Friday, July 26, 2013
Summer of a Lifetime:
UNO-AMRI 2013 Summer Outreach Program
Amy Olson, a 19-year-old sophomore at LSU, returned to the UNO-AMRI research program
for the second summer. Here, she discusses her poster presentation, "The effect of
Au/TiO2 NT (and ZnO NT) on the photodegradation of crude oil."
Lacie Duplessis, 17, a rising senior at Destrehan High School, speaks passionately
about her summer research project exploring photocatalysts and their impacts on crude
oil and surface oil drawn from the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the
coast of Southeast Louisiana in April 2010.
Southern University of New Orleans student Trevor Gibbs, 28, spent his summer working
with Leonard Spinu, director, at the University of New Orleans Advanced Materials
Research Institute exploring the fabrication of SPIN crossover in ferroelectric nanoparticles.
At 17, Lacie Duplessis is at the heart of scientific exploration surrounding the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill and helping to solve problems that impact the ecosystem, economy
and people of South Louisiana.
The Destrehan High School senior spent her summer working in the research laboratory
at the University of New Orleans Advanced Materials Research Institute as part of
summer outreach program for students in science, technology, mathematics and engineering.
"I knew that it would be a shot in the dark whether I got the position or not because
there were many students who applied, not only high schoolers but college students,"
said Duplessis, who aims one day to have a career in chemical and petroleum engineering. "I
was so elated [when I was accepted]. What else to do better with your summer than
to do something productive, to do something that helps the community, not only something
that puts a little cash in your pocket, but that works toward solving a problem in
Now in its 13th year, UNO-AMRI's eight-week summer outreach program is designed to
advance research skills of S.T.E.M. students from the greater New Orleans metropolitan
area and includes chemistry, physics, biological sciences, psychology, computer science
and engineering components. The interdisciplinary program run by UNO faculty is funded
by grants from the National Science Foundation, the University of Louisiana System's
Board of Regents, the BP Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and other institutions.
About 30 students participated this summer, including seven high schoolers. The University
program is one of many ongoing efforts to engage area high school students in S.T.E.M.
subjects and engage them in research as early as possible.
"It's a life-changing experience for a lot of these students," said Professor Matthew
Tarr, chair of the University's chemistry department and program coordinator. "They
get experience that they can't get anywhere else at a very early age and that's outside
the norm -- and that makes a very huge impact on them."
Life-Changing Research, Life-Changing Experience
Duplessis, for example, aims to become a chemical and petroleum engineer one day.
She spent her summer working in an internationally recognized advanced materials research
laboratory "working on a half-million dollar instrument that high school students
never even get close to," Tarr said.
She worked as a paid research assistant under Tarr, who is conducting a research study
funded by the BP-sponsored Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). The project
studies how sunlight interacts with oil to change the composition of the oil, how
such changes affect the toxicity of the oil and how sunlight changes how easily oil
can be degraded by natural microorganisms.
Through this grant, Tarr is also exploring photocatalysts and photochemistry connected
to chemical dispersants and other variants and their impacts on crude oil and the
waters surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
To assist, Duplessis and other researchers worked with BP to collect "source oil"
-- or crude oil pulled from underground and untouched by chemicals, sunlight or other
variants – and surface oil. They ran tests to see what happened to the oil as it endured
degradation processes, Duplessis said.
Along the way, the students added chemical dispersants that were used to help clean
up the massive oil spill to the oil to see whether the dispersants helped with the
degradation of crude oil – or "just spread it around," Duplessis said. As a next step,
they added titanium dioxide – known around the world as a photocatalyst used in cleaning
pollution – to surface oil and tested it too to see whether it helped the degradation
Researchers then also ran oil samples through a solar simulator to see what happened
to the oil when exposed to sunlight.
"It's like a miniature tanning bed," laughed the high school senior, moments after
delivering a highly complex explanation about UNO-AMRI instruments that was filled
with technology jargon and complex chemical processes.
Finally, the young researchers working with Tarr and Duplessis tested nanopure water,
or unfiltered water with no nutrients or variants added, and water pulled from the
Gulf of Mexico, and tested it, Duplessis said.
The testing process involved separating the oil from the water by adding dichloromethane.
Separated oil sank to the bottom, leaving the appearance of a lava lamp, said Duplessis,
who then ran the samples through a separatory funnel and a low-pressure rotary evaporator
to prepare samples for later testing of how the oil changed after sunlight exposure.
Today, Duplessis stood poised in the hallways of the UNO Science Building delivering
a poster presentation on photocatalysts connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Conclusions included the revelation that: sunlight does naturally help to degrade
the spilled oil in its natural environment; the chemical dispersants used to help
clean up the world's greatest oil spill are also helping to speed the process; titanium
dioxide is helping too.
It's not clear which is more effective -- the chemical dispersants or the titanium
dioxide, Duplessis said. Comparisons drew widely varied results.
The final poster presentations, as well as the weekly professional meetings in which
each student participates, provide invaluable professional development experience,
said 19-year-old Amy Olson, who returned to UNO for a second summer to participate
in the UNO-AMRI program.
Olson, a rising sophomore and civil engineering student at LSU, spent last summer
studying the effect of titanium dioxide and nanotubes on photodegradation of crude
oil, she said. This year, after scientific papers hypothesized the added variants would improve the
photodegradation process, she expanded that project by adding gold nanoparticles to
titanium dioxide and nanotubes, then tested their effect on crude oil. She also tested
the effects of zinc oxide.
Olson used the same irradiation procedure she used last year, she said, but this year
analyzed the effects differently, using different instruments.
She revealed study results today with compelling visuals, a poster presentation, Power
Point speech, a tightly written abstract and her name on a professional paper written
as a research publication.
"I learned to communicate my research better and that's maybe more important than
research," Olson said in a moment of reflection, emphasizing: "It's not just what
you find. You have to do something with it. You have to learn to share it with other
Olson, who hopes to go to graduate school for environmental engineering, believes
that the research laboratory and professional development experience she has gained
the last two summers will help to open doors.
"It's definitely impressive when you have high school or undergraduate students show
up and they have research experience. That's rare," the undergraduate said.
"I just love working in the lab setting. It's just a wonderful opportunity and wonderful
experience to get to learn in a lab and ask questions. You learn a whole lot in a
short period of time."