17 Visiting Students Conducting Green Research

The 2009 students in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at New Mexico Tech pose on campus. In front (from left) are Jin Cheng, Arisleida Sanchez, Brittaney Obienu, Guadalupe Gonzalez, Katie Kaminski, Julia Holland, Nikki Rendon and Ana Helreux. In back (from left) are Seth Ferrey, Mitchell Nakai, Bobby A. James Jr., Chad Bryant, Kyle Mascaritolo, Gabriel Palomino, Eric Morris and Elizabeth Vogel. Not pictured: Cynthia Tilley


SOCORRO, N.M. July 1, 2009 – Seventeen visiting undergraduate students have embarked on a two-month journey through interdisciplinary research projects at New Mexico Tech.

Through the Research Experience for Undergraduate program, 15 students from around the country are working on seven environmental research projects with seven teams of Tech professors. Another two students are in Socorro sponsored by the state of New Mexico’s EPSCOR project.

Roughly 1,000 universities in the United States host REU programs every summer, funded by the National Science Foundation. The students live on campus for two months and conduct individualized projects designed by Tech professors to expose students to multiple disciplines, various laboratories and practical studies.

This year’s class includes eight students from New Mexico and El Paso, plus students from Tennessee, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Georgia, Connecticut and Puerto Rico.

“From the start of this program at Tech in 2005, we have offered collaborative projects,” said Dr. Michael Pullin, chemistry professor and project director. “We want an interdisciplinary approach because that’s the way science is done in the real world.”  All of the projects have an environmental focus or application.

Julia Holland, a visiting student from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, said she was excited to work on a project that integrates biology, chemistry and geology. She is working on a project to examine microbes in desert soils and how soil microorganisms contribute to their formation.

Holland has experience doing geologic field work; however, she is getting her first experience in a chemistry lab, which she appreciates because she is interesting in pursuing a career in geochemistry.

“A lot of college students find environmental topics very compelling,” Pullin said. “They might not make a career of it, but, for summer research, it’s a good way to get involved.”

Brittaney Obienu is a junior at New Haven College in Connecticut. Her career ambition is to be a forensic chemist, but she applied for the internship with Dr. Corey Leclerc to work on alternative fuels.

Brittaney Obienu in chem lab
Brittaney Obienu, a visiting student researcher from New Haven College in Connecticut, works with the gas chromatograph in the New Mexico Tech chemical engineering lab in MSEC.

“This gives me great lab experience,” she said. “I’ll be able to say that I’ve touched this area, which will help me become a better scientist.”

The program began May 31 and ends August 1. All participants receive $3,900 and are provided housing, meals and travel expenses.

Now in its fifth season at New Mexico Tech, the program has attracted students from larger schools, like the University of Florida and Michigan State, as well as smaller schools, like Ashland University and Kalamazoo College.

Pullin, who has been the program director since its inception, has several goals in selecting students. He gives priority to students at regional Southwest universities, particularly those in New Mexico. He also wants to bring in students from schools that don’t focus on research to give them opportunities they might not otherwise receive, including tribal colleges, such as Diné College and SIPI, and community colleges, such as San Juan College.

Ana Heureux, a rising junior at Brown University, said her internship has allowed her to get both field work and lab experience.

“A lot of this lab stuff I learned in class but never thought I’d need to know it,” she said. “Now, I am really using it.”

While Tech professors put their heads together to devise projects of interest to them, the students do the bulk of the work, getting significant experience with laboratory instruments and in the field, Pullin said. Many of the research projects could lead to publications as well.

Brief descriptions shed light on the complexity and interdisciplinary nature of the seven projects.

Catalysts for Environmental Applications

Dr. Corey Leclerc, of the Department of Chemical Engineering is leading the team that is examining the conversion of glycerol to value-added products.

Glycerol is a byproduct of the process of making biodiesel. The chemical has some industrial uses, but more is created than can be used globally. Leclerc’s team has an ongoing research project to find a cost-effective way of breaking down glycerol into other useful chemical compounds.

Kyle Mascaritolo in lab
Kyle Mascaritolo, a visiting student researcher from Georgia Southern, works in the chemical engineering lab.

