Friday, July 26, 2013

Summer of a Lifetime:
UNO-AMRI 2013 Summer Outreach Program

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 the community."

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 process.

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.

Professional Development

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 people."

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."


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