Undergraduate Research Highlight: Cody Zane


Cody Zane presented his poster, “Flame Retardants: New Ways to Reduce Exposure,” at the 2014 NC State Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Undergraduate Research Highlight

Name: Cody Zane

Major(s): Polymer and Color Chemistry – ACS concentration, Accelerated Bachelor’s Master’s program

Intended graduation date: May 2016

Why were you interested in pursuing undergraduate research?
Ever since I was young I have been enamored by experiments.  It started out with cooking and mixing ingredients together to make something edible.  Once I got into labs in middle and high school my love for experiments exponentially increased.  I was enthralled with mixing two different chemicals together in a titration and getting a reaction, then being able to learn about the reaction on the board. This is what led me to the research I am doing today with molecular modeling.  I love being able to see the reaction happen on the micro or nano scale then going into lab and conducting an experiment and knowing there a thousands, if not millions of molecules, completing the reaction I just saw on the computer screen.

What was the process for finding a project to work on and an advisor to work with?
My dad has always told me “it’s not always what you know, but who you know” and that is directly applicable here.  At the end of sophomore year I was enrolling in an Accelerated Bachelor’s/Master’s (ABM) program and I needed research for the program.  Dr. Hinks, who is my advisor, asked me what I was interested in.  I told him I was interested in both side of the experiment, the modeling side and the experiment side, despite not having any knowledge about computers and molecular modeling.  Luckily for me he was just starting a project with Drs. Pasquinelli, Patisaul, and Tonelli and they needed someone for computer modeling.  I jumped on top of the opportunity.

Please describe your research project.
When flame retardants are padded onto fabrics and polymeric materials, they have the possibility of shedding and being inhaled by the consumer.  Once inhaled, these chemicals have the possibility of interacting with hormone receptors in the body, causing problems within the endocrine system.  It was recently determined that the chemicals making up the flame retardant, FireMaster (FM) 550, may possibly be endocrine disruptors.  Thus, we are developing new ways to reduce exposure to flame retardants by encapsulating them in beta-cyclodextrin (b-CD) rings; once padded onto the substrate, these encapsulated complexes will be less likely to be released. The goal of this aspect of the project is to use quantum mechanics to predict whether each flame retardant is small enough to fit inside the b-CD rings and if so, what the strength of its binding affinity is.  The results of these calculations suggest that encapsulation by b-CD is a viable option for reducing exposure to flame retardants. The next step is to perform molecular dynamics simulations of the inclusion complex embedded within a polymer matrix in order to assess its stability and efficacy in that environment.
Experiments are also being conducted in parallel with all molecular modeling.  Drs. Hinks and Tonelli are working with a Ph. D student, Nanshan Zhang.  They are using organic solvents to try and make the inclusion complexes.  They are then using TGA, FTIR and Mass Spectrometers to prove that inclusion complexes are actually being made. These inclusion complexes are then melt pressed into Polycaprolactone films and flame tests are done to the films to prove that the cyclodextrin does not hinder the FR’s ability to work.  The inclusion complexes will then be passed off to Dr. Patisaul, in the biology department, to do toxicology tests in vivo.

What were the biggest challenges you found while working on your project?
The biggest challenge for me during this research project, and also the most enjoyable portion, was the fact that I knew absolutely nothing.  Dr. Pasquinelli (Dr. P) brought me into her lab and showed me around, then essentially told me what software we were using for the first part of the molecular modeling and left me to my own devices.  I had to learn most everything on the fly about the software I was using and had to start problem solving on my own because, even though Dr. P was there to help from time to time, she could not help all the time and I had to come up with answers.  I think my favorite part was encountering a problem, then staring at the computer screen trying to figure out an answer to my problem.  I had to take the limited amount of knowledge I had and hypothesize what I could possibly do, then go to Dr. P and ask if it was a viable option.  9 times out of 10 it was and I was guided on what to do and had to go solve my own problem.  I find joy in the challenges that I encounter.

What advice would you offer to other students, either about the process or about researching, that are interested in undergraduate research?
If I were to give advice to a younger undergrad looking for research I would tell them to research what projects all the professors are doing and choose a couple that sound interesting and go talking to those professors one on one asking if you can join their research team.  Most professors in the Wilson College of Textiles are willing to on undergrads, and know that we don’t know all the material.  I would also advise them to never give up on their dream in research, the most satisfying feeling is that through all adversity you get results at the end.  I can’t tell you how happy I was when I finally started getting results after 4 months of constant failures. The last piece of advice I would give them, is to accept any success, no matter how small it is, as a success and use that to fuel you through the tough times.  Research gets tough, but letting small things makes you happy helps you get through it all.