High School Student Sharpens Research Skills in Wilson College’s Sustainable Dye Chemistry Lab
By Raymond Jones
When professors need help with research, it’s common practice to seek out a conscientious student who has the time and interest to get more involved in hands-on lab work. So, when Research Assistant Professor Tova Williams was making plans for summer 2022, she was pleased to learn of Olivia Hartung’s interest in working in The Sustainable Dye Chemistry Laboratory.
The one big difference between this summer research experience and others at the Wilson College of Textiles, however, is that Hartung is not an NC State student. She’s a rising senior at Broughton High School in Raleigh.
Hartung created her own opportunity by sending out blind inquiries to professors who specialize in textiles. Fortunately for her, one of the professors she contacted was Russell Gorga, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science. Impressed by the show of initiative, Gorga circulated her query to other faculty members, where it caught Williams’ attention.
Williams saw a clear match between her needs and Hartung’s academic interests. Williams had to take care of one nagging detail, however, before she could make a formal commitment. That “detail” was finding a source of funding.
As a long-time supporter of STEM education initiatives for young women and minorities, Williams knew that the North Carolina Textile Foundation had created a dedicated fund for diversity, equity and inclusion. She hoped the foundation would look kindly upon her proposal and they did. By late June, Hartung was up and running in the lab.
“Programs like this give us a valuable opportunity to showcase our faculty and facilities to high-achieving high school students.”
Williams’ interest in nurturing a student with Hartung’s capabilities came naturally. Hartung, an IB (International Baccalaureate) student and National Honor Society member, came to NC State with a history of involvement in a wide range of extracurricular activities. She is active in student organizations that promote environmental sustainability, support food banks and assist pediatric cancer patients.
Hartung says the opportunity to work under Williams’ tutelage has been invaluable.
“We’re currently involved,” she says, “in a joint search to find hair dyes that pose fewer hazards. We’re looking at ways to reduce skin sensitization and allergenic potential.”
Hartung says she’s enjoyed having some entirely new experiences this summer, including using a UV-Vis spectrophotometer.
She’s had a chance to test and compare the properties of a broad variety of chemical compounds. In addition, she recently had an opportunity to present her research at the Summer 2022 NC State Undergraduate Research & Creativity Symposium.
Williams, for her part, has been pleased to serve as a role model for Hartung. She’s quick to emphasize, however, that polymer and color chemistry student Sydney Lucas has really stepped up to help mentor Hartung on a day-to-day basis. Lucas, a rising junior, also contributed to research at The Sustainable Dye Chemistry Lab this summer through Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).
“Sydney is a young woman who has a gift for helping others,” Williams says. “Her interactions with Olivia are a joy to watch because Olivia is very inquisitive and quite comfortable embracing broad concepts. They are both learning a lot and very much benefiting from the relationship.”
With hopes that this type of opportunity can be repeated in the future, Williams is actively looking at funding sources for next summer. She believes these types of STEM-oriented programs are not only intrinsically valuable but allow the university to enhance its outreach efforts.
“Programs like this,” she says, “give us a valuable opportunity to showcase our faculty and facilities to high-achieving high school students.”