Nanomaterials Research at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI)

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Introduction

The ability to engage in undergraduate research in nanomaterials profoundly influences students' self-perception as learners and scientists. A study by Plass et al. (2024) addresses the barriers to impactful research at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs; institutions that award fewer than 20 Ph.D. degrees a year) and proposes strategies to overcome them. The challenges that PUIs face in performing impactful nanomaterial research at the undergraduate level include heavy teaching loads, small departments where nanomaterials researchers may be isolated, limited facilities, and a lack of graduate students. Effective strategies to enable undergraduate access include giving students’ agency within a modular research structure, establishing peer-mentoring communities, and facilitating external collaborations. The study also highlights the importance of enhancing undergraduate access to transmission electron microscopy (TEM), a vital characterization technique often lacking at PUIs.

Nanoscience and undergraduate research are crucial for developing new nanomaterials and creating a diverse pipeline of future scientists. Undergraduate research experiences are transformative, encouraging participation and retention in STEM fields, particularly among underrepresented groups. However, significant barriers exist at PUIs, including limited access to advanced instrumentation and heavy teaching loads. Franklin & Marshall (F&M) College has developed strategies to enable broad participation in impactful nanomaterials research. Key strategies involve modular research structures, peer-mentoring communities, and low entry-barrier, high-impact projects. Specific research efforts include phase-selective syntheses of copper chalcogenides, investigations of plasmonic behavior, and post synthetic transformations (PST). Delong Instruments offers a Low Voltage Electron Microscope (LVEM) that takes only 10% of the space that a conventional TEM would and has simplified facility requirements. This allows the instrument to be more affordable and accessible for small labs.

High-Impact Research with Low Entry-Barriers

Selecting high-impact research areas with low entry-barriers and modularity is crucial for undergraduate research at PUIs. Post synthetic transformation (PST) of nanoparticles is a promising field, allowing quick mastery of specific tools and encouraging peer collaboration. This approach facilitates the design of new nanomaterials through cation and anion exchange reactions. Students can synthesize various derivative products, including nanoheterostructures, using PST. Combining different PST methods, such as cation exchange with metal deposition, provides innovative research opportunities.

Improving TEM Access for Undergraduates

Access to advanced nanoscience instrumentation, particularly TEM, is a significant challenge for undergraduate research at PUIs. The Plass lab addresses this by acquiring a LVEM by Delong Instruments. Undergraduates at F&M have routine access to the LVEM 25 microscope, allowing for size and shape measurements crucial for nanoparticle research. The LVEM 25 is a compact electron microscope that is more affordable and has fewer facility requirements than a classic electron microscope. The ease of use and low barrier to entry make the LVEM an ideal choice for undergraduate research.

Creating Supportive Research Communities

Creating flexible opportunities and mentoring is vital for fostering supportive research communities and engaging undergraduate students in nanomaterials research. Supportive communities provide essential training in an intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive environment. The Plass lab implements flexible, team-based undergraduate-led research, focusing on peer-mentoring to enhance productivity and inclusivity. The lab has adopted shorter, flexible research experiences, including summer programs and academic year credit courses. Peer-mentoring within research teams allows experienced students to train and support their peers, promoting collaboration and leadership opportunities. This structure enhances students' research experiences by providing agency, promoting collaboration, and fostering a sense of community.

Conclusion

Innovative approaches to undergraduate nanoscience research at PUIs can overcome known challenges and engage numerous students in high-impact research. By leveraging research communities and combining peer and near-peer mentoring with infrastructure development, including the use of the LVEM 25 microscope, a strategic model for engaging undergraduate researchers in post synthetic nanoparticle transformations is created. Efforts to enhance inclusivity and collaboration foster innovation and peer mentoring, integrating computational and experimental work, and training the next generation of nanoscience researchers.

The LVEM 5 benchtop electron microscope offers high-resolution imaging and nanoscale resolving power in the world's only desktop TEM design. Capable of operating in TEM, SEM, and STEM modes, it is both affordable and user-friendly, making it an ideal tool for universities and research institutes focused on nanoscale work. The LVEM 25E is an all-in-one compact transmission electron microscope, combining three imaging modes, TEM, STEM, and SEM, and two analytical modes, ED and EDS, into a single, self-contained instrument. For more information on incorporating electron microscopy into your curriculum, please contact us.

Summary by Emma Melanson

Nanomaterials Research at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution: Transforming Nanorods, Undergraduate Research Communities, and Infrastructure, Katherine E. Plass, J. Kenneth Krebs, Jennifer L. Morford, Raymond E. Schaak, Joshua J. Stapleton, and Adri C. T. van Duin, ACS Nanoscience Au 0, 0, pp, DOI: 10.1021/acsnanoscienceau.4c00005

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