Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Undergrads in the Lab

From ice core collection to infectious disease detection, even freshmen work in Thayer research labs.

By Kathryn LoConte Lapierre
Photographs by John Sherman

They don’t do coffee runs or make copies.

When undergraduates work in faculty research labs at Thayer School, they devise and conduct experiments, operate high-tech equipment, and gain real-world investigative experience and skills. “You are part of the whole process. The undergrads are not relegated to doing busy work that isn’t important or isn’t relevant. Most undergrads are working on projects that are a huge part of the lab,” says engineering major Bridget Shaia ’15, who has been working in the Dartmouth Biomedical Engineering Center with Professor Douglas Van Citters ’99 Th’03 ’06 ever since she took ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering. “At Thayer it’s really easy for an undergrad to get involved,”  Shaia says.

First-year students can find research internships either through Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project (WISP), a program cofounded in 1990 by former Thayer associate dean Carol Muller ’77, or through Thayer’s recently launched First-Year Research in Engineering program. At any time, an eager email or a knock on a professor’s door can also lead to lab work that can last until graduation—or even beyond.

In the following, nine Dartmouth undergraduates tell us what they’ve learned about research—and themselves—in their time in Thayer labs.

Beichen Dai Undergrads in Lab

Beichen Dai ’16

LAB: Bioimpedance
P.I.: Professor Ryan Halter

RESEARCH: We are developing a kind of thermal imaging for patients with prostate cancer. After a surgeon has removed the prostate, we heat up the surrounding tissue. Based on the cooling properties of the tissue, this new kind of imaging will be able to differentiate between the tissue around the prostate and the prostate itself so that surgeons can immediately tell whether they’ve missed a spot, helping them cut better margins.

MY ROLE: I started out by making a circuit, taking a piece of steak, and connecting some infrared LEDs to it. I used a temperature sensor to watch the meat heat up—to show that with the LEDs I could actually get the meat to heat up. I plotted everything, and then we moved on to trying to make the temperature increase more significant. I used SolidWorks to design a ring that could hold 16 infrared LEDs. I printed it out on Thayer’s 3-D printer and then heated up the meat again and again. Now I use a heat gun to heat up the meat, and then I take a video with a thermal camera. I run code that I’ve written and construct the images.

WHY THIS LAB: Professor Halter’s website listed robotic surgery as one of his specialties, and I thought it sounded really cool. I emailed him and we met a week later. It’s awesome to be able to just email a professor and hop on a project right away.

THE EXPERIENCE: It’s been really helpful to be surrounded by grad students who are much more experienced than I am. There’s always someone working next to me, and I can ask them questions:  “I’m trying to write this code and this is what I want to do. Do you have any ideas on how I can move forward?” I’ve learned to think of different ways to accomplish one thing and to not be discouraged when one thing doesn’t work. If something doesn’t work, scrap it and try something else. That’s okay. That’s research.

WHAT’S NEXT: I want to make an impact in the medical engineering field, whether on the physician side or in the medical engineering industry side. I haven’t decided yet.

Karen Jacques Undergrads in Lab

Karen Jacques ’17

LAB: Ice Research
P.I.: Professor Ian Baker

RESEARCH: We are studying soluble impurities in polycrystalline ice. There are impurities in ice, such as glaciers, just about everywhere, and we are working to see how the different impurities affect the rate at which ice grains grow, to see whether there’s a significant difference between the impurities and pure ice. We’re starting at very small scale, but seeing how different impurities affect the world at a larger scale will translate to something such as the impact on the ice caps. Global warming and what is happening to the ice caps affects water levels, which in turn affect the world around us every day.

MY ROLE: I run the trials and collect all the data. I cool a glass plate in a dry ice and methanol bath and drop a single water droplet onto the plate. When the droplet freezes, I shave it down and set it up under a microscope that’s equipped with a time-lapse camera that takes pictures of the ice grains as they shift into place. I use MATLAB to analyze the time-lapse images. We then create graphs of the growth rates of each trial.

WHY THIS LAB: I applied through the Women in Science Project my first year. They have a giant list of programs that match mentors and mentees. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but working in an ice lab sounded interesting. I really like the program, and I applied to stick with Sophomore Scholars through this year.

THE EXPERIENCE: Coming in my freshman year, I didn’t really know what research entailed. But being able to be with it from the start, I’ve gotten to see how research actually develops. Just because something goes wrong doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Even though a trial may not run perfectly doesn’t mean that you throw that data away. For instance, we weren’t getting the growth rates we expected and that led us to look into whether or not temperature has a bigger role in the grain growth than we thought it would. That led us to tweak our procedure. Being able to work hand-in-hand with the Ph.D. student and Professor Baker and to see how research progresses has helped me so much. Doing research as an undergrad is one of the best things Dartmouth has going for it.

