Researcher of the Month
Major: Chemical & Molecular Engineering, Honors College, Class of 2023
Research Mentor: Dr. Trevor Sears, Chemistry
“Honestly that's what research is. It’s all troubleshooting,” states Joshua Heuvel-Horwitz, who has experienced and learned from the day-to-day process of working through problems as an undergraduate researcher in the group of Dr. Trevor Sears (Chemistry) since joining the group as a first semester freshman in 2019.
A Chemical and Molecular Engineering major in the Honors College who was eager to get hands on experience doing physical chemistry, Josh began by learning soldering and circuit design, constructing microelectronic circuits on a custom printed circuit board; he also gained skills in computational modeling with Python, and MATLAB; and then progressed to high precision spectroscopy experiments. His work in summer 2020, on “Pressure and Temperature Broadening in the near-IR Spectra of Cryogenic CH4 and N2 Mixtures,” conducted remotely due to covid regulations, was funded through the PSEG-Explorations in STEM program (PI: Dr. Monica Bugallo). He has since returned to in-person research, and his ongoing work on “Experimental design for the measurement and analysis of vibration-rotation spectra of molecules relevant to extra-terrestrial bodies”was funded in summer 2021 through the BNL Science Undergraduate Learning Internship (SULI) summer program.
Josh has also been working on an additional project in the Sears group, designing a teaching experimental apparatus for an undergraduate laboratory course on Molecular Structure and Spectroscopy. Josh presented this project, “Experimental Design for the Measurement and analysis of vibration rotation spectra of molecules relevant to extra terrestrial bodies,” recently at the AIChE Student Conference, where he won second place in the poster competition under the Education and General Papers category.
On campus, Josh has served as Events Coordinator, Treasure, ChemE Car Team Lead, and currently ChemE Sports Team Captain for the SB student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He also is active in the running club on campus.
Joshua is a graduate of Rondout Valley High School, in Ulster County, NY. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research.
Joshua: So I’m working with Prof. Sears whose research focuses on the measurement and understanding of the spectra of small gas-phase molecules. We're basically shooting lasers at a gas and measuring how much light the gas absorbs. We’ve been studying simple molecules such as acetylene, methane – and the idea basically is to get really high resolution measurements so that we can study, for instance, the spectra of gases under the conditions existing in the atmosphere of Titan, a moon of Saturn. And it might tell us more about early conditions on Earth. The main project I am working on right now is a teaching-experiment spectrometer and will be eventually used for Chemistry 357, “Molecular Structure and Spectroscopy Laboratory.” I’m wrapping up the project right now, and will be working on writing it up and hopefully publishing it in an education journal.
How long have you been working in the Sears group?
Technically since November 2019. When I first joined the group, I was learning a lot of new stuff so I started out doing some soldering, working with physical circuits, etc. For this latest project, I’d say I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half, including last summer as a participant in the BNL-SULI program. In 2020, when I participated in URECA remotely due to the covid shutdown, I was working on more of a computational project, where I was simulating the methane spectra to try to find good absorption lines to study in the lab.
And how did you first get involved in undergraduate research?
I just approached Dr. Sears directly. I was going through different sites, looking at faculty research groups that I thought were kind of interesting . So I just showed up to his office one day and asked about opportunities, and right away he let me know that he had a project for me.
What is the most surprising thing about the research you do?
It’s hard to say. I guess I’d say that the more surprising things are the weird errors that come up at times, things that you have to troubleshoot. For example, all the different instruments I used for the teaching experiment--they all had a different communication protocol and basically I had to combine all of those different ways that they communicated and make it into one flush system. And that created a lot of problems…
So you ‘re saying you got experience in troubleshooting?
Joshua Heuvel-Horwitz: Yes, lots! And honestly that's what research is. It’s all troubleshooting. Because for any research you're doing, the theory is already there most of the time. You kind of already know what you're looking for, what to expect…but I’d say 90% of what you do is troubleshooting and trying to figure out what's wrong, and eliminating variables until it's only one possible thing.
There have been a lot of times when I felt as if not a lot was happening; and where I would be stuck on one thing for what seemed a really long time. But that's just kind of how research is. And you just have to work through that. You keep trying things, until you figure it out, and get to the next hurdle.
How have your research experiences supplemented what you are learning in your classes?
Sometimes the research has direct connections to what we’re learning. I’ve mostly been working with Python and a little bit with Matlab in the lab. So for my courses, I’ve been able to use what I’ve learned to do problem sets for courses. I definitely wouldn't have been able to do that, if it wasn't for the experience I had in research. And I feel like a lot of the work I’ve done here in the lab has had parallels in my courses too. So it’s been helpful just having practical experience working with these programs, and having done some troubleshooting.
What are your long term goals?
Right now, I’m considering different options . I’d like to get some kind of industry experience, perhaps this summer. After graduation, I would like to get into the chemical engineering industry somewhere as a process engineer, or a quality control engineer or something along those lines. But I’m also thinking about graduate (PhD) programs.
What advice about research do you have to share with other students?
You’re at Stony Brook. And it's really easy to find research here. So I would say, just do it! I’ve learned a lot by doing research. And Prof. Sears has been a great mentor. He's always looking out for me, and he's really open about any kind of questions that I might have, or outlining what I should be doing next to keep me on track.
Have you had any experiences yet in presenting your research off campus?
Yes, actually! Just last fall, I went to the AIChE (American Institute of chemical Engineers) National Student Conference in Boston. And I presented a poster there, basically all on the teaching experiment that I’m now finishing up. So I presented it there, and actually got a second place award for the education & general papers section. So I’m pretty proud of that. I actually keep the trophy on my desk here!
Congratulations! That’s wonderful!