2014 REU Program: One student’s experience as a researcher and woman in the sciences
Every summer, the ALERT center selects science or engineering undergraduate students to participate in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program. These REU students have the opportunity to work for 10 weeks on research projects related to emerging technologies for explosives detection in one of the four ALERT research thrusts.
The 2014 summer program, which ran from June 3rd – August 7th, provided participating students with full-time work experience on ALERT research, and offered meetings and activities geared to enhance professional development. A few of the students working at NEU began their involvement in ALERT research through the ALERT Scholars Program, which provides freshmen undergraduates an introduction and gateway to engineering research on campus during the spring semester.
I sat down with 2014 REU student Amanda Figueroa-Navedo, who worked this summer with Professor Samuel Hernandez-Rivera in his Standoff Detection laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, to discuss her experience as an REU. Amanda gave insight into the active role of undergraduates in research labs, the process of conducting a collaborative research project, beginning with basic research and culminating in the publication of state-of-the-art results, and her presence as a women in the STEM field.
Teri Incampo: What year are you? What is your major and what would you like to study?
Amanda Figueroa-Navedo: I am currently in my fifth year. I started out in Chemical Engineering and I am planning to switch to Chemistry.
TI: What prompted you to change to Chemistry?
AFN: First of all, I started working with Professor Hernandez about 2 years ago. I was still in Chemical Engineering and started to take one of his courses as an elective. I was involved in that course and then became involved in research and the lab. I didn’t visualize myself in the Pharm industry or the other industries that are involved with Chemical Engineering. I wanted to be more hands on. Chemistry was it for me.
“My experience has been great, as a woman, in this lab. I am glad that this interview might motivate other women in the STEM fields to do research and to get involved in the sciences.”
TI: So working in Prof. Hernandez’s lab really made that a clear choice for you.
AFN: Yes. I am very grateful to him for giving me the chance to join his group.
TI: What is your primary research interest within Chemistry?
AFN: My primary research is the crystallization of energetic materials, which is what we have been discovering this summer. When we started this project, we had other objectives, but through our research and experimentation, we found out that we could crystallize these energetic materials in different phases. It is essentially the same molecule but the position of the groups makes it more stable or more sensitive.
TI: That’s exciting! Are you currently working on a paper?
AFN: Yes. We are currently working on paper to publish in crystallography for the American Chemical Society (ACS) journals. We are almost finished. We are still figuring out chrystallagraphical and X-ray diffraction details. We are 95% done with this work.
TI: Does this fit into the big picture of what you want to study and research? You started with one idea and it evolved. Are you wanting to continue to see where this new direction might lead you or would you want to redirect to another topic?
AFN: I want to see what else we can get from this information because the energetic material we are studying is not the only material that has these polymorphs when they crystallize. We started with RDX and we are moving onto other materials, such as TNT and HMX, which exhibit this behavior.
TI: How did you learn about the REU program?
AFN: When I started working with Prof. Hernandez, he brings students from all over the country. When I started two years ago, we had a big group of REUs. I was interested because I started working on a voluntary basis and decided to apply to be an REU for this summer.
TI: Can you explain the broader significance of this research to someone who might not be familiar with Chemistry or Engineering?
AFN: The sensitivity of these crystals is significant. When you are working with energetic materials, the types of the crystals and their morphology influences the material’s sensitivity. When you want to study crystals that are more sensitive, you would apply this to detection of energetic materials, perhaps in military applications or in airports or forensic areas. When you have less sensitive crystals, it would be helpful to desensitize these energetic materials and be able to detect them; they each have their own unique signal to vibrational techniques, such as infrared and Raman Spectroscopy. We use the spin coating technique to manipulate the crystals to be more sensitive or less sensitive, which increases the library of signals that we have gathered. This will be helpful to existing libraries in the military and airport security domains.
TI: So you are not only able to expand what you are doing within the lab but catalog the results and share the information with others working in the field.
TI: What challenges did you encounter when conducting your research as an REU?
AFN: One main challenge was having so much information and so little time to explain it in the final REU presentation. Crystallography is a really broad subject and during our first weeks of research, were not expecting to study it. We had to learn a lot of it in so little time. We were really excited about his project and we still have a lot more to learn.
TI: What were some of the milestones of your research?
AFN: The breakthrough was when we were able to see the beta form crystals of RDX. Beta is not extensively reported, we only found 4 works of literature that reported it. They crystallized it by evaporating the solution. We employed a new technique and found these crystals. That is one of the first milestone. The second milestone was to incorporate two techniques to validate our results. The third milestone was to incorporate computer algorithms and Chemometrics to also validate that the behavior of the chemical signatures that we found is different. We were able to present it in a more organized and simple way. Of course, I could not explain Chemometrics in the presentation but in the paper we were able to do so.
TI: Did you work with other students, fellow undergraduates or graduate?
AFN: I worked with my mentor, a graduate student named Jose Ruiz-Caballero. He was a great influence and always had an organized calendar. He was very involved in this project, especially after our main focus changed. We had Dr. Hernandez meeting with us constantly. I also had my past mentor, Dr. Pacheco who was also a main part of past projects were they have found some beta crystals by other techniques. He was a big help in identifying these crystals.
TI: How did Dr. Hernandez help you overcome some of the difficulties, as well as achieve the goals you had during your REU experience?
AFN: The first thing he said when he met with us was to organize our ideas and take out the most important parts. My mentor and I were so motivated that we had found these startling results. We were focusing on everything. So, Dr. Hernandez gave us some perspective on the main aspects of what the publication should be.
TI: Do you think you were successful in describing this broad subject and your findings during the final REU presentation?
AFN: It think it helped me to understand better because I had to summarize especially when writing the paper [we want to publish.] When started with the introduction, we had so many ideas and so many things we need to get [across] about the main points so that we could write the first paper. We wanted to include as much relevant information as we could.
TI: For the REU presentation, you were able to work through how you were explaining it and that helped to clarify how you would approach the paper.
TI: What has been your experience as a woman conducting research in the STEM field?
AFN: This semester we only had two women in our group. My experience has been great, as a woman, in this lab. I am glad that this interview might motivate other women in the STEM fields to do research and to get involved in the sciences.
TI: What are your goals as you look towards this coming year?
AFN: This year, as far as goals, we want to control the growth of these crystals through spin coating, as well as the crystals of other energetic materials. One of the main authors that has contributed to this field is Ilana Goldberg. Through her work, I was able to understand a lot things about crystallization of this energetic material, specifically; it was part of her dissertation. I am looking forward to doing my own graduate research on this subject, as well as prepare my thesis with this new data.
TI: What are your plans, say in the next few years?
AFN: I am planning on going to graduate school. Dr. Hernandez has been encouraging me to pursue graduate studies. After that I would probably seek a doctorate degree or pursue a job that has to do with forensic information or forensic analysis.
Amanda and her research group at UPRM have continued to make progress on this project. Throughout the fall they continued to reproduce this experiment and examine more aspects of the crystallization technique. After conducting a literature review, Amanda found that their technique has been compared to other methods without promising results in crystallography. Therefore, her research group is improving the impact of the technique by using Raman Spectroscopy to work with traces of RDX. In December 2014, the team submitted their paper for review.
[Photo (l-r): REU Student Amanda Figueroa-Navedo, Prof. Samuel Hernandez-Rivera, Graduate Student Jose Ruiz-Caballero]