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Undergraduate Researchers

Naomi Bier, SURF Scholar

Homogeneity Analysis

Standard Reference Materials (SRMs) are materials that have been thoroughly characterized and certified by NIST for properties such as elemental composition and homogeneity. These materials are used by customers in industry, academia, and other sectors, for a variety of purposes. For example, SRMs can be used for calibrations of instrumentation, validation of in-house methods, and for quality control. It is crucial that SRMs be homogenous in composition, both at the macro- and micro-scale, in order for the material to be valid. Traditionally, X-ray florescence spectroscopy (XRF) has been used for the direct elemental analysis and evaluation of homogeneity of solid samples, such as glass, ceramics, and soils. However, XRF does not provide sufficient sensitivity to detect heterogeneity in all the elements of interest it is also unable to measure beryllium, an element of interest in many materials.

A proposed complementary technique to XRF is laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS). The LA-ICP-MMS technique uses energy from a laser to directly interrogate a solid surface and create a plume of gas-phase particles that has the same composition as the bulk material. The gas-phase particles can then be transported to an ICP-MS for detection and quantification. The primary advantage of ICP-MS compared to XRF detection is sensitivity, which is on the order of 100 μg kg^ -1 or better for the majority of elements accessible to IC)-MS. The present SUURF project explored the effects of different experimental parameters, both within the laser and in the ICP-MS, on micro-homogeneity measurements made by LA_ICP-MS. Parameters of interest included laser beam spot size, repetition rate, ablation cell dimensions. The results indicated that optimization of experimental parameters is crucial for the successful assessment of micro-homogeneity in slid samples by LA-ICP-MS.

How did you learn about the summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)?

I learned about the NIST/SURF program from UMBC webpage for summer research programs: http://www.umbc.edu/undergrad_ed/research/opportunities/summer.html . This page links to hundreds of paid summer research programs and NIST/SURF was the first one on the list.

How does the program work?

NIST is typically looking for undergraduate students majoring in the sciences or engineering. Students look into the different work being done at the NIST (http://www.nist.gov/surfgaithersburg/resprograms.cfm) and decided what areas interest them and which labs they would like to work in.

What academic background did you have before you applied for this summer program?

I was finishing my junior year when I applied for the SURF program. I have friends from the program that had just finished their freshman and sophomore years. Before starting the summer fellowship I had taken classes in Biology, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Physics which gave me a foundation that facilitated my understanding of the work.

Was the application difficult to do?

The application for SURF was really simple compared to other applications I have filled out in the past. It was easy and straightforward, all the directions were given to me on one page which helped me keep track of what I completed and still needed to do.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

If you have any interest in learning about research I say DO IT! Working in a lab is different than sitting in a classroom and it can help clarify questions you may have about research. Before I started working in a lab I was wary of pursuing a career in research for a number of reasons. The biggest concern I had was that the work would become boring and mundane after a short time. Working on projects over the past academic year and this past summer showed me that there is always more to learn no matter what area of research you choose.

What are your career goals?

I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in Biochemistry or Microbiology and Immunology in hopes to work at a government agency researching infectious diseases.

What has been the hardest part about your research?

One common hardship many students face in performing research is not getting discouraged when things go wrong. The thing about research is that you’re looking into something that has yet to be discovered or determined; sometimes there is no immediate answer. This can be difficult, especially when you are used to taking classes in which the right answer can ultimately be found by looking in a text book or asking a professor.

What was the most unexpected thing?

The most unexpected thing about my research this summer was how much I enjoyed my work. My area of interest lies in Organic Chemistry and Microbiology; my project this summer concerned neither of these disciplines. My project was in the field of inorganic analytical chemistry, and even though it was not my area of academic interest, I invested a great time and energy into the work and ultimately enjoyed the experience immensely.

Will you work with NIST more, now that the summer is over?

Yes, I have been selected for a fellowship at NIST for this fall 2010 semester. I will be working with my group and continuing my project from this summer