With more than 1,600 products using nanotechnology on the market, a team of undergraduate researchers at NDSU is examining how people perceive such products and how these products might ultimately affect the environment.
Six NDSU students from North Dakota and Minnesota form an interdisciplinary group representing multiple majors. Led by Achintya Bezbaruah, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, the Nanoenvirology Research Group concentrates on weaving several research areas into a single team that gets results.
“Interdisciplinary research is vital in the area of environmental nanotechnology,” said Bezbaruah. He tells his students to move the heavier stones first when conducting research. “Work hard on the right job. Show your intellect and get published,” he said.
Amanda Grosz, a senior in civil engineering from Bismarck, N.D., works on molecular-level interactions of nanoparticles on plants to determine their environmental impact.
“We need to know what the potential effects of nanoparticles are and see if there are ways to shield any potential negative effects or maximize any positive effects,” said Grosz. “The project I am working on is figuring out the fate and transport of engineering nanomaterials in plants. I work in allium studies. This involves growing onions in nanoparticles and seeing if there are abnormalities in their root growth.”
She also investigates potential abnormalities in the root cell division process.
Her work, along with other undergraduate research students in the group, has been published in conference papers. “I have learned perseverance because experiments don’t always go as expected,” said Grosz, pointing out that often, experiments need to be refined until necessary parameters are tested and controls properly identified.
James Tibbles, a freshman in mechanical engineering from Shoreview, Minn., is being trained to follow up on Grosz’s research after she graduates in May.
“The team and I study how materials less than 100 nanometers in size affect plants. We are looking to see if plant DNA and replication are affected,” said Tibbles. “We try to figure out if there are any long-term effects on the plants and if so, why it is happening.”
The research is important to determine if industrial products and byproducts containing nanoparticles will affect the surrounding environment, according to Tibbles. “The reason we check to see if the nanoparticles are harmful to plants is that we consume plants and depend on them for oxygen. If nanoparticles affect the plants, they could affect us.”
Cody Ritt, a freshman from Hamel, Minn., majoring in civil engineering, works on the mechanism of phosphate removal using novel polymer and nanoparticle-based adsorbents. He is working to take a current nanopolymer product, changing it to maximize the amount of phosphate that the product can absorb, evaluating its durability and researching how well the product performs in harsh conditions.
“This research is important because phosphorous is killing our lakes and we are working on our product so that it can remove the phosphorous from our lakes,” said Ritt. “We would like to be able to extract the phosphorous that is ruining lakes and use it for a good purpose, as it is a non-renewable resource.”
Ritt’s involvement in undergraduate research has had unintended consequences. “Using my time to solve problems in the environment has captured my attention and my imagination. I often find myself outside of the lab thinking of different ways to approach my research. It really has been a great experience for me.”
Analyzing public perception
Another member of the interdisciplinary team, Hannah Hood, is a sophomore from North Saint Paul, Minn., majoring in psychology. She works with Neal Dittrich, a senior from Champlin, Minn., majoring in business administration.
The two NDSU students are working to correlate people’s perceptions about nanotechnology-based products with Bezbaruah and Rajani Pillai from the NDSU School of Business. For example, will certain technologies be accepted by people who have concerns about nanotechnology and its potential impact on the environment? Dittrich thinks the undergraduate research opportunity at NDSU provides him a better perspective on market research. Hood reviews how education, gender, geography and past technologies affect the perception of nanotechnology.
“I am mainly focused on public perception of nanotechnology, which is a combination of research, statistics and psychology,” said Hood, who is writing a scientific paper about their research findings. “Through literature and other studies, we have been able to detect trends and bring something new toward our knowledge about nanotechnology and the public.”
The students agree their goal is to determine potential effects of nanoparticles and find effective ways to mitigate any negative effects, while increasing the positive attributes of nanotechnology.
As the students’ experience illustrates, solving research problems takes more than expertise in one discipline. It takes a cross-section of researchers in varying fields.
Bezbaruah hopes his students find their research experiences provide tools to apply in whatever career path they choose. His current and former undergraduate researchers and high school research interns have published more than 20 papers in scientific journals, conference proceedings and scientific conferences worldwide.
“The students answer research questions for which there are no known answers,” said Bezbaruah. “This group of undergraduates and graduate students is involved in a number of cutting-edge research projects and continues to challenge themselves. Such work always brings rewards.”
A former undergraduate research student in Bezbaruah’s group, Mary Pate of Wadena, Minn., received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, becoming the first NDSU engineering student to win the award, which includes federal funding for her current graduate research with Bezbaruah.
The work doesn’t stop with his own students. A science evangelist, Bezbaruah works to interest kids at all levels in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
He supervised a group of junior high students in West Fargo, N.D., who took first place out of more than 300 teams in the nationwide Waste Limitation Management and Recycling Design Challenge organized by NASA. Their winning project took more than 800 research hours. Bezbaruah and the winning students were awarded a trip to NASA for VIP tours and meetings with NASA experts at the Kennedy Space Center.
Additional junior high students were mentored by Bezbaruah and presented their research findings at an international teleconference on how to reuse water. Organized by NDSU, the global teleconference included teams of middle school and high school students from Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and the United States.
In addition, the professor and a team from NDSU organized GlobaKonnect Undergraduate TeleSeminars, where undergraduate researchers from NDSU could exchange ideas with their peers in India, thus providing global exposure to scientific research.
No matter what the age group, Bezbaruah remains committed to inspiring students to pursue science.
“One good student makes you reassured that we have a future to look forward to,” he said. “What else do I need? I feel energized by seeing them grow.”
NDSU is recognized as one of the nation's top 108 public and private universities by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.