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Ozarks students present research results at ACS National Meeting & Exposition

May 27, 2011
By cnp
Posted in Student Events

Clarksville, Ark. --- Science is a hands-on field where repeated research efforts increase our knowledge, often incrementally, and slowly the world becomes a better place.

This spring, four Ozarks students had an opportunity to share their research with the scientific community at the 21st American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting & Exposition held in Anaheim, California.

“That particular trip was for a big national chemistry conference,” said Associate Professor of Chemistry Dr. Brian McFarland, their sponsor. “The students went to present the research they’d conducted the past year. Andrea Muffuletto and Denise Wirth were on one team, and Mike Prusator and Ben Martin were on the other. Each presented a poster of their results during the undergraduate poster section.”

The students’ work, according to Dr. McFarland, was in the area of polymer research. Polymer chemistry deals with the long molecule chains that make up everything from plastic to rubber, and cotton to DNA. “Their project was derived from something I was working on at the end of graduate school,” he said. “I chose organic chemistry, specifically polymer chemistry, because of its applicability to everyday life, from materials to medicine and everything in between." In their projects, the students were testing different methods for combining the ingredients necessary to make polymers.

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Mike Prusator and Ben Martin at the March 2011 ACS National Meeting and Exposition.

“The process is called frontal polymerization,” McFarland explained. “It creates what’s called an exothermic reaction, which means it gives off heat.” He said the students were testing the results of the different methods of creating polymers to see how it affected their mechanical properties – how tough they were, how flexible, how strong.

“In making their sample polymers, the students used something called micro-capsules,” said McFarland. “Basically they trapped the curing agent in these little shells like M&Ms, which are added to the mixture, but kept separate by their shells. That way the chemical stays separated from the rest of the stuff until you pop the shells open, which can be done by heating the mixture. Then the reaction takes place that turns the chemicals into a polymer.”

He said one good analogy for how this works would be the epoxy resins, where you mix the contents of the two tubes together, one containing the main epoxy, the other the curing agent. “The polymer is like that in a way,” he said. “Once you heat the mixture and the little capsules pop, the reaction starts. The method is a way to prolong the shelf life of these polymers, which can be used for crack repair and other projects requiring a solid bond.”

The students found that polymers made with the micro-capsules on a large scale were stronger than those made simply by other methods.

To senior Andrea Muffelletto, presenting at the conference was, for an undergraduate, a rare opportunity. “It is very rare that undergraduates get the opportunity and funding to carry out a research project like ours and then present it at national conference,” she said. “It was exciting to be there with so many people and see what all of our hard work had been leading up to.”

She said Ozarks, being a smaller university, has given her the opportunity to get to know professors on a level that can open up a number of doors. “In this case,” she said, “all four of us knew Dr. McFarland well, and he knew what type of students we were. He asked us to work on this research project, and because of that we had the chance to present at the national ACS conference as well as the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium, and we were also able to visit the NASA space center in Huntsville, Alabama. This research led to many educational experiences, and I fully attribute it to the small nature of the campus and the personal interaction and attention you get from your professors.”

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Andrea Muffelletto and Denise Wirth at the ACS meeting in Anaheim, California.

Senior Denise Wirth, Muffelletto’s partner, enjoyed the opportunity to meet other students interested in chemistry and the chance to see some of the current research being done. “I know for me, after the meeting, I had a greater understanding of the importance of chemistry in many aspects of daily life,” she said. “Presenting our work was a fun experience because we were able to show other students what we had been working on.  It was also very good preparation for other situations we may encounter in the future when we need to discuss similar topics.”

She agreed with her partner in crediting Ozarks for her success in the project. “Coming from Ozarks helped me in this event, because I felt that I had been more involved in the research compared to other students from bigger universities who may not have had the opportunity to really engage in the research process.”