Faculty and Students Team Up for Summer Research Abroad
A New Program Fosters Collaboration on Scientific Research Beyond
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
Professor Shultz, who runs the
Laboratory for Water and Surface
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.
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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