Socially distant ugrad research?

If you happen to follow any PUI Chemistry professors on social media, you’ll know that one of the more depressing aspects of the pandemic has been its devastating effect on undergraduate research opportunities. Summer research programs have been canceled and – obviously – any projects started during the first half of the now-finished semester were squashed.

Or were they?

My research group – Bespoke Scientific Instrumentation Design (BSID) – is build around the premise that scientific instrumentation should be more broadly accessible. Typically, what we mean by accessible is open hardware and software designs that allow end-users to customize instrumentation to fit their research directives or to lower the price point of entry-level instrumentation to facilitate educational research opportunities. However, in these virus-stricken times, accessibility has taken on a new meaning.

When I learned that our school was closing, I sent my students home with some electronics, papers, and a mission: think about how you can advance your research and try something. Two of my students took the charge to heart and made not-insignificant progress on their individual projects. Below, in their own words, are short summaries of their socially distant independent research efforts.

Nate is working on a laser power meter that we need for a Raman spectrometer we are building. This is his first experience with electronics, programming and engineering.

I am working on the beginnings of a more accessible raman spectrometer. This involves coding and wiring an Arduino circuit to turn on a laser pointer and provide measurements of light intensity with a photoresistor. I also had to home engineer something to hold the laser pointer to give consistent results before I could take data. Then I started taking data to see how light intensity recorded is affected by different conditions, such as distance. Work from home isn’t much different except communicating with my advisor, since the point is to be more easily accessible than standard lab equipment it’s also easier to relocate and use outside of a lab. Besides research, I have mostly been working on my classwork and playing video games since at this time of year I would usually be watching baseball. 

Megan has been in my research group for a number of years, and while her thesis project requires a 3D printer with better resolution than what she has access to at home (her Dad has a printer), her task was to see if she could reproduce the work in one of my published articles.

Over the past few weeks, I was able to see BSID in action—I have been working on making my own OMIS! I printed the body with my dad’s 3D printer and followed Dr. LeSuer’s paper for the assembly. I only have to install a few more parts and it’ll be ready to go! Other than that, I’ve been working on my literature search so I can get a good background and foundation for my thesis. I’ve learned about positive displacement pumps, looked into different valve designs, and read about some ways other researchers are making instrumentation more accessible. 

While I am ready to say goodbye to social distancing and return to the face-to-face teaching and learning opportunities I enjoy, I am happy that my students were able to demonstrate how our research program has taught them to “think outside the box”,with the box in this case being a traditional laboratory room.

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