Researcher of the Month
Engineering Science major, University Scholars Program
Research Mentor: Dr. Gary Halada, Materials Science & Engineering
Alicia Elliott is a senior in the University Scholars program, majoring in Engineering Science. She first began doing research under the direction of Dr. Gary Halada in Materials Science & Engineering in summer 2013, as a participant in the “Nanotechnology for Health, Energy and the Environment” NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. In the Halada group, she currently investigates electrochemical methods for environmental and energy applications, including formation of noble metal nanoparticles using a biodegradable polymer, chitosan; and solution-based methods for noble metal nanoparticle growth on 3D printed polylactic acid structures. Last summer, Alicia had the opportunity to work at Cornell University’s Nanofabrication Facility under the direction of Dr. James Engstrom, as an intern in a REU program that concluded with a presentation at the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) REU Convocation at Georgia institute of Technology (August 2014). Her talk was titled: “Selective Area Atomic Layer Deposition: Developing Techniques that will Enable Single-nm Technologies.” Alicia has also presented at the Advanced Energy Conference in Albany (April 2014) and the New Horizons in 3D Printing, Digital and Additive Manufacturing Conference at Stony Brook (September 2014), where she won a best poster award. She is also currently doing a senior engineering design group project on an anaerobic biodigester for residential use.
At SB, Alicia has been active with the SB Sailing Team, was engaged as a digital media and ePortfolio consultant for TLT, and was a mentor in the pilot peer mentoring program offered in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS) in 2013 to encourage persistence in engineering majors. Alicia has served as a teaching assistant for SBC 114 (Physical Geography Laboratory), ESG 217 (Engineering Science Design 1), and ESG 312 (Engineering Laboratory). She gained a semester of experience in fall 2013 as an intern in the Thermal Spray Laboratory, and is a member of Tau Beta Pi Engineering Society. She currently is applying to PhD programs in Materials Science and Engineering.
Alicia attributes her development in critical thinking, her preparation for graduate school and her growing ability to work independently in the lab as a result of experiential learning: “I definitely didn’t come in with those skills. It’s something you learn by doing, by throwing you into the situation and telling you to solve it, figure it out.” Being persistent, and able to weather setbacks — qualities that have proved useful in sailing where she learned by recovering from capsize after capsize!— also translate well into the research laboratory where experiments fail time and time again: “In the end, the most important part of doing research is those moments where things don’t work—and you have to come up with another approach. Because when one thing fails, you’re that much closer to finding the thing that works.”
Alicia is fluent in Swedish; and her hobbies include running and hiking. A graduate of East Islip HS, Alicia was particularly motivated by her AP Environmental course “to do something towards the goal of global sustainability” and has kept that goal in mind as she explored environmental applications in materials and nanotechnology fields at SB. Below are excerpts from her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Tell me about your current research.
Alicia. I’m currently working on two major projects in the Halada lab. One of them involves investigating electrochemical methods for synthesis of catalytic noble- metal nanoparticles. Most methods for synthesizing nanoparticles use strong reagents and are not exactly environmentally friendly or “green.” We’re using methods with a biodegradable biopolymer called chitosan that is really abundant. We’ve successfully managed to make nanoparticles that we can use these for fuel cells, and for other biomedical applications (because they’re antimicrobial). The other project that we’re working on is synthesizing nanoparticles on 3D printed structures from PLA (polylactic acid). We can 3D print out a tweezer or a bolt, for example. And if we synthesize silver nanoparticles on it, we can then potentially use that in surgery because it is antimicrobial and and will biodegrade because of the PLA. It's been really exciting to be a part of this work, and a lot of people are very interested in this application.
How did you first become involved with the Halada group?
In my sophomore year, I applied to some REU programs and got accepted to the Nanotech REU program at SB. The program was called Nanotechnology for Health, Energy and the Environment. I wasn’t sure at the time if I wanted to head more in the energy or environment direction before that summer, but the program gave me an opportunity to explore my interests a little more and to get a taste of both of these areas of research.
What did you do this past summer?
I was in a REU program at Cornell where I worked in the nanofabrication facility with a professor in the department of chemical engineering. We were investigating selective area atomic layer deposition to figure out a way to deposit our film on one substrate and prevent the deposition on another by varying our times for doses, varying temperatures, and other parameters for the system. The main idea was: how do we prevent depositing on one and promote it on another so that we could make three dimensional structures without using nanolithography and patterning techniques?