Students Kyle Mascaritolo and Brittaney Obienu will work through July, along side Leclerc and a postdoctoral researcher on a variety of projects to identify the best methods of converting glycerol to other useful chemicals.

Mascaritolo is a chemistry major at Georgia Southern. Obienu is a chemistry and forensic science major at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

Mascaritolo was looking for an internship that was focused on lab work.

“I’ve used a gas chromatograph many times before,” he said. “I knew exactly what was going on and I jumped right in. I wasn’t interested in doing field work that was more like anthropology or geology. This project interested me because it’s physical chemistry.”

Obienu said she had learned about instrumentation, but never used a gas chromatograph before. She said she is enjoying working in the lab and operating the instruments.

Dye-sensitized Solar Cells

Dr. Michael Heagy, of the Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Paul Fuierer, of the Department of Materials and Metallurgical Engineering, are leading a team that is studying the chemical reactions between organic dyes and metal oxides in photovoltaic cells.
Gabriel Palomino and Arisleida Sanchez Carpio will work with Heagy to search for an efficient electron transfer from dye to metal oxide and work on synthesizing metallic dye compounds.

With Dr. Fuierer, the students will learn about fabrication, characterization and testing of dye-sensitized solar cells.

The combination of research into organic synthesis and into material engineering will give the students exposure to all aspects of new photovoltaic device research and development, Heagy said.

In the late 1990s, scientists discovered that organic dyes using titanium oxide can act as photo-receptors in solar cells – and are significantly cheaper.

Palomino, a chemistry student at El Paso Community College is synthesizing new varieties of organic dyes and charactering their chemical properties.

Working with Fuierer, Sanchez are further engineering the titanium oxide to function as a solar receptor. They aim to produce a new ceramic microstructure that will further enhance the efficiency of the titanium oxide. Sanchez is a chemical engineering major at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez.

Heagy and Fuierer have been working for about three years on this project through a Department of Energy grant. This is the second year that they’ve put REU students to work on the project.

Green Organic Chemistry

Dr. Ingo Janser, of the Department of Chemistry, will oversee a team investigating chemical reactions of catalysts in water and the potential medicinal applications of the resultant compounds.

The team has divided their work into three steps: (1) identifying novel water-soluble ligands, which are complex metal-based chemicals; (2) examining their reactions in waters and the resultant chemicals; and (3) testing the new chemicals as potential anti-cancer agents.

Students Cynthia Tilley, of the University of Texas at El Paso, and Elizabeth Vogel, a Tech student, will get a complete chemistry experience.

Ecology of Acequias

Shannon Rupert, doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, and professor Lisa Majkowski, of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tech, are examining the ecological system of irrigation canals in Mora County, N.M.

Acequias are manmade irrigation systems that, in many cases, are many centuries old. These irrigation systems are largely believed to increase local biodiversity, extend the riparian zone, and protecting the hydrology of the watershed.

This project will test that hypothesis, examining the effects of this diversion of a natural resource on the ecology of an area. Through a scientific study of an acequia system in Mora County, the team will be able to determine to what extent these benefits to local ecology are realized and how the acequias may hinder or help natural processes and the environment.

Three student – Chad Bryant, Bobby James and Mitchell Nakai – will map the Mora River watershed and the acequias, then add GIS data on vegetation, soil type, geology, ownership, land use, water use, as well as historical land and water use from the headwaters of the Mora River throughout Mora County.

Bryant is studying natural resources/GIS at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque. James is studying engineering and Nakai is studying computer science, both at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz.

The students also have developed an ecological experiment, dividing their time between fieldwork in the Mora area and lab work and group activities at New Mexico Tech.

“These acequias are historic,” Majkowski said. “They’ve been there for hundreds of years and relied upon by many communities for irrigation, but they’re not well documented.”

The affect of acequias on the local ecology is also not well understood, Majkowski said. Some stretches of the Mora River are dry where water is diverted for agricultural use.

The students will work in the field to study the plant diversity in various regions of the acequia. All three students have good background in geographical information systems, or GIS. Using GIS technology, they’ll map the ecology of the acequias to determine relationships of topography, flora, evapotranspiration and other ecological factors.

