How does a young woman who started out in community college get to do research in nanotechnology for her Ph.D. in science and engineering at the world-renowned Oak Ridge National Laboratory? The answer: UDC.
Eva Mumbua Mutunga graduated from the University of the District of Columbia in 2014 with a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering with a focus in nanotechnology.
“I got a great foundation at UDC, and the teachers were absolutely wonderful,” she told me over the phone. “You feel valued as a student. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had.”
Mumbua Mutunga also found she was ahead of the curve when she arrived at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville for her graduate studies. As a student at UDC, she had already published journal articles and presented her research at conferences, accomplishments more typical of the second or third year of graduate school.
I learned about Mumbua Mutunga and met other students when I visited the nanotechnology lab with Pawan Tyagi, the professor who heads the program for the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UDC’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The Nanotechnology Application Laboratory consists of three laboratories that carry out very different functions.
“The first focuses on theoretical simulations and modeling to predict and understand the properties of novel nanotechnology devices,” Dr. Tyagi explained to me. “The second is called a micro-nano fabrication laboratory and dedicated to producing actual nanomaterials-based devices for advanced computers, energy harvesting, and biomedical sensors.”
The third lab is equipped with an atomic force microscope and other devices used to measure the properties of the nanotechnology developed by the students.
Dr. Tyagi and his undergraduate research students are focusing on three technologies: biomedical sensors to explore brain chemistry, solar cells that take advantage of the spin property of electrons (spintronics) rather than their charge, and nanodevices that use the electron spin characteristic to advance the logic and memory of devices for next generation computers.
Tyagi focused on nanotechnology when he received his doctorate from University of Kentucky in materials science and engineering in 2008. He did postdoctoral work at John Hopkins University. In 2010, UDC hired him to support its renewable energy educational initiatives. He accepted, not knowing much about the school’s direction, but attracted by the university’s small size and location.
In his five years at UDC, Tyagi has raised $800,000 in grants from federal agencies such as National Science Foundation, Air Force Office of Sponsored Research, and Department of Energy to improve UDC’s research capacity. His work with students is even more remarkable.
“UDC’s students’ caliber and motivation surprised me,” he said. “I quickly realized that proper research training, availability of resources, and mentoring for these students could bring world class research accomplishments and inventions to the UDC campus.”
It quickly became clear as I met students in his lab that Dr. Tyagi himself seemed to attract the high-caliber and highly-motivated students. I had to continue to remind myself these were undergraduates. They were enthusiastic and eager to talk about their research.
Tobias Goulet worked as a photographer for some years, then as a high-end furniture maker. He said he arrived at UDC after something of a midlife crisis.
“I wanted to do more with my life,” he said. “Make a contribution.” UDC was available and not an expensive risk. He decided to try mechanical engineering. Goulet, now a sophomore, presented his work on nanospintronics devices in January at the Magnetism and Magnetic Material international conference in San Diego. He is developing a solar heater for public housing. He showed me the device and is in the process of perfecting it.
Then there is Collin Baker. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from SUNY-Stony Brook and moved to DC to work in international relations. After about eight years, he too needed a change. Again, UDC provided an inexpensive opportunity to try something new.
Baker started at the university four years ago. He was instrumental in setting up the Nanotechnology Application Laboratory and has been working in the area of molecular spintronics devices for future computers. Baker has coauthored seven peer-reviewed publications from UDC. His recent research entitles him to be on several more publications this year. His experience at UDC, he said, has exceeded his “wildest expectations.”
Beachrhell Jacques (whom we’ve met before) and Edward Friebe were conducting research on a novel form of neurochemical sensor for their senior capstone project. Their recent research findings about nanoscale device fabrication have been accepted for a presentation at the American Society of Mechanical Engineering conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Jacques and Friebe were applying to Ph.D. programs with the hope of building on their research at UDC.
Denikka Brent had come to UDC from Virginia because this was the only university that offered her a scholarship in engineering and had a women’s basketball team. Brent is working on application of nanotechnology to solve challenges in 3D printing. Very recently, Brent and another mechanical engineering student, Tyler Saunders, won the second place in the multi-university student competition at North Carolina Agriculture and Technological University. Their work was evaluated by experts from industry and a national laboratory.
Their contributions to the research will continue to be recognized as future classes build on their work. Tyagi highlighted the efforts of one former student, Christopher D’Angelo.
Soon after Tyagi arrived UDC, this new student from Wilson High School crossed his path. Tyagi found D’Angelo possessed the extraordinary ability to grasp highly complex concepts involving quantum physics and advanced mathematics. Tyagi also discovered D’Angelo was a programming whiz. D’Angelo developed software for simulation and modeling nanoscale molecular spintronics devices. His work is so integral to the nanotechnlogy lab, his name is still attached to the many journal articles this lab churns out.
It is clear that Dr. Pawan Tyagi is a pied piper for many mechanical engineering students. And at heart he is a teacher. He has written journal articles and held workshops for professors at UDC on how to engage students through active teaching. He is proud of sending his students on to good jobs or graduate schools. Tyagi enjoys the challenges his students throw at him. And they enjoy the stimulating learning environment he creates.
Nanotechnology is likely to revolutionize the world of medicine. Researchers are optimistic that this unique technology will clearly transform the diagnosis and treatment strategies of various fatal illnesses. Some of the possibilities are in a trial stage on the basis of which future evolution is being estimated.