Researcher of the Month
Major: Chemical Engineering, Physics, Class of 2023
Research Mentor: Dr. Tadanori Koga, Dr. Maya Endoh, Department of Materials Science & Chemical Engineering
Aiden Gauer is a senior in the University Scholars honors program, double majoring in Chemical Engineering and Physics. For the last 1.5 years, he has been engaged in the development of innovative bactericidal polymer surfaces working under the mentorship of Professors Tad Koga and Maya Endoh (Materials Science & Chemical Engineering). Aiden‘s full time research on “Fabrication of Nanotopographical Polymer Surfaces for Bactericidal Property” in the Koga-Endoh group was supported in summers 2021 and 2022 by the URECA Summer and/or Explorations in STEM programs. Aiden’s project also involved a significant amount of experimentation at Brookhaven Laboratory this past summer, using nanofabrication processes available at The Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN).
Aiden has presented his research on campus at the URECA spring and summer symposia; last March he also presented a research poster at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Spring 2022 Conference in San Diego, travel that was partially sponsored through a URECA mini grant. The experience of presenting at ACS was motivating, and persuaded Aiden to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering. Reflecting on the ACS experience, as well as other campus forums which built up his confidence in presenting his work, Aiden reflects: “… research is more than just the aspect of …reading papers and all the technical knowledge ….It's about having connections with other with other scientists. A lot of my work is communicating with my peers, with grad students, and with my PIs. When I had the opportunity to go to the ACS Conference, I needed to be able to articulate what research I was doing, to talk to other people to gather ideas that I could bring back into my research. Research is not just sitting in the lab. The networking and communication are a big part of the whole experience. “
Aiden first became known to his mentors through coursework, having taken Programming for Engineers (ESG 111), with Professor Endoh; and Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics (CME304) with Professor Koga. In the spring semester of 2021, Aiden also benefitted from the experience of participating in a remote research project/internship (CME 199) class under the direction of Dr. Taejin Kim, where he used COMSOL to simulate catalyzed reactions with various catalysts to control hydrocarbon-based reaction pathways.
On campus Aiden has been active as a physics and calculus tutor in the University Scholars peer mentoring program; he also plays bass and guitar, and performs regularly in various bands on and off campus throughout the year. Aiden is a graduate of Shenendehowa HS, in Clifton Park, NY. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your current research.
Aiden: I’ve been working in a materials science lab under the supervision of Professors Tadanori Koga and Maya Endoh, since February 2021. My project deals with fabricating and characterizing polymer films that have some designed structural properties on the nanoscale. Typically, we're designing a nano-scale structured pattern that has some interactions with microbiological structures: our ideal film would be able to be antifouling and antimicrobial while still being bio-compatible with the human body.
Overall, our aim is to create a structure that would have applications for medical equipment such as catheters or prosthetics, where you could just put the film around them to create a better surface so that there's no build-up of bio films that could cause infection or other harm to the body.
Does your research involve working at Brookhaven National Laboratory?
Yes, I've been working at BNL at the Center for Functional Nano materials (CFN) as part of my project. We collaborate with them and use their equipment to do most of our characterization. We also use NSLS-II to do X-ray scattering so we can learn more about the properties of our films. And we work with other departments here at Stony Brook such as Microbiology and Biomedical Engineering, as well as with our collaborators at Kyoto University and Ohio University for various aspects of the project. There’s actually a possibility I may be able to do some follow up experiments in Kyoto with our collaborators in the next few months.
Wow, that's exciting. How did you get involved with your research group?
During my sophomore year, I was looking to apply to internships and various research fellowships. And I asked Prof. Maya Endoh if she would give me a recommendation. She agreed, but then offered me a research position in the lab. I had taken classes with her, and with Prof. Koga, so they both knew me, and knew my work ethic. And when I started, there were only three of us in the lab, and I was the only undergraduate. . . Now there are ten to twelve students in our group, and it seems like that the research opportunities for undergraduates have really grown. I feel very fortunate that they offered me that position when they did. From the beginning, my PIs have been very supportive, encouraging me to apply for URECA, to attend an ACS conference, and now, to possibly go to Kyoto to work with our collaborators.
Tell me about your experience of presenting at the ACS Conference.
