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Faculty and Students Team Up for Summer Research Abroad

A New Program Fosters Collaboration on Scientific Research Beyond Our Borders

by Anna Burgess

For Tufts professors Mary Shultz (Chemistry) and Tim Atherton (Physics), this past summer was one of adventure and scientific research. The two professors each led research teams in July as part of the Tufts University International Research Program, a three-year pilot program funded by an anonymous donor that allows the School of Arts and Sciences to send student-faculty teams abroad to conduct scientific research. Shultz and four students — Josh Golubovsky (A16), Jordin Metz (A16), Faith Dukes (G13), and Rui Liang (doctoral student) — jetted to China, while Atherton brought two students — Kate Voorhes (E14) and Chris Burke ( doctoral student) — to Australia. Thanks to the grant-funded program, both teams were able to gain invaluable information — not to mention explore some amazing international locations.

Professor Mary Shultz's chemistry research team in China. From left: Dr. Faith Dukes(G13), Jordin Metz(A16), Josh Golubovsky(A16), Rui Liang(doctoral candidate), Professor Mary Shultz, Margaret Kuo (A00)

Photo: Jordin Metz

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Professor Shultz, who runs the Laboratory for Water and Surface Analysis at Tufts, brought her team to China to work with students and scientists on an ongoing project on water purification.. Shultz and the students have been studying a particular chemical compound, Titanium Dioxide (TiO2), and its possible uses in making water safe for drinking. Shultz explains that while TiO2 can be used as a photo-catalyst, using sunlight to create clean water from dirty water, "It needs an awful lot of sunlight. So we're all looking at the question of how we can make this more efficient."

While in China, Shultz and students Metz, Dukes, Liang, and Golubovsky visited Shanghai, Beijing, Shandong University in Jinan, and the Chinese Technical Institute of Chemistry and Physics in Urumqi. Metz thinks of the trip as a "knowledge exchange," and describes their time as spent mostly in lectures and discussions--including the US-China Symposium on Environmental Science--or touring labs and seeing research in progress. "There's a lot of mutual respect for each others' research," he says of the American and Chinese scientists. "[During seminars], they would grill each other and ask difficult questions, but it was for the benefit of everyone."

PhD candidate Liang, who also served as the team's unofficial interpreter, agrees about the positive nature of the knowledge exchange. "It was beneficial that I could learn how other people work in this area" he explains. "I will consider [their] experiences, successful or unsuccessful, as important references for my own work." Moving forward, Shultz says that her team will use what they've learned in China to inform their experiments with TiO2. "I think we're within striking distance of the efficiency we need to make a real [water-cleaning] product," she says.

Ultimately, Shultz wants the team's research to, "affect people in countries where they don't have access to clean water." Metz agrees, and Liang is thinking big: "It will affect the entire human race, if successful," he says.

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Professor Tim Atherton's Soft Matter Theory group with University of New South Wales team. From left: Kate Voorhes (E14), Patrick Spicer, Chris Burke (doctoral student), Zengyi Wei, and Professor Tim Atherton

Photo: Kate Voorhes

Further southeast, Professor Atherton, PhD candidate Burke, and engineering physics major Voorhes spent their July studying emulsive materials at the University of New South Wales ( UNSW.) Atherton and his team of theoretical physicists study soft matter, of which emulsions are one class; their counterparts in Sydney study the same materials but in an experimental capacity. The UNSW team, led by Patrick Spicer, has been collaborating with Atherton's team for about a year, focusing on how to control stability in emulsions.

Atherton explains that in certain situations, like preserving mayonnaise, longer stability is ideal, but in other situations, like separating crude oil, it isn't. He, Burke, and Voorhes have used mathematics to examine how ingredients in emulsions relate, as well as created computer programs to model droplets of different emulsions. Working in Sydney with the experimental team in the lab "accelerated our research and collaborative efforts," says Voorhes.

Chris Burke and Kate Voorhes work together to develop theoretical models in Sydney.

Photo: Kate Voorhes

In terms of the experiments' results, the Sydney trip was highlighted by a very happy accident. "One of the most wonderful and unexpected results was that some structures Chris had predicted might exist, actually did," Atherton says. Voorhes recalls the team's reaction, saying, "It was really fun to be part of the huge excitement that ensued from this discovery."

Overall, Atherton's team found it extremely helpful to work with the experimental physicists. "This trip was a catalyst for us to check on some of the feasibility of our ideas," says Atherton. "Now that we have a better understanding of the experiments, there's more to come." He explains that further research could have much bigger implications than the tiny particles themselves would suggest. "Fundamental research like ours can give others working in more applied fields - like engineering - ideas about how to do new things," he says.

All three team members look forward to continuing their work together now that they're back in Boston. Atherton explains that the students have positively impacted his research, saying, "Very often, they [are the ones] leading and pushing the scientific discussions ahead." Burke thinks that Atherton's own enthusiasm might have something to do with his students' engagement: "It's hard not to be excited about your research when you're working with him."

Tim Atherton's Soft Matter Theory Research Group Blog

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