January 14, 2008

Creating Interest in Nanotechnology

Briana Hecht ’08 reflects on her nanotechnology research with James Ferri, associate professor of chemical engineering

Briana Hecht ’08 (Chestnut Hill, Mass.) is a Marquis Scholar majoring in chemical engineering. Hecht worked as an EXCEL Scholar with James Ferri, associate professor of chemical engineering, researching the nanotechnology educational initiative. She presented this research at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, in November. The following is a first-person account of Hecht’s experiences with the EXCEL project.

Nanotechnology has the potential to solve the public health need for more accessible, private, and affordable methods of diagnosis. New advancements in medical technologies are made possible by engineering at the nanoscale. These are thoughts we hope intrigue first-year students during the new nanotechnology segment of the chemical engineering portion of Introduction to Engineering.

Traditionally, chemical engineering education has focused on the discipline being about the development of manufacturing processes from bench-scale chemistry to large scales, i.e. scale-up. Trends toward miniaturization, particularly in the life sciences, have driven chemical engineers to consider the inverse problem, scale-down. An example of scale-down technology is a microfluidic device, which is the teaching tool we use during the nanotechnology segment.

Dr. Ferri and I, along with collaborators at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., have developed an integrative design experience for students based on microfluidic technologies. Students in the first-year engineering course are presented with motivations for production of microfluidic devices, including the devices’ potential role as diagnostic technologies for global public health. Students are introduced to photolithography and soft lithography, which are methods used to create microfluidic devices, and are given the opportunity to fabricate a microfluidic lab-on-a-chip as well as assemble and flow test their device.

I first became involved with this educational initiative this past summer while I was doing nanomembrane research with Dr. Ferri. I helped design the microfluidic patterns that were transferred onto silicon wafers that are used during the lab experience. This past semester, I have had the opportunity to teach part of the fluid dynamics lesson that is presented to the students. For me, this has been a great lesson in pedagogy as well as a great way to express my enthusiasm about nanotechnology to younger students.

Our ultimate goal in this educational effort is to stimulate intellectual curiosity in emerging technologies in chemical engineering at a younger age. We have already seen positive response to this new addition of the first-year curriculum, and we hope this continues as the nanotechnology segment develops further. Recently, we presented our research on microfluidics education at the annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. From this experience, we were able to hear constructive feedback from other educators and professionals in industry about our work.

My educational research with Dr. Ferri has been a great supplement to my research in nanomembrane fabrication, which I have been doing since junior year and has evolved into my senior honors thesis. My interest in medicine aligns well with Dr. Ferri’s research background in synthetic, biodegradable, and biologically-derived nanomembrane synthesis and characterization. Nanomembranes have unique mechanical and transport properties that make them great candidates for potential technology in, for example, time-controlled release of medicine via biocompatible nanocapsules or nanomembrane films that can act as scaffolding for tissue engineering.

Participating in nanotechnology research has broadened my view of chemical engineering, and has been a major part of my education at Lafayette. I am so grateful to be having such unique research opportunities as an undergraduate student. Collaborating with Dr. Ferri has been such a rewarding experience and I know it has afforded me invaluable research, analytical, and communication skills that I will carry with me after I graduate.

Hecht is president of Lafayette’s chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Residence Hall Council. She serves as a member of the planning committee for the Lafayette Leadership Institute Conference and has served as a peer tutor, team captain of club tennis, and as a part of the 2006-2007 Technology Clinic.

Hecht has worked on previous EXCEL projects, including research in the self-assembly of biocompatible colloidal polymers and research in the biological degradation of perchlorate. Her current honors thesis research involves the synthesis of protein-based nanomembranes.

  • Five Students Presented Research at National Conference
  • James K. Ferri Receives NSF Grant for Cutting-Edge Research in Nanotechnology
  • EXCEL/Undergraduate Research
  • Chemical Engineering

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