Name: Steven Back
Type of Project: Research
For my STEP experience, I decided to work in a research lab in the Chemical Engineering department at Ohio State. The research lab I worked in was the Catalytic Material Design group, a group that researches heterogeneous catalysts and finds new ways to apply these findings to industry and to advance other areas of catalysis research. My project involved developing a novel way of immobilizing catalyst molecules onto mesoporous silica.
I feel that I discovered a lot about myself through my project. I had never had the opportunity to participate in such an open-ended problem solving endeavor as research offered. I remember listening to my survey teacher freshman year telling our group about research opportunities that we could participate in and thinking that there was no way I was creative or smart enough to participate in that, but now I have overcome that barrier I set up for myself and have contributed to the field before I have even graduated, and that is a wonderful feeling. I discovered that I have what it takes to be a researcher and come up with new ideas. I also assumed that graduate school was not for me. I did not really want to take the extra time to pursue a master’s degree or a doctorate, and felt that I would be better off completing my bachelor’s degree and going into industry. I now think that I might want to go to graduate school and complete a higher degree. This has opened up my career options and gotten my thinking about what I really want to do with my career.
One event that led me to realizing that I could do research and had skills in open ended problem solving is when I discovered a new solvent interaction in lab. My project involved testing the interactions between MIDA boronate and silica surfaces. MIDA boronate was found to “stick” to silica surfaces under certain solvent conditions and flow freely in under other conditions. I began thinking about these interactions and started looking in academic journals to see how much people had investigated these interactions. What I found was that few people had taken the time to examine these interactions in much detail. I then set up a series of experiments involving thin layer chromatography testing of the MIDA boronate in different solvents to see how it moved. The silica used on TLC plated allowed me to test this movement on a small scale and allowed me to predict how it would move when placed on mesoporous silica materials of interest. What I found was that it was completely immobile when used with DCM, which was completely unexpected. This discovery allowed me to advance my project. I found that when I put in the effort, I had the capacity to discover new things on my own.
A relationship that I developed through the STEP experience was a relationship with my lab PI. Never before had I had the opportunity to interact and work with a professor as closely as I did through my research experience. We had weekly meeting to discuss my progress where he could offer advice or answer questions that I might have and I turned in detailed reports every month that recorded my thoughts, progress, and literature that I had read. Through these interactions, I was able to effectively apply his input to my own work in order to enhance what I could have produced completely on my own. My interactions with my lab PI allowed me to discover how much I really knew and the friendship I forged will be a great asset in the future.
Interacting with my lab PI as well as grad students I worked with were the main cause in my change of thinking about graduate school. Research offered me the unique opportunity to talk with and work with graduate students who had made the decision to advance their education beyond the bachelor level. We discussed what we wanted to do after college extensively, and through bouncing ideas off of them about my future and listening to them talk about why they were earning their advanced degrees opened me up to the idea of doing something besides going into industry. This has opened up a wide range of possibilities for my future that simply did not exist before.
These changes are very significant and valuable to me. I had always wanted to work in a lab and discover new things. I think that this dream is common one that many kids develop when they think of scientists at a young age. They want to wear the white lab coat and blue gloves, and mix chemicals while discovering new things, and I was no different. I had the opportunity to live out my childhood dream and found that I could do what I had originally dreamed of doing when I was a kid. Forging relationships with high level people in my lab will be very helpful in the future. Whether I need a letter of recommendation, advice on my future, or just someone to bounce ideas off of, forging the relationships I did with the members of my lab will be very useful in the future and will allow me to do what I want to do with my degree.