WHAT’S NEXT: I am pre-health right now. When I graduate, I will have already had a head start on people who may never have done research before. Even though I’m not an engineering major, I still get to see how you would take ideas that you’re learning in a classroom and apply them to research. It’s a way to see how studies interact with the real world.

Sarah Hammer Undergrads in Lab

Sarah Hammer ’15

LAB: Energy Biotechnology
P.I.: Professor Lee Lynd Th’84

RESEARCH: My research focuses on using microbes to break down and convert cellulosic biomass, such as switchgrass, to ethanol, which can be used as an alternative fuel.

MY ROLE: I focus on the phenomenon by which microbes utilize switchgrass as a substrate for ethanol production. The microbes under investigation are unique in their ability to break down the complex carbohydrates in the switchgrass into soluble carbohydrates such as glucose and xylose. My first project in the lab aimed to compare different bacteria based on this desired capability. If you take samples of switchgrass, put each in a separate bottle with a different strain of bacteria, and ferment them under identical conditions, which bacteria does the best job at breaking the switchgrass down into simple sugars? Once I confirmed that Clostridium thermocellum was the best among the candidates tested, I’ve focused on trying to improve the yield of simple sugars from switchgrass in the presence of C. thermocellum. Subsequent work found that ball milling, the mechanical rubbing of the grass particles, in-between stages of fermentation with C. thermocellum significantly increases the amount of carbohydrate that’s able to be solubilized. I’m learning that without added chemicals or large costs, you can use a simple mechanical mechanism to greatly increase yields.

WHY THIS LAB: When I came to Dartmouth, I was interested in chemical engineering, biology, and sustainability. I was inspired by the work done in Professor Lynd’s lab, which integrated all of these interests. Since working in his lab, I’ve grown a passion for alternative fuels.

THE EXPERIENCE: I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work in research laboratories as an undergraduate. Many of my friends at other universities have not been able to work in any labs, or not until their senior year. Dartmouth enabled me to participate in laboratory research since my freshman year. It has really enriched my experience as an undergraduate, allowing me to apply concepts that I’ve learned in my coursework directly to real-world problems, and to feel that I’m contributing in some way—albeit small—to the scientific community. Something special about the Lynd lab is its sense of community. It has provided me with a group of people of all ages who I feel like I can connect with and talk with about science. Our conversations have been inspirational and have helped me decide to pursue a Ph.D.

WHAT’S NEXT: My experience in the Lynd lab has helped prepare me for graduate school, and participating in full-time research as an undergraduate certainly played an important role in my acceptance to graduate programs. It has also confirmed my passion for laboratory research, specifically in the field of bioenergy.

Victor Borza Undergrads in Lab

Victor Borza ’18

LAB: Infectious Disease Detection
P.I.: Professor Jane Hill

RESEARCH: We’re studying chemotaxis—how bacteria move. Bacteria have flagella, little tails that act like a propeller. Certain chemicals cause the flagella to spin in a particular manner. If the flagella spins clockwise, for instance, the bacterium will be propelled forward. If it spins counterclockwise, the bacterium will turn around. We’re looking at how different chemicals trigger different responses and how they get the bacteria to move. Understanding the movements can be useful in designing therapeutics. Once we understand what bacteria are attracted to and why they’re attracted, we can go about understanding the causes of infection much better.

MY ROLE: We make capillary tubes and load them with a certain attractant or repellent. We insert the capillary tubes into small bacteria cultures and see if they move into the tube. If they move into the tube, then we know they’re attracted to that substance. We can then quantify the attraction by growing the bacteria from the tubes on plates and seeing how many grow.

WHY THIS LAB: I’ve found infectious diseases very
interesting—being able to see what attracts bacteria to an infection site, and then questioning whether we can invent therapies. I like research because I like to solve problems, to build things, to create solutions, and I love analyzing how things work. This seemed like a perfect fit.

THE EXPERIENCE: The First-Year Research in Engineering program was really interesting because usually undergraduates don’t have that many opportunities to work in labs, especially in their first year.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m interested in doing an M.D./Ph.D. program when I graduate. Starting research early is a great way to build connections with the professor and then become more involved in interesting projects.

Teresa Ou ’15

LAB: Analog
P.I.: Professor Kofi Odame

Teresa Ou

RESEARCH: We are developing a small, unobtrusive, wearable cough monitor that attaches to your chest, detects whether you are coughing, wheezing, or having some other types of symptoms, and sends the data to a smartphone. For people who have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or other respiratory conditions, being able to track their symptoms can help them avoid hospitalization. The device would also help parents monitor the health of children with respiratory problems.

