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Undergraduate Students Contribute to Research for Environmental, Human Health

Students in lab

By Sarah Stone

The labs at the Wilson College of Textiles remained busy over the summer as students participated in the Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).

These undergraduates, 30 in total, gained research and professional experience as well as insight into the life of a graduate student. 

Dr. Januka Budhathoki-Uprety has invited undergraduate students to participate in her research projects the last two summers. She says she’s proud of the growth she’s seen in these students over the course of the 10 week program. 

“I really love watching that lightbulb moment in students when they understand the results after they have been working on projects for so many long hours,” she says. “And then at the end of the program you will be amazed by how much they learned during this time.” 

Undergraduate students Luis Martinez and Shelby Hall helped Dr. Budhathoki and her graduate students with two research projects this summer. 

Developing nanosensors for human health 

Update: The group has recently published a review article regarding disinfectants’ potential impact on health and the environment in “ACS Chemical Health & Safety”.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to advise frequent and thorough disinfecting to help reduce the spread of COVID. 

While acknowledging the effectiveness of disinfectants, researchers continue to express concern over the potential impacts on human health. Dr. Budhathoki-Uprety’s team, including undergraduate student Shelby Hall and graduate student Hannah Dewey, is on a mission to make it easier for other scientists to learn more about these potentially harmful effects. 

Specifically, these scientists are looking at chemical compounds found in most common disinfectants. These compounds could enter the bloodstream through absorption through bare skin, ingestion or inhalation and could cause problems in the respiratory or cardiovascular systems. It’s important to note that these concerns apply more to people who have repeated exposure to large amounts of disinfectants, such as healthcare and housekeeping employees. 

“For this emerging issue there is no established way to directly measure how much of these chemical disinfectants will end up in the body if you are exposed to these chemicals” Dr. Budhathoki-Uprety explains. “Say for example, these molecules may enter the bloodstream and accumulate in tissues causing a health impact. Currently, there is no easy way to look at it.” 

Her research group is innovating how to overcome that limitation. Hannah Dewey is developing nanosensors that can detect the presence and amount of these harmful compounds in blood samples and other biofluids. 

The timely application of this research is what Dewey says specifically appealed to her. The fiber and polymer science student is dedicating her doctoral research to the project. 

“We need to use [these chemicals] because they’re combating COVID,” she says. “But what are the potential impacts after the pandemic? That was just really, really interesting to me.”

Shelby Hall says the project gave her the opportunity to learn more about interactions between molecules using the fluorescence properties of compounds.

“I’ve understood more about what it means and what I’m looking at,” the senior chemical engineering student at Penn State says. “I think the learning process for that one is very interesting.”

Developing a bio-based sustainable finish to minimize environmental impacts

Hall, polymer and color chemistry student Luis Martinez, graduate student Meghan Lord and Dr. Budhathoki-Uprety are developing a bio-based hydrophobic, or water repelling, finish for textiles. Manufacturers add such finishes to textiles that are then used in a variety of applications. 

The idea is that by using a vegetable oil-based chemistry to create hydrophobic finishes, rather than the plastic polymers that are usually used, this group will minimize the negative environmental impacts of that process. 

“Having [a process] that’s bio-based and much more human and environmentally friendly would be really great,” Lord says.

This alternative finish would also mean making better use of what’s already harvested. 

“We don’t use the oil that much for anything.” Lord, a fiber and polymer science student, explains. “It’s pretty much a waste byproduct, so being able to use that in place of plastic or petroleum-based products is really interesting.” 

Hall says her involvement in these two different projects has helped her craft a more holistic understanding of the research process.

“I definitely think this experience has been more immersive [than my previous lab experience,]” Hall says. “And I’ve enjoyed it more because I’m using more of the background that I’ve learned in school and seeing how it can be applied to real life.”

Discovering more than just lab results

The REU program encompasses more than just becoming familiar with a lab setting. Working day in and day out on research with graduate students has helped both Hall and Martinez determine their paths following graduation. 

Luis Martinez

“Conversations that I’ve had with Meghan, seeing her experience in industry [and] knowing how I want to go into industry right after graduation, seeing the work environment that I could be in has been very helpful for me,” Martinez says.

He plans to head to graduate school after gaining industry experience, while Hall wants to apply to a graduate program at Wilson College as soon as she can. 

“In the classroom, they learn so much of the textbook knowledge, but they don’t see real world applications very closely,” Dr. Budhathoki-Uprety explains. “So when they are in the lab, they actually see how discoveries are made, how the knowledge gets transferred to the real work and real world, and then how they can use their imagination to develop new things.”

This summer’s partnership benefitted Dewey and Lord as well by helping them complete the research needed to earn their Ph.Ds. 

“[Shelby] picks up on things really quickly, which has been awesome,” Dewey says. 

Having the opportunity to see the research process again through younger eyes also translates to a refreshed perspective and renewed motivation for the discoveries students and faculty make.

“They bring a lot of new energy and excitement,” Dr. Budhathoki-Uprety says. 

Help Provide Opportunities for Students

Grants and the generosity of faculty made this summer’s expanded TECS REU program at Wilson College possible. Additional funding will be necessary in order for this level of programming to return next year. If you want to contribute to the valuable experiential learning of the next generation of textile industry leaders, please donate to the TECS Enhancement Fund.