Getting a head start on a materials research career

Materials Research Institute gives undergraduate student workers an opportunity to gain valuable experience

10/19/2021

By Jamie Oberdick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Faced with a growing workload in its research labs, the Materials Research Institute met the challenge by offering Penn State students an opportunity that most materials science and engineering undergraduates normally never receive.

Within MRI’s state-of-the-art lab facilities in University Park’s Millennium Science Complex, a wide variety of research work is carried out daily. Along with being the center of materials research at Penn State, MRI also offers a variety of user services to both Penn State and external researchers. This includes sample fabrication and characterization by MRI’s Nanofabrication Laboratory and Materials Characterization Laboratory (MCL) for hundreds of industry, government and university users. In addition, there are outreach activities such as providing research support to primarily undergraduate institutions through the National Science Foundation Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers’ Materials Research Facilities Network (MRFN).

The combination of growing utilization of the MCL by the Penn State community coupled with an interest in expanding outreach activities created a workload that required some outside-the-box thinking to keep up with demand.

“We kicked around a bunch of ideas to address these opportunities, and one of them was what if we took the time to invest in hiring some bright Penn State undergraduate students so that they could help the lab achieve some of our goals over the summer,” said Josh Stapleton, MCL Director and MRI staff scientist.

Some of the students were trained to become proficient in basic TEM operations. TEM refers to transmission electron microscopes, a key tool in materials characterization where a thin specimen, ideally less than 100 nanometers, is exposed to an energy electron beam for high-resolution imaging.

“An entry-level TEM operator can do things such as load and unload samples, carry out basic imaging, and do basic elemental mapping,” Stapleton said. “While this may sound simple, it’s a complicated process that requires time to master. We provided the students with ample time to learn the technique and become proficient. It’s rare to have undergraduate students perform this sort of high-level work in part due to the investments that is needed for them to become independent.”

According to Stapleton, with the workload ever increasing, the need for an innovative solution was clear, so they hired a group of students to work in MCL over the summer. These students were then teamed with MRI staff scientists to receive a level of training that normally only graduate students receive.

“It helps advance some of the goals of MRI, but it’s truly a win-win because for the students, you are making them marketable for graduate studies or industry looking to hire people with specific skill sets,” Stapleton said.

One student, Bevan Harbinson, a junior majoring in materials science and engineering, worked with Trevor Clark, MCL staff scientist, to become an independent TEM operator. His primary task was to support one of the 2021 MRFN researchers, Kate Plass at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

“There is a lot of underutilized time on the TEM schedules during the off hours and Kate wanted to use it remotely but needed someone to load samples and support the students,” Clark said.

To fill this need, Harbinson was trained by Clark on a transmission electron microscope. This training and experience enabled him to support remote operation of the TEM by exchanging samples, working out technical issues, and helping the remote users get quality images and data from their samples.

“I have spent close to 200 hours on the electron microscopes this summer, more than many materials science graduate students get during their entire time at the University, so I have become quite proficient on many of the electron microscopes here at Penn State,” Harbinson said.

Harbinson sees his work as a complement to what he is learning in the classroom.

“This experience has given me a greater understanding of my field and how very little of materials science would be possible if not for characterization methods like electron microscopy,” Harbinson said.

Another student is Connor Mosebey, junior majoring in chemical engineering, who was trained in the X-ray scattering lab by Nichole Wonderling, X-ray scattering manager with MRI, and Gino Tambourine, lab assistant with MRI.

“Connor is a bright young man and he learned operation of the X-ray diffraction and other instruments quite quickly,” Wonderling said. “Within just a few weeks Connor was able to provide meaningful support to our staff.”

Mosebey’s role as an undergraduate research assistant in the MCL included work in the X-ray lab, particle sizing, and ultraviolet/visible spectroscopy.

“Being familiarized with all these techniques as an undergrad has been an invaluable experience that will help me throughout my future career, wherever that may take me,” Mosebey said. “I am forever grateful to MCL and Nichole for taking me on this summer and providing me with such a rare opportunity for someone this early in their college career. This experience has introduced me to a multitude of interests that I did not even know I had prior to this experience. My time here at MCL has undoubtedly illuminated many academic and career paths for me that never would have happened otherwise.”

Anthony Diaz-Huemme, a junior in materials science and engineering, worked with Jeff Shallenberger, MCL associate director and Stapleton. Diaz-Huemme received a variety of experience during his two summer months with MRI. He performed sample prep methods for triple argon ion beam polishing system and learned how to operate surface characterization equipment to study surface topographic features of a series of treated samples for an external partner of MRI and pitched in on a variety of other small characterization projects.

His summer work was Diaz-Huemme’s first job in his chosen field, something he found remarkable given he is an undergraduate student.

“I have had the benefit of working hands-on with samples and machines that many of my fellow students only dream of seeing,” Diaz-Huemme said. “I met some incredible people on the cutting edge of their fields, and they welcomed me with open arms. I have been blessed by my colleagues’ willingness to explain things to me, and some have even let me test samples myself when they thought I knew enough to do it safely.”

An added benefit of Diaz-Huemme’s MRI work experience is how it made him realize he has chosen the correct field for himself.

“Working at MCL has given me a taste of the many applications of a materials degree and applying what I’ve learned in the classroom has given me encouragement about my future,” Diaz-Huemme said. “Now I am choosing classes that really interest me, and since I have a better idea of what I feel more inclined to, my education has a much more personal feeling.”

The “experiment” of having undergraduate students has been so successful, Wonderling said they are planning to add a student position and are also having Mosebey continue his work in the MCL during the fall semester.

“The good news is that he will be continuing with us in the fall semester at a reduced load while he takes classes,” Wonderling said. “I am looking forward to watching him continue to learn and contribute to our team.”

 

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“I have had the benefit of working hands-on with samples and machines that many of my fellow students only dream of seeing. I met some incredible people on the cutting edge of their fields, and they welcomed me with open arms.”
—Anthony Diaz-Huemme, junior materials science and engineering major