MY ROLE: The cough monitor picks up some noise from chest movements, and I’ve been developing algorithms to clean up that noise. I’ve been working on MATLAB code and working with data to see how well it can be cleaned up.

THE EXPERIENCE:  Even as a freshman I was able to get involved with research at Thayer. I have the chance to try to learn new things on my own and apply them. A lot of the work that I’ve been doing for research doesn’t draw that heavily from what I’ve learned in my classes. I’ve had to learn through reading research articles, talking to Professor Odame, or asking him for resources I should look at. The skills that I’m learning are applicable to real life. Last summer I did an internship at a communications company, and I didn’t really know anything about communications or satellites. But the skills that I learned from my research helped me have confidence that I would able to learn things on my own for that job.

WHAT’S NEXT: I will be pursuing a master’s in electrical engineering at UC Berkeley.

Lloyd May Undergrads in Lab

Lloyd May ’18

LAB: Infectious Disease Detection
P.I.: Professor Jane Hill

RESEARCH: We’re studying chemotaxis, how bacteria move and what attracts them and what repels them. The lab is doing work with infectious diseases, mainly focusing on early detection of tuberculosis.

MY ROLE: We’re still in the training phase, learning how to treat bacteria. We’re using MATLAB programs and learning how to count colonies. We’re using spectral analysis and working with E. coli K12 before moving on to Pseudomonas, which can be dangerous if you don’t work with it in the right way.

WHY THIS LAB: I am a part of the First-Year Research in Engineering program. One of the main things that drew me to Dartmouth was the fact that I could do research as an undergrad. It’s cool to learn about the math and sciences in class, but applying it in real life and actually doing research really appealed to me. Professor Hill’s work with infectious diseases drew me because if patients are HIV positive, normal TB testing can sometimes produce a false positive or a false negative. Growing up in South Africa, I had a lot of friends who were negatively affected by TB in their families. I know what TB can do. Also, I’ve always been interested in molecular and cell biology, and this is right up my avenue.

THE EXPERIENCE: In Professor Hill’s lab we have Women in Science Project students and First-Year Research in Engineering students, and it’s cool how those two programs complement each other. In our lab, we have people who have similar academic interests but come from such diverse backgrounds. We have varsity athletes, we have people who are pre-med, we have people who are interested in economics, and everyone works toward the same goal. I think one of the best ways to work is through experiential learning. Research gives you a love for the lab. The hands-on learning perspective and seeing theory used in real life is a big takeaway.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m interested in biomedical and chemical engineering. I’ll probably do a master’s degree. Then I’d like to go back to South Africa and work at an engineering firm there. But you never really know what the future holds. I might fall in love with something really obscure during my master’s. Whatever I do, I’ll be far more prepared because I’ve worked in an actual research lab.

Bridget Shaia ’15

LAB: Dartmouth Biomedical Engineering Center
P.I.:  Professor Douglas Van Citters ’99 Th’03 ’06

Bridget Shaia

RESEARCH: The lab centers around orthopedic implants. When surgeons remove a failed implant, they send it here. We work with companies that design the implants to figure out why they’re failing and how the designs can be improved.

MY ROLE: When someone gets a knee replaced, the lower part of the implant, the tibial tray, is attached to the top of the tibia with an acrylic-based bone cement. For my thesis, I’m working on improving the strength of that interface between the bone and the cement. I do a lot of mixing cement, putting it on different test samples, and then breaking it apart. It’s active work and it’s always changing a little bit, which I really enjoy.

Many surgeons currently drill holes in the top of the tibia before they put the cement on in order to help the cement interdigitate better with the bone, but this practice isn’t regulated and there isn’t any data on the optimal way to do it. I’m part of an engineering and surgical team that is identifying the reason that these holes improve the interface strength. This knowledge will help surgeons improve patient care through optimization of the hole sizes and density.

WHY THIS LAB: When I took ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering, I built a biomedical surgical device for orthopedists. I wanted to learn more. I had heard about the lab from some older students, so that drew me in.

THE EXPERIENCE: Biomedical engineering is broad, and the lab has enabled me to see a very focused part of what it looks like in practice. I’ve developed skills in how to approach and tackle a complicated research problem: I’ve learned how to break it down, look at one thing at a time, and design an experiment. Also, it’s been a really cool experience seeing how a research lab interacts with companies that come to Dartmouth for testing or help in designing something new.  

At Thayer it’s really easy for an undergrad to get involved. You are part of the whole process. The undergrads are not relegated to doing busy work that isn’t important or isn’t relevant. Most undergrads are working on projects that are a huge part of the lab. It gives you a lot of perspective as to what you might want to be doing in the future.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m coming back next year to finish the B.E., and because of the exposure I’ve had here at Thayer in the lab, I’m really interested in designing medical devices.

