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Thanks to the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, I was able to spend 10 weeks during the summer of 2011 working in Dr. Daeyeon Lee’s lab in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn. My project was titled “Layer-by-Layer Assembly in Nonaqueous Media,” and I was charged with creating thin films of nanoparticles. I used the technique known as “Layer-By Layer (LbL) Dip Assembly,” which is the process of creating thin films by first dipping a piece of glass into a positively-charged polymer solution, then dipping the same piece of glass into a negatively-charged polymer solution, and repeating this process many times. One positive feature of these thin films is that they can give unique properties to surfaces, such as anti-fogging and anti-glare capabilities. However, the most important benefit to LbL assembly is its simplicity: thin films can be created with simple reagents and without complicated equipment. Additionally, film properties can be easily controlled by the number of layers and the type of particles used. LbL thin films can be applied to a wide variety of fields, including energy, medical, and optical.
My goal was to improve the traditional LbL technique by creating thin films with cellulose and ionic liquids. Ionic liquids are molten salts that exist in the liquid form at room temperature, and have great charge. By using ionic liquids instead of the traditional water solvent, we can apply this technology to even more areas. The highly charged nature of ionic liquids can improve electrical devices. Additionally, ionic liquids allow us to use new material such as silk, cellulose, and carbon nanontubes. Cellulose is a great material because it is cheap, abundant, and biocompatible. Thin films of cellulose and ionic liquid can make great membranes for reverse osmosis, a water purification technique. While I was unable to create a thin film of cellulose and ionic liquid, I did learn quite a lot during my ten weeks.
I worked closely with Jacob, a Ph.D. student in the same major who taught me many fundamental research techniques. I discovered how to design experiments on my own, record detailed observations, and avoid any possible chemical contamination. I also learned the correct use of a variety of instruments, including an ellipsometer and a sonicator; proper handling of certain harmful reagents; and safe waste disposal. Through occasional lunches with Jacob, I discovered more about a career as an engineer. I learned about industry standards, safe guidelines that must be followed when designing a device; graduate school and its application process; and professional engineering licenses, which can allow an engineer more freedom in his work. I could not have gleaned any of this information through regular academic course work.
Thrust into a research position where I initially had no idea what I was doing, I became very good at reading research papers. This reading skill has transferred directly into my academic work. Now when I read textbooks for never-before-encountered subjects such as Organic Chemistry, I am no longer deterred when faced with a page of gibberish. Additionally, by conducting research and encountering obstacles present in any type of research, I became indoctrinated with the idea of learning from my mistakes. To me, mistakes did not become failures unless you learned nothing from them. My PURM experience has become a cornerstone for any future engineering work I do.