[Summer Research at Mudd]: An Early Interest in Engineering

While most of the students at Harvey Mudd College have gone home for the summer or are elsewhere doing research, an internship, or volunteer work, some have decided to stay on campus to do research. Some 200 or so students are on campus working on various research opportunities and fellowships with different professors. Over the course of the summer I’ll be posting about students and professors that I have interviewed while they are in the midst of their research here.

The Interview

For today’s blog, I got to sit down and talk with Nathan Sunbury ‘21 about his research experience with the engineering department.

A head shot of Nathan Sunbury in a black suit and tie, smiling in front of a brick wall.

Which professor / department are you doing research with?

Prof. Dato of the engineering department

Can you break down your application process for applying for this position?

“The spring of my first year, I asked Prof. Dato, the professor I’m currently doing research with, if he had any research opportunities that summer. He said no, but I should come back to him in the fall. So I came back to him in the fall and he said yeah, join the team. It was pretty easy I think. I have heard from other students that some departments have a more formalized research application process, but for a lot of students it’s like go ask the professor what their doing and sound interested. If it’s something you want to do they will typically have opportunities. I know I was looking for research a lot in the physics department, because I originally thought I was going to be a physics major in my first year. Some departments skew for higher class level, so I found it hard to get research as a first year. There was definitely stuff available but I didn’t look in the right places, but for me it was kind of easy. I just talked to the prof and asked to be on the team.”

Is this your first time doing research?

“I did a summer research program after my junior year of high school where we did some astrophysics and things with astronomy. That was only for three weeks during the summer, so this is my first time doing college research. I started in the fall of my sophomore year and have been doing it through the year and the summer as well.”

What made research here at Mudd with Prof. Dato appealing to you?

“One thing is it’s available. I remember from touring colleges and universities that when they have graduate students, those undergraduate students are competing with graduate students for research and that graduate student is always going to get the position versus the undergrad. So having research available in so many different areas is really cool. It’s also a good research climate here. With Prof. Dato, it’s very self-driven and self-focused. He gives us some objectives for the week, but there aren’t any specific times during the week that we have to come in and do them. We have presentation reports at the end of the week, but it’s very much self paced and directed. Like, if we have ideas of where we want the project to go, we can tell him. We are very much a part of a research group. Whereas in other places you might be a lab minion, here I definitely feel like I’m part of the team.”

Are you an engineering major?

“Yeah, I’m an engineering major, so I think that’s what I want to do.”

Have you worked with or taken a course with this professor before?

“I’m taking his materials engineering course this summer, but I haven’t taken anything with him before.”

What are your hours like?

“It’s a normal 40 hours a week schedule, but unlike most research groups where you are there specifically from 9 to 5, Prof. Dato lets you go in whenever. So I’ve been sort of variable in my schedule because in our research we often have to make a sample then wait for it to cure and in that waiting period there isn’t a lot to do. Plus, it wouldn’t make sense to have all the researchers in the lab while we are waiting. So what we’ve done is we have staggered the shifts. Some people come in the morning and make samples, some people come in the afternoon or evening. I’ve been taking more of the night shifts which is fine with me because classes don’t start until the afternoon, but it’s flexible enough that I’ve been able to take classes and do research at the same time. I know not all of the professors are that way, but with Prof. Dato it’s a pretty relaxed schedule.”

Are you working with any other students?

“Yeah, I have two lab mates so there are three of us in total. One is a rising senior and the other one is a rising junior. They are all Harvey Mudd students.”

Could you explain what your research entails?

“We are looking into how to improve the material strength of epoxies and other matrices by adding nanoparticles to the matrix. So, the idea is, if we add carbon nanotubes or graphene to the epoxy, will that change the internal structure and make it stronger? Graphene is the big one we are looking into, because Prof. Dato has a special way of adding it. Then we are also going to look at electrical and thermal properties and changes in the conductivity. Epoxy is used widely in all sorts of applications. It’s used a ton in the aerospace industry and whenever you see carbon fiber it’s a sheet covered in epoxy, so finding a way to increase the strength of these materials could have far-reaching applications.”

What is interesting / important about your research? Why?

“So I’ve been mostly focused on product development and trying to find good ways to produce these samples. For me, making samples is ok. You pour stuff together, mix it, then wait for it to cure. What I’m more interested in is looking for ways to manufacture them. During the school year I was looking at different mold materials. So I tried making molds out of Teflon instead of silicon, because the silicon molds start to degrade over time while the Teflon mold would work better. That didn’t work out, so now I’m focusing on using the water jet in our staff machinist’s advanced machine shop to cut out the samples. So we make a big sheet, then we cut out the samples. We are also trying to see if these different machining techniques change the behavior of the sample and so far we are seeing that there is a difference depending on how you make it. So we are trying to figure out what’s causing those differences and if we can get repeatable results from sample to sample.”

What has been our favorite moment thus far, and what do you look forward to?

“I really like using the water jet cutter. It goes up to 40,000 PSI and  has super high pressure water with a garnet abrasive, so it can cut through anything like butter. So you put the samples, like a big sheet of epoxy, on there, then program in the coordinates for it to go through. Then it just cuts through them and pops out these samples and it’s pretty cool to work with and learn that tool.”

Is there anything else to would like to discuss?

“The one thing I didn’t mention is another part of the lab is looking at water filtration with graphene. Most industrial methods for producing graphene produce a lot of waste water or isn’t very pure graphene. Specifically, the waste water would be the biggest issue for water filtration because if you are trying to make a water filter, but the ingredients for that filter produce a lot of waste water, then you aren’t going to net any positive clean water. Prof. Dato’s method for synthesizing graphene doesn’t produce as much waste water if any, so if we can make water filters out of that graphene that is potentially some thing that we can use to produce clean water.”