With the summer ending, it is crazy how quickly ten weeks pass by. I joined Professor Crowther’s lab after taking a year of organic chemistry and a semester of quantitative analysis, which is not very related to what we do in lab. Sure, we go over spectroscopy in general chemistry and quantitative analysis, but I have never heard of micro-Raman spectroscopy before this summer. Now, I take Raman spectra every other day. The first few weeks of the summer I felt like I was at a disadvantage not having taken Quantum or Spectroscopy Lab. It took a while for me to get the hang of things and feel comfortable taking measurements alone. I have made a lot of progress since the first day of research this summer. Now, when I align the laser to take a measurement, I am very efficient because it has become second nature.
The amount of knowledge I gathered this summer became obvious this past week when I was explaining my research to an incoming first-year who was shadowing our lab. I remember the second day of work when one of my lab mates taught me how to make graphene samples and identify single-layered pieces of graphene in the microscope. It felt very different when I taught the incoming first-year how to make graphene samples. It was one of those great moments in life when the student becomes the teacher. Not only that, but when observing the samples under the microscope, I was able to locate a several pieces of single-layered graphene that I can potentially use for experiments in the fall. As I mentioned in my first blog-post, identifying single-layered pieces of graphene on samples is not easy. There is a luck component when making the samples. Sometimes I am not able to locate a piece of useful single-layer graphene in a batch of samples. It is almost a bit weird because after making many samples at the beginning of the summer, I spent the latter half focused on conducting experiments and analyzing data. Therefore, I had not spent a lot of time lately feeling frustrated about sample-making. However, going back to it during the last week and obtaining some useful samples means that I developed some sample-making skills, maybe more than I realized in the beginning when I would make eight samples each day. This experience was also incredibly beneficial because all the samples I made in the beginning of the summer had been photochlorinated, so now I have more that I can use in the fall semester. So I will not be as stressed in the beginning of the new semester about making more samples and can instead focus on the chemical reaction part of the project which is much more exciting.
Working with Professor Crowther this summer has undoubtedly made me a better scientist. Besides learning new experimental techniques and how to operate different equipment, I also learned how to think about my experiments to a certain extent. In a teaching lab like organic chemistry and general chemistry, the experiments are designed to expose student to different techniques. The procedures have already been written and there are expected results. If a student gets a different result than what is expected, there are ways to understand what went wrong.
In contrast, in research a procedure is designed to obtain a certain data set, but sometimes that procedure is not as efficient as possible. For example, this summer when conducting the initial photochlorination experiments, it would take around five hours to see significant results. Eventually we decided to mount spacers on the sample so the graphene would not directly touch the cuvette face. In other words, we had to modify the procedure. Even now when it comes to determining the length of the irradiation period, there is no written procedure on the best time length. Instead we choose it based on the previous spectra. Before doing research, when something did not occur like I expected it to, I would be uncertain and not know what to do to solve the problem. Now, I feel more comfortable evaluating the problem, thinking about it, and developing a strategy to fix it. I almost always need to discuss my next step of action with Professor Crowther. However, in the beginning of the summer, he would often just tell me what I should do differently, while now it is more of a conversation which I really appreciate. I like looking at my results and being able to give Professor Crowther my interpretation of the data and hearing his opinion about it.
With the summer coming to an end, I do not necessarily feel a sense of closure with my project since I am continuing it during the fall semester. I never went into this experience expecting to start and finish a project in the ten weeks I would be here during the summer. I am excited to return in the fall semester and gather more data. When I return in September, I will work on conducting more experiments and coming up with a mathematical approach to quantify my data. I read a paper where the authors calculated uniaxial strain and hole doping in annealed graphene samples. I used the paper as a reference when analyzing my data, but Professor Crowther and I agreed that we should try to come up with our own method to quantifying the data. That means that when the fall starts I’m going to have to spend some time looking at my notes from multivariable calculus. I think it will be a challenging task, but I am excited to attempt it.
In summary, I learned a lot this summer: I learned how to think like a research scientist, some quantum chemistry, and a whole lot about the photochlorination of graphene. I always knew I wanted to do research at some point in my undergraduate career, but I was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did and to care about my project as much as I do. I am genuinely ecstatic to return in the fall and continue working on my project. Hopefully classes will not get in the way too much!