What are some of the other benefits of participating in summer research programs?
Being able to research full time without any other distractions is really valuable: to spend 40 hours on a project and to continuously do a project. It allowed me to be more independent in my project as well. Another thing was the community—and being grouped with people from all over the country. We had some students from Puerto Rico, from California, from Louisiana—from all over the place. It was neat to get their perspective, about their schools and engineering programs.
What are your future plans?
Right now, my plan is to start a PhD program next fall and from there I’d like to do some research on energy technologies and materials on the nano scale.
Do you feel well prepared for graduate school?
The engineering science program is really great at giving us an interdisciplinary education. So we get a taste of mechanical engineering, a taste of chemistry, and of materials science… all of which is good preparation to pursue graduate school in such an interdisciplinary field.
Doing research has also been significant in preparing me, and helping me to become more independent. When I first started out in research, I would sit around, waiting for someone to give me something to do. But now I’m able to investigate things and decide what the next step is without having to be told. I’m able to make decisions, such as whether to run a certain characterization technique, for myself.
Do you have a favorite moment in research?
I have been learning how to use our XPS system [X ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy]. My favorite moment recently was when I got to use the system myself. This is a giant scary expensive ultra-high vacuum system: it’s very finicky, very difficult to maintain. If you drop a sample, you essentially have to take the whole system apart and it takes about a month to get it back up and running. . . It was definitely intimidating and scary to operate this by myself for the first time. I kept thinking, “I don’t want to break the system,” but it turned out to be really exciting when I operated it successfully.
You must get to use a lot of very specialized –and expensive – equipment in your research.
Yes, particularly working at the Cornell Nanofabrication facility last summer!
Have you had the experience of presenting your research?
Yes I have had a few different opportunities. At the end of the SB Nanotechnology REU, we had a poster session with the Explorations in STEM group. It was nerve wracking, presenting for the first time. But it definitely prepared me for my next set of presentations. I presented at the Advanced Energy conference up in Albany last April. And at the end of the summer program at Cornell, I presented at Georgia Tech for our REU convocation and gave a talk.
What do you learn from doing these presentations?
You get better with practice. And you learn to adapt what you‘re saying to your audience. Some people do want all the details. Some want an overview. Being able to adapt what you’re saying and communicate science effectively is definitely the biggest challenge in presenting research.
Another thing that has helped me professionally was Jim Quinn’s lab class that I’m now TAing. We had lab reports due every week and it really broke down that notion that I used to have of thinking “I can’t do this lab report, I don’t know what to say,”… … That class is where I learned technical writing. So even though it was difficult - that’s been one of the best classes for me. It really prepared me – changed my work ethic.
Do you enjoy teaching?
I do – enough that I’m thinking about pursuing faculty positions after I finish my PhD so I can teach and do research. I’ve been a TA for 3 semesters. They’ve all been very different, and all been very valuable experiences.
Do you have any advice for undergraduates?
Don’t be afraid to talk to a professor and say “hey, I’m interested in your work. Can you tell me more about it?” As an underclassmen, you might be hesitant to approach a professor. But in my experience, they love to talk with you about their work. And they love to get you involved.
Do you find that having doing research has helped you with your academic coursework?
Absolutely. It really reinforces what you have learned in the classroom. You also discover sometimes that what was not so challenging in a classroom lab setting—for example, using diffraction—can be a much more difficult process when you’re using it in your research. You develop critical thinking skills in trying to analyze what you’re seeing and when you are analyzing your data and trying to figure out what it means in a practical sense. I definitely didn’t come in with those skills. It’s something you learn by doing-- by throwing you into the situation and telling you to solve it, figure it out.
Reflecting back, how has research added value to your education?
Research is the most valuable thing that I’ve done in my education. It’s also the hardest thing. Research can seem really tough at times. Having the tenacity and grit to work through problems and keep coming back and trying new things is the most important thing to succeed in research. Sometimes experiments fail. You have to look what your problem is again and figure out another approach. And sometimes it can seem like it’s not working, or that it’s not good…but in the end, the most important part of doing research is those moments where things don’t work—and you have to come up with another approach. Because when one thing fails, you’re that much closer to finding the thing that works.