Brendan Nagle Undergrads in Lab

Brendan Nagle ’14, B.E. Candidate

LAB: Nanophotonic Materials
P.I.: Professor Jifeng Liu

RESEARCH: We are using a new method to fabricate Germanium nanowires. This oxide-assisted growth method creates higher purity nanowires for making optical devices on chips.

MY ROLE: I’ve been doing the nanowire fabrication. We put down Germanium oxide on silicon and etch a trench. When you heat the Germanium oxide, the particles grow from one small site on the silicon into a wire structure about 10 to 20 nanometers thick and a couple micrometers long.

WHY THIS LAB: I did a course in my study abroad in optical electronic devices where we started learning about lasers and LEDs, and I fell in love with it. At the time I wanted to be a physics major. Then I took Professor Liu’s ENGS 24: Science of Materials class. It was a great application of quantum mechanics—all the things I loved in physics, but it was also very applicable to real life. Professor Liu is very open, very friendly, very giving, very good at explaining things. Whenever I go into his office he always has time. It seemed to be a good fit.

THE EXPERIENCE: My research has shown me that I am independent and motivated. I’ve learned to use the cleanroom and learned a lot about microscopy. I was able to use the scanning electron microscope and the transmission electron microscope. With that machine you can see planes of atoms.
I’ve learned a lot about fabrication processes. We used a lot of photolithography—which is using light to make nanoscale patterns on a wafer or in a material—to get our wires to grow in different ways. That was a very useful skill to pick up. With that I could go into chip design as an engineer at a company. Now I know a little bit about how those processes work, and therefore I’ll be better at designing things. The experience has been very helpful looking at graduate schools, and at most job interviews I’ve been on, they’re like, “You’ve done research, that’s fantastic!”

WHAT’S NEXT: I signed an offer at Oracle. I’ll be writing code that defines how a microprocessor operates.

Ellyn Golden ’17

LAB: Ice Research, Materials Science
P.I.: Professor Rachel Obbard

Ellyn Golden

RESEARCH: We look at the microstructure of sea ice, which is a layer between the ocean and the atmosphere. It’s a conduit between those two mediums for materials such as brine or bromide to move through. We’re looking at how bromide moving through the ice depletes tropospheric ozone, and what this can tell us about global climate change. We’re looking at multi-year ice versus first-year sea ice. First-year sea ice has just formed that winter.

Multi-year sea ice froze long ago, melted on top, and refroze and melted each winter and summer since then. First-year sea ice is overtaking multi-year sea ice because every summer all the ice is melting. We’re looking at whether that’s going to change how materials move from the ocean into the atmosphere. I’m demonstrating the processes behind that.

MY ROLE: I get one quarter of an ice core from Antarctica. Being careful to know which end is the top, I measure the ice core into 10-centimeter increments and cut it into 2-centimeter-by-2-centimeter cubes. I get the cubes onto a tiny copper stage that screws into the micro CT scanner. The scanner takes two-dimensional pictures, and I reconstruct the images into a 2-D model. It comes up as a smattering of black and white. The white is brine channels, the black is air pockets, and the grey in between is the ice. I do some mathematical analysis about how connected all the channels are to each other to see how easy it is for materials to move through the ice.

WHY THIS LAB: I got into this as a Women in Science Project student my first year. I interviewed with people on the earth science side of things because I knew I wanted to be either an earth scientist or a biologist. I like earth processes and rivers, ice, and glaciers.

THE EXPERIENCE: I’ve struck gold on this project in being able to work with Professor Obbard and Ph.D. candidate Ross Lieb-Lappen. Some of the things I understand, but a lot of it is also right over my head. It’s definitely been a very difficult learning curve. The micro CT scanner gives you 20 different mathematical analyses, and you have to be able to search for the one that might tell you anything. But it’s been the best science experience that I’ve ever had.

I know much more about sea ice than I thought that I would when I started out. I know how to use a micro CT scanner and an electron backscatter diffraction machine. I’ve been to Argonne National Lab to use their advanced beamline photon source. I’ve also traveled to Alaska for six weeks to collect sea ice cores. Field research is the greatest thing that you could possibly get under your belt as an earth scientist.

I’m learning what it is to be and collaborate as a research scientist. That’s not something that you get in the classroom.

WHAT’S NEXT: I will graduate with a degree in environmental earth sciences, which is earth sciences supplemented with sustainable design courses in engineering. I would like to remain in the earth sciences or the sustainability field. I could see myself keeping with my interest in ice for a long time, especially sea ice because it is so beautiful and complex.

—Kathryn LoConte Lapierre is senior editor of Dartmouth Engineer.

Categories: Features

Tags: climate change, complex systems, energy, engineering in medicine, faculty, research, students

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