Opportunities to experience what scientists do were few and far between for Shruti Sharma while growing up in India. This lack of early exposure to hands-on science activities contributed to Sharma—now a fifth-year PhD candidate graduating this summer from the Department of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Stony Brook University and a guest researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory—becoming involved in educational outreach. Since her undergraduate years, she has been mentoring K–12 and undergraduate students through various science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs.
“When I was younger, I did not have many chances to see science in action,” said Sharma. “I want to change that for today’s youth, especially young women. By serving as a role model, I want to show them the exciting and fun work of a scientist through interactive experiences that expose them to science and its impact on our daily lives. As their mentor, I make sure to talk with them about challenges I have faced and share stories demonstrating that scientists are people just like them.”
One of Sharma’s recent outreach efforts was mentoring five 11th-grade female students from Islip High School who are participating in Stony Brook’s High School Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program. This three-year after-school program aims to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM disciplines through educational lessons, hands-on research, field trips to nearby research institutions, and presentations from career speakers.
Sharma has been teaching the Islip High School students about novel carbon-based micro- and nanoscale materials for drug delivery applications. In particular, the students are researching tiny hollow spheres of graphene oxide. Injected into the bloodstream, such microspheres can carry drugs to cancer cells, like those the students observed under a microscope in the lab of Stony Brook assistant professor Yizhi Meng. Sharma’s colleagues and fellow doctoral candidates Lyufei Chen and Weiyi Li took them to Meng’s lab during one of their sessions to explore how nanotechnology and materials science are used to deliver medicine.
The research is a simpler version of Sharma’s thesis project to synthesize and investigate different carbon-based nanocomposites for cancer-related applications. Graphene oxide embedded with iron oxide nanoparticles is an example of such nanomaterials that can be used as enhanced contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of cancer. Though MRI is widely used in cancer diagnosis, it has limited sensitivity. The iron oxide nanoparticles are viable candidates for increasing this sensitivity, providing better image contrast to differentiate between normal and cancerous cells. These carbon-based nanocomposites are also being considered as drug delivery vehicles for cancer treatment.
After learning some basic nanoscience concepts and experimental techniques, the students synthesized graphene oxide microspheres in the lab of Rina Tannenbaum, a professor in materials science and chemical engineering at Stony Brook University.
“Creating hollow spheres from sheets of graphene oxide through water-in-oil emulsion is a relatively simple experiment that demonstrates the more sophisticated research that I do,” said Sharma. “Learning about science concepts through reading a textbook or listening to a lesson is one thing but doing science and seeing those concepts come to life is another. Visualization is really important in bridging the connection between science and its real-world applications.”
The students then determined the structure and chemical composition of their microspheres through optical microscopy and Fourier transform–infrared spectroscopy. However, the resolution of the optical microscopes is limited to a few hundred nanometers—10 to 100 times larger than the surface feature size of their microspheres. So, the students took a field trip to Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN)—a DOE Office of Science User Facility—which has powerful electron microscopes that can resolve molecules and even individual atoms.
Because special training is required to use the electron microscopy facilities at the CFN, Sharma—who regularly uses these facilities for her doctoral work—imaged the students’ samples while they followed along via videoconference from a nearby room. During their field trip, the students also viewed other CFN labs and met with CFN Director Charles Black. Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs (OEP) coordinated their visit, which took place in April.
“At the CFN, we came up with a solution—a portable videoconferencing system—that allows students to virtually enter any lab and interact with scientists who are conducting experiments,” said CFN physicist Fernando Camino, who co-developed the solution. “In this way, students can feel the excitement of doing research involving state-of-the-art instrumentation. The positive effect of the interaction is maximized when it is part of a project conducted by the students in their schools or through science programs like WISE.”
According to Sharma, the visit to the CFN was transformative for the students.
“They could not stop talking about their experience,” said Sharma. “Coming to the CFN opened their eyes to the wide range of applications in nanoscience. Many of the young women already told me they want to return to the CFN to perform research.”
— Ariana Tantillo