High school student’s research experience at NDSU leads to publication in major scientific journal
When 16-year-old Anna Bernhardt of New Salem, N.D., filled out papers to attend North Dakota Governor’s School, she didn’t know it would jump-start her journey to become a young scientist in a major way, leading to a significant research discovery in nanotechnology.
Bernhardt attended an intensive six-week program on the North Dakota State University campus in Fargo this past summer. The Governor’s School program provides selected academically-driven North Dakota high school sophomores and juniors an opportunity to learn about science, mathematics, English, business and performing or visual arts at the university level.
The science portion of the program pairs students with a mentor scientist and a research group to further develop laboratory skills. Bernhardt wrote “physics” as her lab preference. That led to the opportunity to work with Erik Hobbie and his research team in a lab in NDSU’s Research and Technology Park.
“I had never worked in this type of setting before and didn't really know what to expect on my first day,” Bernhardt said. “The biggest benefit of working in the lab was getting a taste of the true research experience. Without North Dakota Governor’s School, I would never have been able to have this experience, and surely wouldn't be so certain that I would like to do more research in the future. Also, it was wonderful to meet and work with the people in my lab.”
While working in the NDSU lab, Bernhardt prepared single-wall carbon nanotube samples and participated in testing of the samples. “The experience of working in a research setting has helped me to decide that I would love to do more research in the future,” the young scientist said.
The daughter of Marlys and Leon Morgenstern, Bernhardt has grown up on a farming and cattle operation near New Salem, N.D. There are 28 students in her class at New Salem-Almont High School. Bernhardt said while farming operations and single wall carbon nanotubes may not be directly related, “the work ethic and having a persistent attitude definitely applied to my experience in the lab.” When she graduates from high school, Bernhardt currently plans to major in physics.
“Anna is a very hard working and focused young woman,” Hobbie said. He notes that participating in such advanced research is an unusual opportunity, not typically available to teenagers. “I would say it is highly unusual, but it was a great opportunity for everyone involved; and as a young student interested in science and engineering, it gives her a great jump on her career.”
The first day in the lab was eye opening. “Before my first day, I had absolutely zero knowledge regarding nanotubes. My first day was mostly a crash course on the research taking place, and then an assignment to read up more on what I would be working with,” Bernhardt said. “Nothing in my high school setting had brought me close to what I was dealing with here. But I adjusted, and was soon doing experiments on my own. Working in the lab was unlike anything I had done before, and was altogether a pleasant experience.”
A few things were unexpected. “The most interesting thing I learned was probably how much time and thought are put into each experiment done, and how much time is spent waiting,” Bernhardt said. “I quickly learned that research involves much waiting around. For instance, I spent many hours waiting for acetone puddles to dry.”
Bernhardt explains some of her highly technical work in the lab, using examples. “Single wall carbon nanotubes are basically a hexagonal lattice structure of carbon, rolled up into a tube. This is not how they are actually made, but it is a good way to envision their structure,” she said. There are several different types of carbon, including graphite and graphene. “Graphite is pencil lead, and graphene is a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms. A piece of graphite is put into the middle of a vacuum chamber and then a laser beam is focused on it. The pulsed laser beam hits it with high intensity and gives it so much energy at the contact point that it causes carbon atoms to fly off the graphite and the particles condense on the walls of the chamber. As these particles condense, they build up single-wall carbon nanotubes one layer at a time.”
Bernhardt notes that the driving force behind the research she did is to replace expensive materials that are essential to today’s electronics. “Indium tin oxide is a transparent and highly conductive film used in phone, computer and television screens. ITO is very rare and therefore, extremely expensive. Since it is in such high demand, the resources are being depleted and are expected to be gone in 15 years.” Bernhardt’s exacting work measured the transparency of the films in the visible spectrum at different film thicknesses for each electronic type.
The research done by Hobbie’s team, including Bernhardt, could one day impact flexible electronic devices such as solar cells and wearable sensors. In addition to Bernhardt, the research team includes NDSU graduate student John M. Harris; postdoctoral researcher Ganjigunte R. Swathi lyer and researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.
Hobbie and grad student John Harris considered Bernhardt’s contribution to the research substantial enough to include her as a co-author of an article about their research results, now published in a major scientific journal. “I was absolutely thrilled.” Bernhardt said.
Results from the NDSU research team that included Bernhardt appear in “Electronic Durability of Flexible Transparent Films from Type-Specific Single-Wall Carbon Nanotubes,” published in ACS Nano, a major scientific journal of the American Chemical Society.
Bernhardt said her experience in Governor’s School made the opportunity possible.
Another North Dakota Governor’s School graduate attests to the difference the experience made in her career. Victoria Johnston Gelling, originally from Forest River, N.D., is now an associate professor in the Department of Coatings and Polymeric Materials at NDSU. She located 30 of the 40 students in her original Governor’s School class of 1991, finding that 14 of the 30 attained doctorate, medical doctor, master’s or doctor of chiropractic degrees, and 15 of the 30 students earned bachelor’s degrees. More than half of the Governor’s School students from 1991 that Gelling located from her class, stayed in North Dakota or Minnesota.