Last fall, Arizona State University opened its newest research and discovery facility: the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4). ASU’s largest research building, ISTB 4 includes roughly 300,000 square feet of research laboratories, collaboration spaces and public exhibits on the Tempe campus.
Amidst the latest technology and flexible workspaces, ASU undergraduate student researchers are collaborating with professors and graduate students in the innovative new facility. One such student is Bethany Smith.
Smith, a sophomore majoring in materials science and engineering, works in the lab of Candace Chan, an assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy.
“I love the fact that everything is a bit more open,” says Smith. “There are windows so that you can see what other labs are working on and the general public can look in on what you’re doing. Having these open labs can let other people say ‘Oh hey, there are real people working in there.’”
“The lab and meeting facilities in ISTB4 are great,” says Chan. “Everyone loves it here and we get to interact with faculty from other departments that we normally would not have ever met.”
Smith’s research centers on developing batteries at the nanoscale, a project she has been working on since her freshman year. This research seeks to answer questions about how to make batteries more efficient and maximize their power in a smaller volume.
Currently, Smith is in the preliminary stages of experimenting with the folding of batteries, like the way you might fold a map. Commercial batteries today are rolled into cylinders. Smith’s calculations predict that by splitting the battery’s surface into 35 sections and folding it multiple times rather than rolling it, she can reduce battery size up to 28 times.
So far, Smith has successfully produced one- and two-fold battery prototypes. She plans to continue this method of folding versus rolling while contributing to the larger goal of the research, which is to condense large surface areas of power into smaller volumes while still increasing performance.
“There’s no reason why this new method shouldn’t work, but you have to prove it with research and make sure nothing can go wrong,” she says.
In addition to Smith’s work with batteries, Chan’s student team is investigating water splitting and solar energy, with an overarching theme of sustainable energy.
“Working here, you can actually see some applications for what you’re learning in class,” says Smith. “Doing work in a research setting helps supplement your education in a hands-on way.”
“I believe that part of our job as educators in preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers is not only the teaching that occurs in the classroom, but also the mentoring and teaching of research skills and the scientific thought process,” says Chan. “The former is much more difficult to learn in a formal classroom setting and is better acquired through ‘doing.’”
Many of these undergraduate researchers participate in the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (FURI), a program designed to enhance the education of undergraduate engineering students. Students applying to FURI must first develop a research idea, and with the help of mentors such as Chan, apply for funding to aid in their research, workshops, summaries and symposiums.
In addition to juggling their schoolwork and lab responsibilities, student researchers like Smith may also hold jobs outside of their research. For Smith, this includes a position with Stephen Krause of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy.
“It can get a little hectic juggling all of these responsibilities,” says Smith. “It’s all about time management.”
“ASU students are great at being engaged and involved in a lot of activities on and off-campus, in addition to excelling academically in their coursework,” says Chan. “Based on the interest and motivation of the student, we can develop the projects to more advanced levels, such as for an honors thesis.”
Smith relishes the opportunities opened to her through Chan’s lab and hopes to continue her work in material sciences in the future. Now considering an internship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Smith says her eagerness to get involved with undergraduate research as early as possible has only helped her.
“You get a really good relationship with a professor early on,” said Smith. “By the end of my undergraduate career I’ll have been working with Dr. Chan for four years, which is invaluable.”
“Bethany is outstanding. She came to me as a first semester freshman without any lab experience and has developed into a thoughtful and inquisitive researcher,” Chan says. “I am always open to new approaches and ideas from my students. It is fun and rewarding to see them develop into independent scientists.”