Undergrad Research STEP

My step project focused on conversion of commonly found biomass into molecules that can be converted into many different things like petrochemicals, acids and hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). I worked in Dr. Brunelli’s catalytic materials design group in the Chemical Engineering department for the duration of last spring and summer and after with a focus on increasing the yield of the precursor to HMF, fructose from glucose. While fructose is considered a rare monosaccharide, glucose is considerably more abundant and is used as the starting material for my research.

Currently, the fossil fuel consumption rate is occurring at an unsustainable rate. As such, alternative sources of energy must be found and harnessed to avoid an energy crisis in the future. An area of study is research on the conversion of saccharides into units that can be used as a substitute for petroleum/ petrochemicals. The idea is to use glucose, a highly abundant monosaccharide as a starting material to form products that can be used to produce energy. The isomerization of glucose to fructose is an important reaction because it’s currently a bottleneck that inhibits the fructose dehydration reaction to HMF because fructose is a rare sugar, so HMF cannot be produced in abundance. HMF will later be used as a starting material to produce petrochemicals and as an extension, energy. My project focused on the isomerization reaction between glucose and fructose using borate salts and involves the use of a zeolite (a nanoparticle) as a catalyst.

When I first started the step project, I imagined myself as an eager student willing to put long hours of work into a research project that I found interesting. However, as I quickly learned, research is much more than just the willingness to put forth hard work. Research is a process that takes many hours of hard work just to end up with an undesired or unexplainable result at the end of it all. Although I enjoyed most of my time in the research lab, I don’t have the same eagerness I once had for wanting to get into a research project. From this step experience, I learned that if I do not have a clear goal in sight that I’m striving for, I’m going to be hard pressed to find any interest and ability to enjoy what I do. The idea of working for no real go in sight has made me reconsider the idea of committing into the research world. With that said, however, my time working in Dr. Brunelli’s lab was in no doubt enjoyable and was a very intensive learning experience.

In the beginning, from before the project started, I did an extensive amount of background research and journal digging to find relevant information on my topic. Initially, I was intimidated by the sheer quantity of scientific jargon I had to file through to get to the meat of the subject and the level of scientific proficiency I need to be at to understand it. But after the first ten or so papers, I slowly grasped just what is going on in the papers and began to understand the papers section by section starting at the end with the results and conclusion. In my mind, understanding the whole picture began from the conclusion of what the researchers intended to do as well as what they accomplished. This process went on for several weeks until I had an inkling about what I will try and attempt in the lab setting. After I accomplished a sufficient amount of reading into scientific literature that was approved by Dr. Brunelli, I began my project with one of grad students, Nitish Deshpande.

When I started on my project, I had many meetings with Dr. Brunelli and Nitish to straighten out my understanding of the system. There were many times in the lab and during reading the research articles that I felt dumb and out of my depths because I could not grasp the seemingly easy topics that were later explained to me. In one of the first couple of days, Nitish asked me a couple questions regarding the kinetics and thermodynamics of the system and I was able to answer those with acceptable theoretical precision, but the last question about what the borate species did in the system left me dumbfounded. I couldn’t come up with an answer in that week that I pondered. In the end, he led me to the answer that the borate species served as a trapping agent that removed fructose from system and by le Chatelier’s principle, the equilibrium proceeded towards the side with less fructose. As time went on, I continued to feel confused, as what I attempted in the lab did not work the way I intended it to and more questions than answers popped up that I struggled harder to find a conclusion to. Compared to the simple questions posed in class, where the questions ultimately had a single correct answer, there was no such thing in the real lab world. Sometimes when I run an experiment meticulously, to try and mimic the procedure done in a journal, I’d get results that were in no way like theirs and from there, I’d try and figure out what I did wrong.

In the handful of times I presented at the group meeting, I was only able to express what I felt was a superficial understanding of the system as well as an inadequate explanation of what was going on in the system I was working with. These group meetings broadened my view on scientific research and realized just how difficult it is to come up with any sort of meaningful result that people will care about. Even with my faults and problems I faced on a daily encounter, I still found joy being in the lab, working hard to try and explain the unexplained phenomenon I saw while doing experiments. Once I enter the lab, even if I was only doing trivial things like chores and refilling the acid/base bath or washing the glass ware, the time would fly by and leave me wondering how I was able to spend several hours doing what on the surface appeared to be mundane affairs. From my experience in the lab and working with the wonderfully didactic Dr. Brunelli and Nitish Deshpande, I can with no doubt say it was a fantastic experience and I would not spend another minute of my life any different if I were able to turn back time. The knowledge and frustrate I’ve gained from working in Dr. Brunelli’s lab is an invaluable asset that has completely turned my naïve understanding of lab work upside down and makes me question if research is the proper place for me in the future.

This opportunity to work as an undergraduate research assistant has provided me with valuable information on what working in the lab is like and has made me reconsider my goals of going into graduate school. While the research and lab work are interesting, I’m not sure my constitution and mental duress can stand up to the test of time most graduate students have to go through to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy diploma in their field. This experience made me reconsider my future goals and aspirations and I am currently in a state of limbo, with no true goal tied to my person with a hollow dream that I once had. Research has met and well exceeded my expectations as being a draining field and exactly because of that, I am currently considering all my options intensively. You could say this was a transformational experience.

Poster presentation

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