Internships: China trek offers independence, challenges
Junior Lidia Kuo and sophomore Ronen Wdowinski, both materials science and nanoengineering majors, agree that their internships at China’s Shandong University was an opportunity for hands-on experiments. But the newly launched partnership between Rice and the Chinese university’s Joint Center for Carbon Nanomaterials has room for improvement.
“I’m interested in energy and water sustainability,” said Kuo. “So my project related to that. I used nitrogen-doped graphene foams, which have been shown to be effective absorbent materials, and then grew carbon nanotubes directly on top of the foams using chemical vapor deposition. Carbon nanotubes add surface roughness to the structure of the nitrogen-doped graphene foam, which increases the hydrophobic properties of the material and enhances selective oil removal from the surface of water.”
Kuo said she hopes the research can be applied to oil spill clean-ups. She will present the findings from her summer internship at the Materials Science and Technology 2016 conference in Salt Lake City in October, and is continuing her research here at Rice during the 2016-2017 school year.
“I had a lot of independence to work on the project,” said Kuo. “My mentor, Eric Lee, was a help in the lab, though.”
Wdowinski was assigned a mentor as well, when he began his work in the lab. He and Chad, as Wdowinski nicknamed him, were studying the thermal applications for carbon nanotubes.
“Carbon nanotubes have strong thermal conductivity along the tubes, eight times higher than copper,” explained Wdowinski, “but are insulated radially. This has the important application of transporting heat and electricity over long distances with minimal dissipation.”
Both students said the time they spent in the lab was valuable, but Kuo noted that they were alone for nearly three weeks because the university was on summer vacation and no one communicated that very well to the interns.
“That reduced productivity a little bit,” said Wdowinski. “We were left sort of wondering where everyone was.”
“That’s definitely a place where there could be improvement,” agreed Kuo. “The independence was great, but I feel the internship could use more structure in the future.”
Kuo and Wdowinski said they enjoyed their time in China, however. Neither had been before, and from its location in Jinan, Shandong Proveice, they had the chance to soak up some culture. A favorite experience for both was climbing Mount Tai, one of the country’s culturally significant peaks. The mountain has served as a place of worship and is often associated with birth and renewal. Kuo and Wdowinski began their trek to the summit after dark, climbing for nearly six hours, and watching the sunrise at the apex.
“It was so weird,” said Wdowinski. “A bunch of us were up there, looking toward the horizon, and suddenly there was this bright red ball of ‘whoa!’ It was extraordinary.”
Wdowinski also hiked the Great Wall of China at a later date. He went to a particularly eroded and unrestored, and less traveled, region. He said it was an amazing view, a slice of human engineering in a mind-boggling natural expanse.
Kuo said that she enjoyed learning about Chinese culture, especially discovering that there were more women than men in the lab where she was interning. Before she arrived, she’d expected the opposite.
“I also learned how much pressure there is on Chinese students to find good jobs and to get a house,” she said. “All the students I talked to felt that was something they had to achieve early on.”
Kuo said her internship allowed her to see the impact research can make on society, and gave her a preview of what graduate school would be like. She said the experience confirmed her passion for research, especially in materials science and sustainability. Wdowinski has developed an interest in 3-D printing and is hoping to create better technologies for it.
While there may have been some bumps in the road along the summer, both engineers say the experience was worthwhile.
“China was awesome,” said Wdowinski. “I’m a big fan.”