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Student, professor perform research side-by-side during summer visit to national lab
10/08/13

This past summer, Alfred University (AU) junior Brennan Ferguson received the opportunity of a student’s lifetime - to visit and conduct research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Richland, WA, a national institution for scientific research supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“It’s hard to get this kind of real-world research experience as an undergraduate,” Ferguson said. “This was an amazing experience.”

Ferguson spent three weeks at the lab alongside AU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Geoffrey Bowers, who was conducting his own research in solid state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Ferguson is the first undergraduate student he has taken with him to PNNL.

“I’ve always wanted to bring an undergrad student, and she’s the first to get far enough into the program to go and be able to contribute,” Bowers explained. “It’s a pretty high-pressure environment, and I can’t spend a lot of time teaching because every second that we’re out there, the instruments have to be generating data that’s publishable.”

Bowers and Ferguson worked extensively with PNNL’s cutting-edge NMR spectrometers and microbeam x-ray diffraction instrument. Although AU has a state-of-the-art x-ray diffraction laboratory, it does not currently include either of these instruments, which allowed Bowers and Ferguson to process extremely small sample volumes quickly and precisely. Bowers spent most of his time on the NMR spectrometer, so Brennan was trained to run the microbeam x-ray diffraction instrument by herself, processing all of the samples and collecting data.

Ferguson was also trained to operate the helium ion microscope, one of only six such instruments in the country and fewer than 20 globally.

“Maybe five to 10 undergrads have ever gotten to do this,” Bowers estimated.

Ferguson, an environmental studies and chemistry double major, had previous research experience during a summer internship at Louisiana State University prior to her sophomore year, but she said that the more independent experience she gained at PNNL this summer has helped her decide what direction she wants to take after college.

“This definitely helped me decide that I want to pursue a career in research,” she said. “I wasn’t certain about grad school until this experience, but this made me realize that I want to do a lot more research.”

Bowers and Ferguson presented some of their findings at the 50th Annual Clay Mineral Society National Meeting, Oct. 6-10 at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. Bowers is also in the process of writing three papers for publication based on the data they collected; Ferguson is a co-author on all of them.

“I can’t say anything specific right now, but we opened some brand new research avenues that no one has been able to attempt before,” Bowers said of their results. “I’m excited that Brennan got to be a contributing member of making that sort of thing happen.”