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Researcher of the Month

April 2011

James Pastore 

Chemistry major, University Scholars Program, Class of 2011

Research Mentors: Dr. Clare P. Grey, Chemistry; Dr. Lin-Shu Du, Chemistry 

Poster title: Solid State NMR and X-Ray Diffraction Studies of SnF2 and PbF2 as Cathode Materials in Lithium Ion batteries


April is THE month for research conferences! And there's a new show in town, thanks to the initiative of our SB undergraduates who have brought the Sigma Xi Northeastern conference to the Stony Brook campus for the first time! The Sigma Xi conference on Saturday, April 9, at the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information, will feature ~ 23 SB undergraduates amongst its 85 presenters.  At the end of the month, the annual URECA Celebration of Undergraduate Research —a campus-wide research symposium featuring undergraduateprojects in all majors/disciplinestakes place at the Student Activities Center (Ballrooms A & B, 3rd floor: 10-4) on Wednesday, April 27th.  Two days later, the Earthstock Research exhibition on Friday, April 29th will showcase environmental research prior to the keynote lecture by Andrew Revkin (SAC Ballroom A).

Amid this charged atmosphere of research dialogue, do stop by and talk to James Pastore, ourResearcher of the Month, who will be presenting posters at the Sigma Xi, and URECA forums. James has been working since summer 2009 under the mentorship of Drs. Clare Grey and Lin-Shu Du in theGrey group, a transAtlantic research group linking Cambridge, England and Stony Brook, NY. Through the lab, he collaborates as a team member of the Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) and theNortheastern Center for Chemical Energy Storage (NECCES) — a multi-institutional, DOE-funded effort being led by Stony Brook University, and including as partners Rutgers University, MIT, Binghamton University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at San Diego. James's project focuses on the conversion mechanism of metal fluoride nanocomposites as positive electrode materials in lithium ion batteries. He is the only undergraduate in the Grey group, and has had to undergo a lot of training to perform complex NMR experiments - assembling coin cells with electrode materials in a glove box, learning how to process NMR and XRD data. As part of the research, he also works with collaborators at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) to interpret data and confirm experimental results. Last summer, James presented at the 15th International Meeting on Lithium Batteries in Montreal, Canada (June, 2010), and relished the experience: "It was fantastic! I had really great conversations with other poster presenters, and found that I really enjoyed talking with other people doing related work on batteries." A chemistry major, class of 2012, and a member of the University Scholars Program, James's long-term plans are to pursue a Ph.D. in materials chemistry following graduation from SB. 

James counts himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to join Prof. Grey’s lab group early on; and appreciates being engaged in research in a field that he loves: “There is nothing even close to it…you absolutely need to do research. I can’t stress that enough!”Thinking back about his first tour of the SB campus, while still a high school student at Sachem East HS, James reflects on his initial encounter with SB's Chemistry Department: "It’s a great department, I love it. When I was applying to schools, I came here and visited with Prof. Kerber. We talked and he showed me around. … I then had him for honors general chemistry the first semester. And he was awesome! One of my favorite professors! I think just the way he showed how he loved chemistry, and that helped motivate me here as well." James's hobbies include volleyball, bowling, and Italian cinema. He was born in Port Jefferson NY. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: What's your research about? 
James: I’ve been working in the lab of Prof. Grey, studying the use of nanocomposite materials, specifically Tin II Fluoride and Lead II Fluoride, as potential cathode materials for Li ion battery applications. Part of my goal is obtaining more information on the conversion mechanisms / reactions of these materials.

How did you get started?
In my freshman year, spring semester, Prof. Grey was the lecturer for an honors general chemistry lab I was taking. She was talking about alternative energy research, fuel cells, batteries, etc. And I was really fascinated by her class. I had previously done research in high school on hydrogen power and alternative energy. So one day after school, I went up to her after class and just talked to her. I asked about her lab, and told her that I’d love to work with her. And that was more or less it! …I didn’t start until the end of the summer, right before sophomore year. But I was able to do research throughout the year. And it’s been fantastic. I love it!

Describe the lab environment.
I’m the only undergraduate. It was a little intimidating at first to be surrounded by post docs, and graduate students. And it’s a big group. (We have two groups – in England, and here, and we video-conference our group meetings). But after you settle in, and start doing work, and understand the tools, and the different instruments we use ….it was really a seamless integration.

