Careers & Student Outcomes

Stevens Students Present Their Research at the 2023 American Physical Society Meeting

Chemical engineering and materials science Ph.D. candidates share their NSF-funded research work progress while gaining contacts and confidence interacting with global experts

At the annual American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting, professionals and students from around the world gather to present their research, talk with others in the physics community and learn about research innovations. Among the presenters at this year’s conference in Las Vegas, Nevada were two Stevens Institute of Technology Ph.D. students who are working with Pinar Akcora, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science on research projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

“Visibility is important, and not just for our faculty,” Akcora said. “I want my graduate students to be visible, and I encourage them to attend the APS conference every year as recognition for their good work and as motivation to publish more. They see other scientists and talk with experts in their field, people ask them questions and they network and see what grad students in other schools are doing. It brings good energy, and it’s a great experience.”

Making connections

Yi Feng ’23, who is on track to complete his Ph.D. in chemical engineering this year, presented a poster on Nanoscale VELCRO-like Effect: Synthesis and Rheological Properties of Polymer Loop-Grafted Nanoparticles

His research involves grafting polymers (chemical compounds consisting of repeating chains of bonded molecules) onto the surface of nanoparticles (ultrafine particles between 1 and 100 nanometres in diameter that have unique physical and chemical properties) with a VELCRO-like hookup.  

“VELCRO tape is a successful product due to its mechanism of strong adhesive that results from the hook-loop fastener between the two layers,” Feng explained. “In my research, we are creating a VELCRO-like interface and investigating how it improves the material’s performance. It’s important, because as a materials scientist, making samples and simply characterizing the mechanical properties is not enough. I am researching the structure looking for some universal law of how to improve its mechanical properties.”  

The poster presentations occurred in a huge conference hall with more than 170 research projects available to view for just three hours – during lunch. Fortunately, Feng also conceived a way to improve the performance of the sharing of his work.

“We only had about 90 minutes to catch people as they walked around the maze of posters,” he recalled. “From reviewing the literature, I knew I wanted to talk with certain professors, so I looked at their photos online then walked around the hall, found them and invited them to see my poster.”

And it worked. Despite the tough odds, Feng managed to speak with at least 25 professors, and two expressed interest in potentially working with him after he graduates.

“You can’t hesitate to talk with them — you have to take the initiative,” he said. “And there’s no need to stand in front of your poster if no one is there to read it. If I had just talked with anyone who randomly walked by, I would have wasted such a good opportunity to talk with people who might be interested in my work. It’s an effective strategy, and the most important decision I made at this conference.”

Feng also delivered a roughly 12-minute APS presentation for his work on Akcora's research into Chemical and Dynamic Heterogeneities in Interfaces for Adaptive Polymer Nanocomposites. The project focuses on synthesizing a new type of nanocomposite — a tiny material that combines two other materials that have different chemical and physical properties. The work involves adding plasticizers — small molecules that increase a material’s fluidity — to the nanocomposites to find out how else these additions modify the original material’s mechanical properties.  

“When I have researched nanocomposites, I have read papers from experts in Japan, Denmark and Korea,” Feng noted. “At this APS conference, I was glad to have the chance to talk with them. That’s a valuable experience for me.”

All charged up

Ruhao Li ‘18, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in materials science as a member of the Class of 2025, is working with Akcora on Directed Ionic Transport in Poly(Ionic Liquid)-Grafted Nanoparticles in Polarizable Media. The project explores integrating polymers into liquid electrolytes and understanding their interactions to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of batteries used for the storage and movement of energy generated from renewable sources such as wind and the tides. 

“The simplest components of a battery are the two electrodes — the cathode and anode — and the electrolyte,” Li explained. “My research focuses on the electrolyte, which enables ions to migrate to produce electricity. Ions are usually conducted better in liquid electrolytes than in gels or solids, but liquids are the least commercialized due to safety issues. I am looking at ionic liquid, a special family that is fluid, compatible with ionic movement and non-flammable.” 

Specifically, Li is examining the relationship between temperature and conductivity and investigating how adding PMMA [poly(methyl methacrylate)], a common polymer, to the ionic liquid could optimize electrical conductivity and mechanical properties such as strength. He is also creating novel ionic liquid systems that are actually gels to determine how that further alters the properties of the electrolytes.  

“Optimizing energy-related devices such as batteries, fuel cells, and sensors has profound implications,” Li noted. “For example, even in our daily lives, a smartphone battery may last longer and recharge faster, and electric vehicles may be safer.”

He presented his research to a room packed with more than 50 APS meeting attendees and also participated in the poster exhibition. 

“As a student who keeps gaining knowledge, I appreciated being able to present my work to experts who could ask questions and share comments to deepen my comprehension,” Li said. “I was also able to observe how others handle the balance between life and research, which helped me establish the picture of academia and further determine my career plan.”

Learn more about academic programs and research in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science: