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Seeking Green Energy Solutions, Students and Faculty from Stern College and UNH Join Forces

As part of a new educational experience designed to restructure the way undergraduates are trained in science and engineering, students at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women participated in hands-on advanced nanoscience and nanotechnology research at Brookhaven National Laboratory on April 11.

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Students toured the Brookhaven lab and used its National Synchrotron Light Source, a ring in which electrons are accelerated and also a source of powerful x-ray radiation, to study why platinum and other expensive noble metals are efficient as catalysts in chemical reactions and how new and better catalysts could be designed. The research has implications for the development of important alternate fuel sources.

“Bringing Stern students into this facility, not just to see it, but to participate in research here is the best way to demonstrate the fundamentals of modern sciences like physics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetic theory and other disciplines that they study in the classroom, while also showing them the multiple paths available to solve scientific problems,” said Dr. Anatoly Frenkel, professor of physics at YU.

The idea of involving students in research at Brookhaven took shape when Frenkel was awarded a $572,802 joint National Science Foundation grant along with Dr. Xiaowei Tang, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of New Hampshire, to design and investigate a new class of catalysts for ethanol oxidation that would replace the currently used platinum-based catalysts, which are extremely expensive and less efficient. Since a portion of their research will take place at Brookhaven, Frenkel’s research base, he and Teng created an educational component for the program that could be taught in science courses for undergraduate and graduate students.

In the pilot stage, Frenkel and Teng brought their students to Brookhaven for a short experiment that focused on the basics of advanced scientific concepts like quantum mechanics, waves and optics, and crystallography, as well as modern engineering concepts in catalysis, energy science and nanoscience. Undergraduates from Stern and UNH worked together under the mentorship of graduate students from UNH and Frenkel’s postdoctoral student, emphasizing an aspect of modern science that doesn’t always translate to the classroom: collaboration and partnership between disciplines and institutions.

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Frenkel with students from his Intermediate Experimental Physics course at Brookhaven.

“The coolest thing for me was getting to see a national laboratory,” said Davida Kollmar, a physics major in Frenkel’s Intermediate Experimental Physics course. “There’s high demand for the chance to perform experiments at Brookhaven, which means that there are groups working there around the clock. We were able to conduct experiments in a prominent lab where professional scientists are doing their research, and participating in Dr. Frenkel’s project helped us learn more, not only about his work, but about what experimental physicists are doing in general.”

“This initiative fit perfectly into the philosophy of the science departments at Stern, where the combination of classroom teaching and involving students in advanced research is essential to helping students better understand physics and whether or not they want to pursue a career in research,” said Frenkel. “These decisions are potentially life-changing, and both YU and UNH are uniquely positioned to help our students make informed decisions through this joint program.”