had.
The poster presentation symposium at BNL at the end of the summer was a really good experience. I'd never made a poster before. Putting a poster together, I felt proud of what I had accomplished. Being able to explain to people who don't know that much about my area was fun. I also presented at the URECA poster day on a tissue engineering project as part of my research class. I liked it because I got to share with others what I'm doing. Sometimes people come over, and tell me they think the poster is interesting but they have no idea what it means. You have to think about how to explain your project in laymen's terms, how to make it interesting to someone without the background knowledge. Other times, you get a question from someone so experienced in the field: this happened to me at URECA when I was talking with a biochemistry professor about cells, not really my main research area. You want to make a decent impression, not get too stumped by questions.
Do you think you'll present at any meetings off-campus?
I plan on presenting the work from this summer at a conference held by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, AIChE. They have regional conferences in the spring, and they have national conferences in the fall. I believe MIT is hosting the regional conference this spring. That's the one I'd like to go to.
You are also very active in a student club involving chemical engineering, I believe.
Nathan Hould started the Chem Eng. Society as a way to bring in people from industry, get some networking going on, let kids know what you could do with this degree and what it offered you. He started it off as president and I was treasurer that year. At first, our meetings had 5 people at most. But we ended up getting 20 kids to show up. That was a feat in itself. I was really happy about that! I was president this past year and am going to be president this coming year. Hopefully we'll get more students to come and get involved.
What advice would you give regarding research at SBU?
I was actually advising someone on my way here. Not everyone I know is going to get a lucky opportunity where a professor approached them saying, "Do you want to do research?" On the other hand, it's always good to take the initiative to browse through the websites and find out about the different professors here at Stony Brook and see what you're interested in. Explore your opportunities. I kept telling one of my friends to go on websites, and send professors an email saying "Hi. I'm interested... I'd like to discuss your research with you." And it turns out, she got a great research placement during the year. I think that's the best way. You're one out of a number of students. Personally contacting the professors, going to office hours, and making an impression, that really makes a difference.
For me, having opportunities through WISE really helped me too. Professors are a lot more approachable than they seem. I don't feel intimidated. We met a lot of faculty in 101 who just seemed friendly and easy to talk to. At first I thought, I don't know if I can go up to my lecturer and just ask about doing research. But after my introductory class, I thought, maybe I can seek their advice and then talk to them about research.
What do you think is the most important skill to have to be successful at research?
For me, trying to figure out how things work by myself, see if you can do it on your own, and being willing to ask the stupid questions if necessary, play a big part. There's always something new and interesting to learn. And you need to approach everything with an openness to learn it. Each summer, I learn something different from the previous summer. Learning new techniques, gaining new experiences, getting acquainted with new equipment, things like that. And being open-minded and trying new things really helps you to decide your direction.
But not being afraid to ask questions is a big thing. A lot of students are too afraid to ask questions. They think, maybe I should already know this and they're too afraid to ask their mentors. They feel like they will be thought of as stupid if they ask it. But what I've learned is that it's fine to ask questions if you don't know how to do something. You're not expected to know everything. I mean, that's what undergraduate research experience is all about, learning new things.