So you were not expected to be an expert coming in? 
Definitely, you get the training. I never used a glove box before. I had to learn how to use an xray diffractometer. All that …! Xiao Hua, a graduate student, worked with me initially, showing me how to use the glove box, pump things down, where the materials were stored, how to handle them, etc. I also did hazardous materials training over the summer.

Sounds like you’ve learned a lot in the time you’ve been in the lab!
Absolutely! And Prof. Grey – she’s a fantastic mentor, absolutely brilliant. She knows all of our topics, and always has great insight how to further people’s research and how to be innovative. You’ll say, I want to tackle this problem in this manner. And Prof. Grey will say, “why don’t you try looking at at this way and do this?” She won’t tell you what to do exactly, but will get you to think about it, and really challenge you with it, force you to think on your own and come up with methods…She’ll direct you to look for a paper on this topic, or think about the topic with in another way, with a different perspective. You can’t really learn anything by someone telling you everything you need to know. You need to work on it on your own, and really teach yourself as well.

What do you get out of the research experience that you don’t get from classes alone?
In a lot of classes, they try to give you the practical applications of everything. But there’s no way they can really say this is exactly what will happen in a lab. You don’t know. But when you finally do these experiments, you get to see how things behave under different conditions. And being able to think and adjust while you’re working, not necessarily knowing exactly how it’s going to go…. Just getting that experience to really do your own thing and be independent ….that’s where you learn! It’s not that you sit in lab, and have a lab manual or exact protocol to tell you: “Do this, do that.” You need to figure things out. You need to figure out: what are you going to do? how are you going to go about what you’re trying to solve? You need to come up with a method, and come up with the instrumentation and all the things you’re going to use and try and figure it out.

Does the challenge ever get to you? Is it overwhelming?
There's a learning curve. Usually the issues are not with materials so much as with the instrumentation, specifically with the NMR and the probes. You need to be sure that you set the correct parameters so that your output data is valid. What I've found is that my project has evolved as I‘ve been here longer and longer. The project has become more of my own. I can run almost all the instrumentation on my own with a lot less help now.

Do you have a favorite research experience?
I loved co-presenting at the International Meeting on Lithium Batteries in Montreal, last June. That was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. To be surrounded by all these great minds, in the same field that I’m studying, and listening to the presentations, and walking around during the poster sessions. And reading posters….it was fantastic! I had really great conversations with other poster presenters, and found that I really enjoyed talking with other people doing related work on batteries.

Were you always interested in science? 
I was encouraged in 8th grade a great deal by my teacher, who really emphasized the importance of doing research and science. We had a science research program in the high school too where you could work on your own independent project with the supervision of a teacher. I can’t emphasize enough how very fortunate I was to have great teachers who were very enthusiastic about what they did.

What are your plans for after you graduate from SB?
I’m hoping to go to graduate school. Not sure where yet. But I would like to continue working in the same field, working on lithium batteries (a materials chemistry PhD program most likely).  

Has being involved in research has prepared you well for graduate school?
I see pretty much every day what the graduate students go through. And I realize that research is an integral part of everything you do. There’s only so much you can really learn from reading papers and journal articles. If you really want to know about something, you have to explore it and investigate it.

I learn from what the graduate students are doing. And I try to model myself after them: work hard, do what I have to do, don’t get distracted, etc. You find also that the more classes you take, the more things will click for you. And in terms of the techniques, if you are careful and you work at it, you can really learn to do the different things and understand what’s going on - even as an undergraduate.

How many hours would you typically put in?
I try to spend between 10 and 15 hours a week in the lab.

What advice would you give to other students? 
Look online. All the professors post what they study on their websites. Find a basic paper and read through it. Find something that’s really interesting to you and go talk to the professor. It is initially intimidating to go up and say: I’d like to work with you. But it is definitely a rewarding experience. … Go for it! The sooner the better. Because the longer you wait, the more competitive it is. And not all professors will take undergraduates for research. It’s important to have a couple of choices –if one says their lab is full or doesn’t have room at the time.

It’s great that it worked out so well for you at SB!
Honestly, that was the main reason I came here. I knew it was a real science school, a real research university. I knew that’s what I wanted for college. And that was exactly what I needed to further my education. . . I love being in the lab, working with different things. 
Perhaps not everyone can be as fortunate to get in early, and have a project and be able to really work on it and really explore a system you want to study. But there is nothing even close to it…you absolutely need to do research. I can’t stress that enough!

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