PhD candidate in chemical and biological engineering, receives a stamp of approval from Northwestern
How did you choose your area of research?
I graduated from the University of North Dakota in chemical engineering and came to Northwestern in fall 2002, planning to go into catalysis. Before school started, I went on a department retreat where faculty talked about their research projects. I was excited by the work of Bartosz Grzybowski, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, and the idea that you can choose from interacting natural phenomena to engineer working devices. We select the components and let the process of dynamic self-assembly do the building.
Can you describe your research?
We've developed a technique to study chemistry in microscale in confined spaces. Reaction diffusion — two chemicals coming together to form a new chemical during the process of diffusion — has been well studied on a large scale but not at smaller scales. We've created a stamp the size of a penny with microfeatures that we load with one chemical before stamping it on a thin layer of gelatin that's doped with another chemical. We follow the progression of the reaction by observing the production of a brightly colored pigment. The stamp technique is versatile. It can be used to deliver chemicals in a controlled manner or to modify surfaces, etching or cutting them.
What are the potential applications for your work?
A medical group posed a problem to us about how to image living cells, and in the stamp we were able to provide an etching technique that allows them to image living cells in real time.
What's it like to work with people in cell biology and medicine?
Even though I don't have a background in biology, I'm able to communicate with those who do and be part of their research. Our lab is very interdisciplinary, with people working in theoretical and applied math, physics, organic chemistry, and chemistry. We can tell a more complete story when we collaborate.
How does that collaboration take place?
We might do an experiment and then need help modeling what's going on. There's a lot of back and forth between the experimental and theoretical.
In May you were inducted into Northwestern's prestigious Society of Presidential Fellows, one of only seven graduate students to receive the honor. How does that affect your work?
The fellowships are intended to promote scholarship across disciplines. I enjoyed the interview process, which involved 10 professors from different disciplines. We had stimulating conversations about all their work; it wasn't only about presenting my work but about gaining something from the experience of being part of the larger university.
How is being a graduate student different from being an undergraduate?
In addition to doing my research, I've taught both undergraduates and graduate students. I like being able to help others learn, and I learn by teaching them. My personal life is different, too. I got married last summer. My wife, Talia, works as a college counselor and learning specialist. Our families live in Montana, North Dakota, Michigan, and Minnesota, and we enjoy visiting them.
Any advice for incoming graduate students?
Choose a research topic that truly interests you, because you'll be spending 60 hours or more a week in the lab working on it.
McCormick by Design is published by the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Northwestern University, for its alumni and friends.
Photos: Tom Lee, Sam Levitan
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