Medicinal Compounds from Native Plants

Dr. Wim Steelant and Dr. Michael Pullin, both of the Department of Chemistry, are leading a team that is studying the medicinal properties of two native Southwest plants.

The majority of all medicinal compounds today are derived from natural sources. The long-term goal of this project involves identifying the biologically active components in osha and yerba mansa, two plants traditionally used by Native Americans to treat a variety of diseases, including cancer.

Seth Ferrey and Catherine Kaminski will focus their summer project on (1) collecting and identifying plants from the environment, (2) screening plant extracts for biologically active components; and (3) isolating and identifying the biologically-active compounds.

Ferry is biochemistry major at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Kaminski is studying biochemistry and computational math at Asbury College in Kentucky.

Microbes in Desert Soils

Four professors have organized an ambitious project to address a debate about desert soils – Dr. Tom Kieft, Department of Biology, Dr. Michael Pullin, Department of Chemistry and Dr. Peter Mozley and Dr. Bruce Harrison, both of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Ana Heureux in lab
Ana Heureux, a visiting student researcher from Brown University, works with desert soil samples in Michael Pullin's chemistry lab in Jones Hall.

Students Ana Heureux and Julia Holland are examining the role of microorganisms in the breakdown of carbonates minerals in soil. Much of the carbonate-rich soil on the planet is in arid and semi-arid lands. The mechanisms by which soil carbonates form are still poorly understood. In fact, a controversy exists as to whether desert soils are currently net sources or sinks of atmospheric CO2.

The students will use field observations and laboratory experimentation to study the soil chemistry, examine the relation between soil and plant life and characterize the microbial life present in soils.

Heureux is studying environmental science at Brown University. Holland is a geoscience major at Trinity University in Austin, Texas.

Holland said she has done a lot of geology field work, but the chem lab work is a new experience. The pair of students, along with Tech graduate students, started by collecting soil samples from three locations along the Rio Grande. This week, the research team was extracting and oxidizing microbial cells to determine their biomass.

Deserts represent potentially large carbon sinks, Mozley said, but the potential for trapping or releasing carbon dioxide in caliche soils has not been adequately examined.

“If anything increases the carbonate in the soil, like microbes, that carbon will come from the atmosphere,” he said. “Alternatively, if anything destabilizes these soils, that carbon could be released into the atmosphere. There are interesting societal implications related to greenhouse gasses.”

Mozley said only preliminary research has approached the subject. Among Earth scientists and chemists, there is some disagreement about the processes active in desert soils.

“We’re trying to collect data to settle the argument,” he said.

Engineering Drug Delivery Vehicles

Dr. Michaelann Tartis, of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Dr. Snezna Rogelj, of the Department of Biology will lead a project that examines novel methods of delivery anti-cancer drugs.

Liposomes are tiny bubbles of biologically inert materials that can be filled with anti-cancer agents or other medicines. These drug-delivery vehicles can then be triggered via external agents, like light or heat. Theoretically, they can entrap virtually any drug molecule.

Students Jin Cheng and Guadalupe Gonzales are designing, creating and characterizing liposomes, then assess their performance with human cancer cells.

Both chemistry majors, Cheng is a student at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, while Gonzalez is visiting from Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y.

Tartis’ on-going research focus examines improving delivery of hydrophobic anti-cancer drugs via liposomes, which are manmade cell-like capsules that are biologically inert.

The students are making new liposomes, characterizing them to determine how efficiently they can contain medicinal compounds and testing new anti-cancer agents.

Currently, the medical profession uses commercial formulations of liposomes to deliver medicine, but they’ve predominantly are used to encapture hydropholic drugs – compounds that do not dissolve in water.

“If you were to deliver them intravenously, they’d aggregate in blood vessels,” Tartis said. “Liposomes provide a method of encapsulating hydrophobic drugs. Many anti-cancer drugs have been discovered by chemists that can’t be easily utilized.”
Program Climate Change Hydrological Sensor Deployment

New Mexico Tech hydrology professor Dr. John Wilson is overseeing two students who will assist in a study of surface water changes related to climate change. Students Eric Morris and Nikki Rendon will help deploy of an array of sensors that will detect chemical changes in surface water.

Morris is studying electrical engineering at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M. Rendon is studying biology and math at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich