Well, here we are — ten weeks into my time at the Ancient Ink Laboratory, and my summer in New York is almost over! Time has passed by ridiculously quickly, and in many ways it feels like it was just yesterday that I made my way to the 10th floor of the CEPSR building for the first time and nervously met my colleagues; yet at the same time, so much has changed over those few short weeks: I know a whole lot more about the process of making charcoal than when I started, I’m no longer intimidated walking into an engineering lab and working alongside graduate students and post-doctorates, and I’m much more confident in my ability as a scientist to design and run an experiment and come up with creative and successful solutions as problems arise.
It was only in my second-to-last week that I successfully completed the first part of my goal for the summer – creating charcoal at 200 °C, 300 °C, 400 °C, and 500 °C. It sounds easy enough, but with a variety of factors including material temperature, heating rate, time, rate of nitrogen flow (in order to successfully purge the oven), and cooling time, there was a lot to get a handle on. But after six weeks of struggling with only ash to show for it (the product I did not want), the success of making real, quality charcoal was extra sweet. Once I finally had good samples, I was able to analyze the charcoal using SEM imaging and microRaman spectroscopy, the latter of which can be seen in the attached pictures.
Doing research work in the lab this summer has certainly affected my perspective of STEM. Before, when one of my textbooks mentioned some of the “real-life applications” of a particular concept, I tended to gloss over it since, at least most of the time, it didn’t seem all that relevant to my life. But now that I’ve finally had the chance to put my knowledge from years of science classes to practical use, those “real-life applications” will be that much more applicable to me.
As for the future, I’ve got a few plans. In the immediate future, I plan to return to the Ancient Ink Lab this coming fall and continue my research. Beyond that, I hope to explore the possibility of going into conservation work. At Barnard, that means continuing with my chemistry studies and taking some art history, anthropology, and sociology courses. In the meantime, I’ll espouse to anyone who will listen – kids, adults, and anyone in between – that working in a lab is an invaluable experience and one they should absolutely take it they are given the opportunity. Thank you, Barnard Noyce, for doing that for me!
It’s been over a month since I started working in Professor Yardley’s lab; time really does fly by! The first and most important update to report is that the oven is finally working! That’s not to say it didn’t have any issues – for example, without a proper vent, the oven kept stinking up the entire lab (a facility that’s shared by 15+ other people), so I kept getting shut down in the middle of runs. But with the help of a couple very knowledgeable post-doctorate students, we were able to come up with a very creative solution – sending a dryer duct from the top of the oven (where various gases being emitted) across the ceiling and into the central air duct!
In fact, a big part of working in this research lab (I’m not sure if this is unique to my lab, or if it is a universal thing) is finding creative solutions to the various problems that arise. For me, that has meant using a vice to split wood chunks, using a porcelain mug to lift samples to the center of the oven, and using a digital camera (yay technology) to track the changes in the sample after heating. I’ve also gotten to know the Columbia facilities and the people working here a lot better, as well. I now feel as comfortable asking for help from the people working in the machine shop in Pupin Hall as I do walking over to Barnard and asking my General Chemistry lab professor (both of which I’ve done).
One of the coolest things I’ve been able to do this summer is tour the Columbia Conservation Lab in the basement of Butler Library. Alexis Hagadorn, head conservator (and Barnard alumna!) showed us samples of the Egyptian papyri whose inks we are studying, as well as tons of other cool stuff like Hebrew marriage licenses and medieval tomes. I was so impressed with Alexis’ knowledge ofnot only the artifacts’ histories, but also their chemical properties, and she definitely has me considering a double major in chemistry and art history!
I began my internship in Professor Yardley’s Ancient Ink Lab on May 26. After two weeks here, I am now able to tell you way more than any person could possibly want to know about charcoal, specifically its various production methods, its bizarre Raman spectrum, and the hypothesized molecular changes taking place over time that cause spectra from documents dated around 200 BCE to be markedly different from those dated around 300 AD.
My project for this summer will be to make charcoal. As simple as that sounds, it is a project that requires lots of designing, troubleshooting, and refining. The purpose of this is to ultimately achieve charcoal that, when made into ink and analyzed using Raman spectroscopy, resembles the spectra of inks found on Egyptian papyri, thereby identifying the exact materials used to make the ink (which, as of now, is unknown to both historians and scientists alike). Over the past few years, members of the research team have done an exhaustive analysis of 17 documents from Columbia’s collection and have come up with a number of linear progressions of certain spectral characteristics. It’s our hope that my charcoal if made correctly, will fit that progression. I’ll be using samples of Egyptian Acacia wood (actually from Egypt!), which I’ll burn at various temperature for various amounts of time, then analyze the inks produced.
I mention that “I will be” doing all of this because as of now, I haven’t actually started! In order to produce charcoal, vegetable or animal matter must be burned in the absence of oxygen (which would combust, causing CO2 to be produced). Our lab has a special oven designed particularly for this purpose, but unfortunately it’s missing a part! So until this part gets fixed/replaced/rebuilt, my charcoal-making endeavors will have to be put on hold.
In the meantime, I’ve been doing reading - lots and lots of reading. In particular, I’m reading a whole bunch of scientific papers detailing various experiments designed to better understand the unique Raman spectrum of carbon. Well, perhaps the better way to say it is that I’m trying to read these papers. There’s a seemingly infinite amount of complex information written in dense scientific jargon on every page, making it a difficult and tedious process to read and understand everything. But what has been heartening is how much more I understand at the end of two weeks. On my very first day, I met with my research adviser who discussed the science behind the project with me for over an hour. Of that entire conversation, I probably understood/remembered about 5% of it. When we had our research group meeting this week, I still didn’t understand about half of the slides presented, but the miraculous thing was that there was a lot of information I understood and knew, to the point that I was able to ask questions and give suggestions! Progress!
I’ve already learned something important about my future in the sciences – it has to be with other people. Because of the lab set-up, I spend most of the day by myself reading and doing research. As interesting and exciting as the research I’ll be doing will be, however, it is sharing it with others that I find much more personally fulfilling.