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Concrete Results: Nanotechnology Undergraduate Research Experience Interview

The SENIC Undergraduate Internship in Nanotechnology (SUIN) program is a major component of the Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor (SENIC), at the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology at Georgia Tech, that focuses on providing undergraduates in engineering the chance to spend a summer conducting research in a world-class collaborative lab with prominent Georgia Tech researchers. GT-IEN hosted 6 undergraduates from various U.S. colleges over the summer that engaged in hands-on research in a number of fields of nanotechnology.

Over the months of the 2016 Fall Semester, the IEN will be highlighting each of the six undergraduate participants, their research topics and experience in the labs, as well as what they gained from the program and their time at Georgia Tech, and in Atlanta. Our first interviewee from the program is Michael VanderZwaag, an undergraduate in Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan.

Name: Michael VanderZwaag
Mentor:  Bill Jin and Behnaz Zaribaf
PI: Kimberly Kurtis, Professor and Associate Dean: Civil and Environmental Engineering

1. What sparked your interest in engineering and what problems are you hoping to help solve as an engineer?

Like most engineers, I’ve always enjoyed math and science.  I joined my middle school’s Science Olympiad team and won medals, in the areas of robotics and automation, which sparked my interest as a kid.

As an engineer, I enjoy the process of solving problem. I hope to work on an innovation that impacts society in a positive way.  I like my current research because we are studying concrete, the most widely used man-made material in the world, so the potential for impact is great due to the tremendous amount of concrete used globally.

2. What research are you conducting at GT and what applications do you feel this research may have?

I am working on manufacturing greener concrete using Titanium dioxide nanoparticles.  TiO2 is added because of its photocatalytic ability, which means that in the presence of UV Light it catalyzes a reaction that converts nitrogen oxides in the air into nitrates that are absorbed on the surface of the concrete.  This is beneficial because nitrogen oxides are primary air pollutants that contribute to the formation of acid rain and urban smog.  The ultimate goal of the project I am working on is improved corrosion resistance in concrete.  Corrosion resistance is provided by the nitrate ions once they are bound to the cement phases.  Improved corrosion resistance has the ability to increase the lifespan of concrete structures, which will reduce infrastructure maintenance costs and lower carbon dioxide emissions.

These new types of green concrete will be of increasing importance as, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the nations’ roadway infrastructure faces a need for $170 billion, annually, to alleviate congestion and improve performance. Additionally, one in nine of the country’s bridges is considered structurally deficient, creating a huge chance to improve structures with new materials as they are replaced by necessity.

3. What has been your favorite research activity thus far and why?

My favorite activity has been mixing concrete.  I don’t mind getting my hands dirty and it’s a relatively simple but still interesting process.  I’ve also done a lot of micro and nanoscale analysis in the cleanroom during my time here at Georgia Tech and I enjoy the chance to see the larger scale application of the research we are conducting.

4. Do you feel this REU experience has helped prepare you for working in a collaborative laboratory environment and furthered your education goals?

The people I have met and worked with, both in the SUIN program and in the Kurtis lab, have been the highlight of my research experience so far.  It’s really beneficial to work with such intelligent people who all come from different backgrounds and the collaborative nature of research is something that I’ve enjoyed. 

Prior to this REU experience, I didn’t know much about grad school.  It has been tremendously informative about both the process of applying to grad school, the different processes for obtaining funding to further my education, as well as the opportunities that a graduate degree can provide.

5. What are your plans post-undergraduate?

At this point, I’m still undecided on my post-undergraduate plans.  This research experience has led me to more seriously consider attending graduate school and pursuing a career in research. 

6. What is your impression of GA Tech and ATL? What have you done outside the lab?

The Georgia Tech campus is really impressive—everything is really new and nice, especially the Campus Recreation Center.  Working out there has helped me get back in shape during my time here.

I’ve also enjoyed exploring the city of Atlanta with my roommates from the SUIN program.  We went cliff jumping in the Chattahoochee River last weekend, which was terrifying but awesome.