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Academic adventure

Posted 1 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024

UWL undergraduate student researchers Meredith Zannacker (left) and Elijah Behnke went on a two-week trip to Purdue University's West Lafayette campus this summer. They toured world-class facilities such as the Birck Nanotechnology Center and even presented their own research.

Student chemists grow personally, professionally from trip to Purdue

In an exciting academic adventure, two promising UWL undergraduate student researchers, Elijah Behnke and Meredith Zannacker, went on a two-week expedition to Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus in Indiana over the summer. Their research visit was led by Sujat Sen, assistant professor of chemistry at UWL, and they were hosted by collaborator Sunghwan Lee’s research group in the School of Engineering Technology at Purdue.

The team set out to develop catalysts to speed up the conversion of carbon dioxide into valuable fuels and chemicals using nano-sized particles. The project was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). A key highlight of the trip was the hands-on experience at Purdue’s Birck Nanotechnology Center, which contains a 25,000-square-foot cleanroom, one of the country’s largest facilities in a university setting.

Cleanrooms are necessary when performing certain kinds of nanofabrication – a typical example is the chips inside a smartphone. Behnke and Zannacker had the privilege of not only accessing Purdue’s state-of-the-art cleanroom but also training on specific instruments.

“Going into Birck’s cleanroom put into perspective how detrimental particles can be in terms of sample preparation; even just the number of steps and preparation to go into the cleanroom blew my mind,” Behnke adds. “Seeing the cleanroom made me appreciate the research process even more and how critical it is to eliminate possibilities of contamination.”

Training to use state-of-the-art instruments in “bunny suits” within a cleanroom setting.

Students also had the opportunity to learn advanced experimental techniques in physical and chemical vapor deposition, including electron beam evaporation, thermal evaporation, focused ion beam milling and sputter coating. As these techniques are at the forefront of materials science and crucial for various research and industrial applications, UWL students had the unique hands-on experience to learn experimental methods with the help of graduate students at Purdue.

“It was astonishing to see the use of instruments that I am familiar with in new and unique wys to obtain information about our samples,” Behnke noted.

On the final day of the visit, Behnke and Zannacker presented their research findings and conclusions to Lee’s combined research group.

As part of their professional development, Behnke and Zannacker gained first-hand experience working with a doctoral-level research group. The time in the lab and social settings also allowed them to ask questions about graduate school — particularly about demystifying the application process, navigating the complexities of life as a graduate student, and sharing experiences of the challenges and successes along the way.

During a guided tour of the labs, students gained valuable insights into the admissions process, such as how graduate schools evaluate applications and what professors typically look for in prospective applicants.  Behnke and Zannacker have returned to UWL with newfound confidence and skills that will undoubtedly shape their future careers and research endeavors.

Behnke and Zannacker gained firsthand experience of how a doctoral-level research group operates through their interactions with graduate students.

“The experiences at Purdue gave me a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the research world and how fascinating it is,” Zannacker says. “Seeing and learning how to use multiple new instruments allowed me to gain a better understanding into how our samples are made and the factors that affect the quality of samples.”   

Sen is grateful to the NSF and collaborators at Purdue for making this educational opportunity possible. He emphasized the importance of such initiatives between primarily undergraduate institutions such as UWL and research-intensive universities like Purdue in nurturing the next generation of scientists and researchers.

As Behnke and Zannacker resume their studies at UWL, they do so with renewed enthusiasm and a broader outlook, ready to contribute to the ever-evolving materials science and nanotechnology field. Their experiences at Purdue University will undoubtedly serve as a foundation for their future success in scientific research.


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