By Frank George
Last fall, Youngstown State University acquired a $470,000 grant from The National Science Foundation to purchase new equipment for Ward Beecher’s X-Ray Diffraction Laboratory.
This semester, the lab’s two new diffractometers are already being put to good use — increasing the university’s research productivity and providing undergraduates with hands-on research experience.
By beaming X-rays at crystalline surfaces, diffractometers allow researchers to determine the structure of certain materials and, in turn, design new materials with desired characteristics.
“How the atoms are bonded together define their properties. So, if you want to make a new material, you have to know how the things are bonded together,” Matthias Zeller, a research staff scientist in the department of materials science and engineering, said. “If you can’t do that, you can’t make new materials.”
YSU’s diffraction lab has certainly proven its ability to understand how atoms are bonded together. According to a YSU News press release, students and faculty have collaborated on materials research projects with scientists from all across the country — an initiative that has resulted in the publication of more than 500 scholarly articles in the past 12 years.
In addition to maintaining a high level of productivity, Zeller said YSU’s diffraction lab has also implemented a unique policy — one that benefits undergraduate students.
“Right from the start we have had a policy of giving students hands-on access,” Zeller said. “That is one of the things that distinguishes us from 99 percent of other universities. … We allow students to use modern equipment.”
Students who work under Zeller expressed appreciation for this policy.
“The hands on experience is basically what grad schools and PhD programs are looking for in students. They notice that you are taking time out of your busy work schedule as an undergrad to do research, get involved with these kinds of machines and this technology, learn how they work — you get an experience that very few other undergraduates like yourself get,” Matthew LaLama, a third-year chemistry student, said.
Jennifer Miller, another third-year chemistry student, agreed, adding that hands-on experience can introduce students to scientific fields they would have otherwise never considered studying.
“I know I came in, and I was like ‘I’m going to get my bachelor’s degree in chemistry and then go to pharmacy school.’ But then I started doing research, talking to professors, and it opened up a whole new world of possibilities that I never even considered,” Miller said. “That’s actually what made me want to get my PhD — the research experience.”
Zeller concluded that his students are his priority, indicating that he wants them to graduate “with a good education and know what they’re doing and can put what they learned into action in real life.”