Undergraduates Join Research Team, Learn Industry Skills
By Mary Giuffrida
Newfound confidence and industry-level experience:
These are the two biggest assets Wilson College of Textiles undergraduate students Teresa Fiorito and Emma Myer-Medina walked away with after their summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).
The two worked in Assistant Professor Januka Budhathoki-Uprety’s lab, each partnered with a Wilson College doctoral student to mentor and guide them throughout the summer.
Fiorito, a sophomore in textile engineering, worked with doctoral candidate Nigar Sultana on her portable sensor research.
“My research is focused on developing sensors which can be used to monitor environmental changes or human cell activities,” Sultana explains. Recently, her team reported optical detection of pH changes in artificial sweat using near-infrared fluorescent nanomaterials.
Fiorito assisted Sultana in converting the sensor to new, more versatile forms which could be applied across disciplines.
“We were trying to find ways to convert the liquid state of the sensor,” Fiorito says. “We used heat to solidify the liquids and then we put it back in water to see if it would dissolve or form a gel.”
They blended the sensors with polymers, then heated them up to bond the polymers and see if they would form a gel. The gel sensors could then be applied in different environments, from human skin to soil samples and textiles.
“It can be integrated into 3D printing, or with yarn that can be made into garments,” Sultana says.
Myer-Medina, a junior majoring in polymer and color chemistry, was paired with Ph.D. student Meghan Lord.
“I was glad that I got to work on something that had a sustainability goal, because that’s very important to me,” Myer-Medina says.
Myer-Medina and Lord focused on sustainability through finding methods to remove dyes from wastewater, a widespread problem within the textile industry. Earlier the research group published related research in polycarbodiimide for textile dye removal from contaminated water. The research found that a synthetic polymer can remove the dyes and then be recovered and reused, helping to combat environmental pollution and human health risks.
The research team
Both students sought out REU as a way of gaining important industry experience in an environment attuned to learning.
“I heard about the REU through a friend and they said that you would be guided through a mentor and a PI and have other people in the lab,” Fiorito says. “I thought it’d be a less intimidating way to get experience, to have guidance through the program.”
“I had heard from several of my classmates that the REU program was a very good intro to research and that’s what drew me in,” Myer-Medina says.
They work around 20 hours a week helping to run experiments, reviewing literature and doing anything else their Ph.D. mentors need help with.
“I got to run a couple of experiments, which is very exciting,” Myer-Medina says. “I got to do a little bit of synthesis for polymers, which are really interesting because I’ve been learning about that in class for basically the last two years. It’s really cool to see how that actually works in person.”
While the undergraduates are gaining experience and knowledge, their Ph.D. guides are also benefiting from an extra set of hands.
“I only have two hands and one brain,” Lord says. “So it’s really nice working with more than one person to be able to bounce ideas off of and just do things in the lab like ‘I’ll run this half, you run that half.’”
At the end of their REUs, the students came away with a better understanding of their goals and interests, and the skills to move forward.
“I definitely learned a lot about just working in a lab because I haven’t really worked in a lab before,” Fiorito says. “I also learned a lot of time management because there were a lot of tasks to complete.”
“Emma got the full-day experience of what it’s like to be in lab,” Lord explains. “Because she can be here for that longer time, it’s not just ‘Can you please run this one or two experiments for me?’ It’s ‘You can start running this and while it’s running you can read some literature, go back, check on it.’”
“It’s definitely confirmed that I do like research,” Myer-Medina says. “I am considering grad school because of it, and there were workshops that just showed what it would take to get into grad school.”