Danielle HudsonIGERT researcher works with space-age plastics at Tuskegee University
Tuskegee UniversityTuskegee, AL
Danielle Hudson was well aware of her family connection to Tuskegee University when she enrolled at the institution as an undergraduate in 1993. All three of her aunts had attended the school, tucked away in the small southern Alabama town for which it is named. She never would have predicted, however, that she would still be at Tuskegee a decade later. "When I first came here from Birmingham I thought, oh no, this is way too rural for me," taking note of the town's markedly slow pace. But after graduating with her B.S. in Chemistry, she accepted a spot in the Chemistry Master's program. Now on the verge of completing her Master's degree, she has committed to finishing her graduate work at Tuskegee and plans to obtain a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering. Danielle has come to appreciate the remarkable cohesion and support for which Tuskegee University is well known. "The Tuskegee community has been great, and without the people I have worked with and the IGERT program I think I would never have even gone on to graduate school.'' Modestly she adds, "hopefully I can say I have had a positive impact on this community as well," referring to the work she does as a tutor and mentor for many other students.
Danielle's drive to go into chemistry began in high school. She had a love of chemistry and math, and remembers her mentor, a chemical engineer. She wanted to be just like him. She remembers visiting a pulp and paper processing plant, and seeing the process of making paper. She remembers visiting her mentor's chemistry lab on mentor/mentee days, and seeing the application of what he was doing and how it would change peoples' lives. When she applied to Tuskegee University, Danielle was recruited into the FASTREC Summer Bridge program that put her on course for an accelerated engineering and sciences degree.
During her Master's work, she spent a summer as a research intern at NASA-Langley, computer modeling the actions of gas molecules diffusing through plastics with potential aerospace applications. The goal: ''to measure exactly how far an individual atom will have moved in these structures under these conditions.'' Her work provides information that will eventually help keep cryogenic gases (refrigerants such as hydrogen, helium and argon) in their intended containers and prevent them from escaping into the environment. She recently presented her work at the Current Trends in Computational Chemistry Conference, winning third place in the student poster session.
She confesses that when she began her Master's she had no intention of getting a Ph.D. She thought she would finish her two years and be done with school to enter the workforce. When she began to research jobs, however, she discovered she couldn't do what she wanted to unless she continued her education-with a Master's, she could be the technician carrying out someone else's research. With a Ph.D., she could be the one directing the research and interpreting the results.
Danielle credits her decision to go for a Ph.D. to Tuskegee's IGERT in Nanomaterials Engineering and Science, which is one of 125 other so-called ''IGERTs'' at colleges and universities across the United States. Developed by the National Science Foundation in 1997, the goal of the NSF IGERT Program as a whole is to improve the graduate experience and catalyze a cultural change in graduate education by supporting interdisciplinary research and education in all areas of science, engineering, mathematics and technology. The acronym stands for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, which refers both to the interdisciplinary nature of the graduate programs that bear the title as well as to the excellent financial support extended to students who win admission into an IGERT.
Spearheaded by Dr. Shaik Jeelani, Tuskegee's IGERT proposal was funded in 2003, winning $3 million in funds from NSF to support students such as Danielle in interdisciplinary graduate research and education. The primary objective of the Tuskegee IGERT is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities holding Ph.D.s in Materials Science and Engineering. It accomplishes this goal by forming research groups composed of students from Ph.D., Master's and undergraduate levels, a structure which is intended to nurture and motivate undergraduates to continue their education through the Ph.D. level. According to Danielle's advisor, Dr. Melissa Reeves, ''undergraduate and Master's students are expected to work along with the Ph.D. students under the leadership of faculty mentors. It is our expectation that the undergraduate and Master's students will get a flavor of doctoral studies through close association with the Ph.D. students. Faculty members involved in this project make every effort to persuade undergraduate and Master's students to continue their studies at the Ph.D. level.'' It seems to be working. "This program really has provided me with the opportunity to get a PhD," states Danielle. IGERT PI Dr. Jeelani and IGERT faculty Dr. Reeves encouraged her to stay on for her Ph.D. After discovering she needed one in order to pursue her dreams, she agreed.
Tuskegee's IGERT students do research in the emerging field of nanomaterials science and engineering, which, according to their website, ''deals with the study of materials at the atomic or molecular level to create relatively larger structures with fundamentally new molecular organization. Nanostructures, in sizes from 1 nm to 100 nm, reveal significantly different but superior properties than those of a single atom or bulk structures.'' At Tuskegee's Center for Advanced Materials (T-CAM), faculty and researchers from aerospace engineering, chemistry, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering work together to introduce a comprehensive approach to the manufacture of a new generation of structural materials called nanocomposites.
Danielle's doctoral research will investigate the material properties of certain polymer nanocomposites, each a type of plastic infused with nanoparticles of clay. Their nanoparticle-infused nature results in significantly superior mechanical, chemical and thermal properties, and Danielle will be involved in simulating the plastic-clay interface to determine the origins of the improved behavior. While the materials she will be working with are probably not for aerospace application, Danielle notes that there are similar polymers currently present under the hood in many Toyota automobiles.
And in the long run? Danielle plans to start her own research and development lab as a computational chemist, working with a business manager and accountants to successfully run her own company.
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