Professorship money enables undergraduate students to conduct senior research

Evan McHale, a senior studying materials science and engineering, uses a laser deposition machine at the Millennium Science Complex for his research on lowering the crystallization temperature of materials used as energy storage capacitors. His research is part of his senior thesis. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

An endowed professorship is opening doors for two Penn State students to obtain laboratory experience as undergraduates. These materials science and engineering majors, Atraphol Sae-Tang and Evan McHale, are conducting research for their senior theses in the Millennium Science Complex with Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Steward S. Flaschen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Their respective research may be just the beginning of larger, innovative projects at Penn State.

Sae-Tang’s thesis involves the chemical solution deposition of materials used to produce piezoelectric materials, which are used to convert electrical and mechanical energies within widely used electronic devices, such as humidifiers, smartphones and airbag sensors.

“I’m trying to find an alternate process that can replace the lead in the chemical composition of traditional piezoelectric materials,” said Sae-Tang. “There’s been a push for environmentally friendly materials, which includes lowering the amount of lead.”

McHale’s thesis focuses on lowering the crystallization temperature of a bismuth zinc niobate, a material used as an energy storage capacitor. The capacitors accumulate large amounts of energy, which make them candidates for devices that require high levels of power to operate, such as industrial lasers, heart defibrillators and hybrid vehicles.

“My work involves growing a thin film and patterning electrodes onto the film before eventually testing their electrical properties,” said McHale. “This helps me to measure how good of a capacitor I actually have, and I’m trying to make them suitable for low-temperature applications.”

Both students expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to conduct research in a lab setting.

“Getting firsthand lab experience that helps to prepare me for industry or graduate school has been very beneficial for me personally,” McHale said. “I’ve learned more in the lab than I could just through a classroom because what I’m applying is no longer just theory out of a textbook; it’s real-life experimentation.”

“By doing work in the lab, I can give potential employers or graduate schools the opportunity to see me go beyond the classroom with what I’ve learned at Penn State,” said Sae-Tang. “I can show how committed I am to the fields of materials science and engineering.”

Sparking their interests

The students first became interested in their research topics after finding success while taking MATSE 400 Crystal Chemistry, taught by Trolier-McKinstry, professor of ceramic science and engineering, and electrical engineering.

Trolier-McKinstry researches the fundamental mechanisms that contribute to the properties of materials, as well as how to integrate new materials into devices.

“Much of my research revolves around dielectric materials, which are electrical insulators, and piezoelectric materials, which convert between electrical and mechanical energies,” said Trolier-McKinstry. “We use these materials all the time without knowing it.”

Applications for Trolier-McKinstry’s research include biomedical ultrasound imaging, heart defibrillators and adjustable optics, including for a potential next-generation X-ray telescope.

“I focus on miniaturizing these devices and making them more efficient,” she continued.

The students said that Trolier-McKinstry has been instrumental in helping them successfully conduct research.

“Dr. Trolier-McKinstry has been incredibly helpful,” said McHale. “She has taught me so much about materials science and has helped me with every step of my research.”

Sae-Tang added, “I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to get one-on-one help from someone like Dr. Trolier-McKinstry. Not only is she my thesis adviser, but she is also a personal mentor in and out of the classroom.”

The seeds for future research projects

Trolier-McKinstry lauds the opportunities that professorships afford to support senior students’ research because of the potential for larger projects down the road.

“Professorships allow faculty like myself to test new methodologies with students and to complete research that we may not otherwise conduct,” she said. “Then, if we decide that we have something we’re interested in pushing further, we can apply for additional financial support to help it blossom into a larger project.”

Last Updated March 13, 2017