Last March I had the opportunity to do a poster presentation at the ACS Conference in San Diego, which was a really good experience. Besides just presenting my research, I got to attend various talks from industry, meet people from other labs, other universities, and attend networking events. And overall, it gave me a good idea of what staying in the academic research space would be like, and convinced me that I do want to pursue the PhD.
No one in my family has pursued education beyond an undergraduate degree, so it was really helpful talking to people who had pursued this field, and were able to share their experiences and really show me that that getting a PhD is something that I can see in my future.
Do you feel that being involved in undergraduate research has prepared you for this next step ?
Yes, definitely. When I started, I worked primarily with a graduate student, Dan Sallato. He would tell me what to do, how to do different experiments, and guide me in what I was doing step by step. When he graduated last spring, 2022, I had to take the role of continuing the project pretty much independently. I still had the support of my PIs and the other grad students, if I needed help. But I basically learned how to work independently this summer, to operate more like a PhD student, so I feel like that will be really helpful for going into graduate school and knowing what to expect. Overall, the research experiences I’ve had have given me good skills in terms of being able to learn and apply knowledge. I’ve had to learn quickly and be able to apply knowledge in a practical way as my research is constantly changing and evolving.
Taking part in research has also improved my confidence when it comes to speaking with other people, talking about my work, and just general communication. I feel much more confident now, having had so many opportunities to present and talk to other scientists about my work, from the URECA symposium to ACS.
What do you enjoy most about doing research?
I love the lab environment. And I find that a lot of the research I do is calming, relaxing — where I'm just sitting, working on something. Besides the hands-on work, I also really like doing data analysis. I find that stimulates my brain. But I think more than anything, I like the feeling like I'm contributing to something. My project, I realize, step by step, could be considered to be very monotonous. I'm doing the same task, and it's really small. But the big picture has tremendous applications, and keeps me motivated.
What advice to other students do you have about research?
For me personally, I think that the URECA summer experience was pivotal. As a double major, I take between 18 and 21 credits every semester so it’s hard to have enough time to do research over the semester. But with the URECA program, I had a whole summer to work full time and just focus on the research and on what I was learning. And that allowed me time to develop as a researcher.
I also don't live in Long Island. My parents are in Saratoga County, about four hours from campus. So the URECA funding gave me the opportunity to find a place close enough to Stony Brook, and to support food, gas, and basically all the essentials I needed to take part in research over the summer. That allowed me to be able to focus on the research without being concerned about my finances. I didn't need to work a second job over the summer. Being able to focus on your research for a whole summer is a great opportunity for being able to get as much done as you can.
Is there anything you wish you had known when you started out doing research?
I would say that research is more than just the aspect of doing the work — reading papers and all the technical knowledge that comes with it. It's about having connections with other with other scientists. A lot of my work is communicating with my peers, with grad students, and with my PIs. When I had the opportunity to go to the ACS Conference, I needed to be able to articulate what research I was doing, to talk to other people to gather ideas that I could bring back into my research. Research is not just sitting in the lab. The networking and communication are a big part of the whole experience.
Yes, networking can be important.
Also, I think it’s important to be realistic about expectations. Research isn’t necessarily as glamorous as advertised. Let me explain. . . When you’re doing research, it’s about creating something. It's about being part of a project and adding to the knowledge pool of your field of science and advancing what we know. But you shouldn’t get carried away by expecting immediate results, or an immediate impact. It’s not a case of “I'm going to start research in a bio lab, and I'm going to create a new treatment.” Instead, it’s more like: “I'm going to study this bacteria and see if this bacteria can do this…”. That one little itty-bitty step— that's what research is. It's a series of small steps that you're working on towards the bigger picture. While it’s good to have the bigger picture in mind as something to aspire to, being a good researcher means being able to determine what steps you need to focus on so that you can get there.
You shouldn’t go into research as an undergrad thinking you're going to create the next big cure or take part in something that's hugely impactful in the near future. You have to remember that little by little you're contributing to knowledge, and that's what should keep you motivated. Not necessarily big things.
Did you know you wanted to be involved in research when you first came to Stony Brook?
Yes, Stony Brook seemed to be a place with research opportunities, and that was one of the reasons why I chose Stony Brook. I knew coming in that there I would have research opportunities to choose from, and that eventually I would find a lab that aligned with my personal goals. And when you know that the opportunities are there, it’s a matter of taking the opportunities that are presented to you. Don’t be passive about the opportunities that come your way!