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Researcher of the Month

February 2019

James BretonJames Breton

Chemistry major, EOP/AIM, Class of 2019 (B.S) & 2020 (M.S.)

Research Mentor:  Dr. Surita Bhatia, Chemistry

James Breton is a Chemistry major in the Educational Opportunity Program/Advancement on Individual Merit (EOP/AIM) program who is on track to complete the Chemistry Department’s combined BS/MS degree program in 4 rather than 5 years. He has already begun taking graduate-level coursework, including: Computing in Chemistry (fall ‘18), and Quantum Chemistry (spring ‘19). He is also completing a minor in Africana Studies.  

One year ago, James joined the laboratory of Dr. Surita Bhatia (Department of Chemistry) where he began doing research and experiments on the rheology of soft gels and materials. He will be continuing to work with Dr. Bhatia as his advisor for the master’s thesis next year. Last summer, James participated in a NSF-funded REU program at Kansas State where he worked with Dr. Tendai Gadzikwa and her group on a project to develop our understanding of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) titled: Synthesis of an Orthogonally Functionalizable Metal-Organic Framework (MOF). James returned from the REU re-invigorated about his research and academic goals, and “with a lot more ambition to do more!” This past October, James was selected to participate in the MIT-Access program which seeks to increase the diversity of qualified applicants to PhD programs in chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science – another transformative experience which indeed strengthened James’s future goal of pursuing a PhD in Physical Chemistry: “From there, my interest has been gaining more and more.”

At SB, James has been involved as a General Chemistry tutor (August 2017-present), and as a Teaching Assistant for the EOP/AIM Pre-Freshman Summer Academy (Summer 2017). He is an active member of the Student African American Brotherhood/SAAB, and the Chi Alpha Epsilon honor society. His hobbies include biking and handball; he also enjoys coding in MATLAB. James Breton is a first generation college student, a resident of the Bronx, and a graduate of the Academy for Software Engineering in New York City. Below are excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview:

Karen. How did you get first involved in research at SB?  
James. In fall semester of my sophomore year, I took a course in Physical Chemistry that was taught by Dr. Surita Bhatia. I really liked the way she taught, so I looked into her research area and asked her in the spring about research opportunities in her lab. She said she had room, and I was able to join the lab. At first, she gave me a bunch of papers to read to get familiar with what type of research was going on in the group. For the most part, the research the group works on is the rheology of soft gels and materials: anything from Play-doh, to really viscous honey can be put on a rheometer and its physical properties can be tested. Right now, we're testing the physical properties of battery materials…Then, in summer of 2018, I got accepted into a REU program at Kansas State where I was placed with a group (the Gadzikwa Research Group) that was doing inorganic chemistry. That was very interesting because it was more of a wet lab experience, and also a type of chemistry where experiments can take days or weeks to run, rather than a couple of hours. I worked on something called orthogonal functionalization of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) …By the end of the 10 weeks, I was able to get somewhere into the first step of a 4 stage process. It was really fun because, as small as that step was, I know that whoever came in during the fall semester can just pick up my book and continue my project.

That’s great that you have had varied research experiences.
Yes, the REU was a nice switch for me. I came back from that summer experience with a lot more ambition to do more. Then, this past October, I was also able to go to the MIT Access program – it was something I had applied to in the summer while I was in the REU program. The MIT program was really cool, and really confirmed how tight-knit the Chemistry community is, and what my goals are. Basically what they did was to bring together students who are in chemistry, chemical engineering or materials sciences who are interested in pursuing a PhD but aren’t too sure. So I got to meet faculty there, and other students around the nation that are potentially interested in doctorates in Chemistry. We had a lot of networking events, and professional workshops. The last day we had a sort of gala event where everybody from chemistry was invited to come and speak with us. And from there, my interest has been gaining more and more.

What are your future plans?
I’m in the BS/MS program, and Dr. Surita Bhatia will continue to be my advisor next year while I do my master’s. From there, I will be looking at doctoral programs. My top priorities are going to be schools oriented around physical, computational and theoretical chemistry. Those are my primary fields of interest right now.

Are you looking forward to next year?
Yes I am. It will be the first time when I’m here and not taking a crazy amount of classes and can just focus on doing research.

Have you always enjoyed doing research?
At first, when I started, I wasn’t so sure about it.  But I think it was because I was still developing my own understanding of the research that was going on. But after being more involved, especially after doing research over the summer, that mindset was switched. I got to liking research a lot more. Now it’s the main thing I do and that I look forward to doing.
When I started learning about research, one thing I heard often people talk about was the feeling you get when you are researching something that’s your own, something that no one else is doing. And slowly over time I started to see that that is true. Where the research is my own, and I’m adding information--however small it may be--it’s still something I give out to the world. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much. Another reason is just because it lets me be very nerdy. And I like that. I don’t find a lot of other disciplines that let me be as nerdy as I am.

Did the REU program you participated in also include professional development workshops?
Yes, we met every week. We got to talk about the philosophy of science, developing your research skills, networking … they had a lot of seminars for us. And there were several REUs  – in chemistry, physics, biology, plus some internal Kansas State research programs. So we got to interact with students across disciplines. It was great.

Have you had a chance to present your research?
In the REU program, we did a poster at the end of the summer. And we had a couple of weeks where we would practice our talks with one another. It helped a lot—helped build our confidence for when we had to give our final presentation.
I enjoyed our poster event a lot. I liked it the most because everyone was eager to talk about what they did this whole summer. It was nice to see that we were all there, excited and happy that we were doing what we were doing.

Sounds like a great experience.
I should say that it took me about the first 2 or 3 weeks to get used to this new research group in another state, to get comfortable with talking to them about things that weren’t just research. Getting used to being uncomfortable in a lab was part of the process in a way ..You have those moments where you’re waiting an hour or two for some sample to prepare…and you didn’t want to be just sitting around and doing nothing. So getting to know the other group members was something that I kind of got pushed to learn how to do, through the REU experience. Another thing was making sure was making sure I used my time efficiently.  

What advice about research would you give to other undergraduates, in general?
I’d say that the biggest tip I can give is to be more vocal with your professors. Even a simple question like asking about their current research is good, because it lets them know that you’re looking at what they’re doing with some serious intent. Professors love to talk about their research. At one networking workshop I went to, a question we were encouraged to ask the professors about is: what is their research vision? That question is great, because it gives you a foot in the door, a chance to learn something that you wouldn’t learn even from reading their papers. Ever since we were told that, I’ve been waiting to use it again.

Is it difficult to balance research and classes?
It was helpful knowing what full time research looks like – from doing the summer program. And I think that has helped me with time management even now during the academic year. Typically, I manage to get ~2.5 hours every Tuesday and Thursday, and on Fridays I work 1-5 in the research lab. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we mainly take measurements of the samples that we prepared. On Fridays we do a lot of the computational work—just fitting the data and analyzing it.

What has been the most challenging aspect of doing research?
Initially – it was not believing that I belong there. And a lot of it was just because I couldn’t see myself talking science and doing science. I remember in my freshman year how I’d walk through the Chemistry building, and think: how am I supposed to navigate this? Where do I even begin to talk to these professors? And a lot of it was confusion and uncertainty that I belong in this realm of chemistry…

And that has changed?
That has changed. Now, I know that what I’m doing is what I want to do. I guess that’s come from all the programs I’ve been to, and from learning, taking more chemistry classes, and doing research. Dr. Surita Bhatia has also been really supportive as well. . . All of these experiences have developed my confidence in what I do now.