First-year students Brett Bentkowski, Alainna Conroy, and Jake Lininger have embarked on a special journey that will lead them more than 4,000 miles overseas. Living on campus this summer, Conroy of Cleveland, Lininger of Pittsburgh, and Bentkowski of Brunswick (all ’21) are flying high with chemical research. Under the direction of James Kercher, Ph.D., assistant professor and chair of the chemistry department, these students have built their own computer-chip sensors on an aviating drone that they use to study combustibles in the atmosphere around the James H. Barrow Biological Field Station. They are also investigating a chemical called methylbutane as a second part to the research.
But, why are they using a flying, unmanned vehicle with this high-tech gear?
“It really is a teaching project. They spent a lot of time just figuring out how to do it. This is teaching them how—giving them the tools they need—to do research in Switzerland,” says Dr. Kercher, hinting to a future step the students will take with their research.
“It’s for data collection,” adds Bentkowski, a biomedical humanities and future biochemistry double major who is aspiring to be a trauma surgeon. Bentkowski explains that the project is designed to find out more about gases and other air conditions so that other scientists can expand on their research.
So, what exactly are the students doing right now?
“We are mapping out atmospheric changes in different areas over the field station. There is open land and lots of trees. We are trying to get data over the water and inside the tree canopy. We map that with a GPS and look for trends in the data points,” says Conroy, a biomedical humanities major and basketball player pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant.
Conroy has also learned how to work with computer chips. In fact, her first learning task was to create a scoreboard while discovering how to program the chips they built.
As for the methylbutane studies the students are conducting, Bentkowski breaks it down: “Energy, when the chemical is breaking apart, can leave through different paths, and one of them involves more work for the electrons. Even when the easier route is open, the methylbutane still chooses the harder route. We have been using computers to look at this closer.”
However, this experiential learning internship has not just opened these students minds to this one field of science. They are also learning more about responsibility and failure.
“I’ve learned that somebody isn’t always going to be walking with you through each step, and it’s important to be able to do things on your own…and to learn to do things on your own,” says Lininger, an intended chemistry major and volleyball player who lifeguards and teaches swimming on the side.
Bentkowski describes “flexibility” as the most important lesson he has learned thus far from the project. “We spent five weeks just building the parts for collecting the atmospheric data. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, Jake will get the spreadsheet from the drone and it’s full of info, and sometimes there is nothing there. So, it’s just being able to be flexible and being not afraid to fail,” he says.
Eventually, the students will have the opportunity to conduct further research in Switzerland at a lab called the Paul Scherrer Institut, which is home to the Swiss Light Source.
“There, we will look at single molecules, shine light at them, and watch them fragment. We measure how much energy it takes and how long it takes for them to do so. We will get at the fundamental quantities that can be used in atmospheric models,” says Dr. Kercher, who has been readying the Switzerland lab for his students.
“It gives us the opportunity to learn outside of a classroom setting and to use the skills that we learned in the classroom. We apply them to what is going on in the world…and then possibly make discoveries and write papers about it,” says Conroy. “I wanted to see if research was something I wanted to do with my career path, and I wanted to learn the research side of science. It’s a great opportunity that is very hard to pass up, especially when we are getting to go to Switzerland!”
Lininger smiles and says, “I knew I always wanted to do research, and I really like chemistry. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity when it presented itself. I saw it as: You are offered a trip to the moon. You don’t really ask what seat you’re in. You just go along for the ride.”