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Biomedical Engineering Student Conducts Research Overseas

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Toby Weber
UH NanoJapan participant Austin Head (right), and longtime friend Craig Corcoran, a mechanical engineering major at Rice University who also participated in the program, visit Lake Tazawa, Japan's deepest lake. Photo provided by Austin Head.
UH NanoJapan participant Austin Head (right), and longtime friend Craig Corcoran, a mechanical engineering major at Rice University who also participated in the program, visit Lake Tazawa, Japan's deepest lake. Photo provided by Austin Head.

Junior Austin Head spends 11 weeks investigating nanotechnology through the NanoJapan Program

It is not uncommon for undergraduate engineering students to seek out research opportunities over summer break, nor is it unusual for them to take a few weeks to travel overseas. This summer, Austin Head, a junior biomedical engineering major with the Cullen College of Engineering, got to do both through the NSF-funded NanoJapan Program.

Through the program, which is administered out of Rice University’s Electrical & Computer Engineering Department and open to undergraduates from across the country, Head and 15 other students spent eleven weeks in Japan over the summer. While there, they conducted research into various aspects of nanotechnology while immersing themselves in Japanese culture.

The program’s stated purpose is to “increase the numbers of U.S. students who choose to pursue graduate study in [nanotechnology] while also cultivating a generation of globally aware engineers and scientists.”

“It’s trying to create international cooperation between Japan and the U.S.,” stated Head. “The idea is that more connections will lead to more opportunities to exchange ideas and innovations.”

The NanoJapan Program’s 16 participants came from multiple universities, including UH, Rice, Texas A&M, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Pittsburg, and Columbia University.

These students spent the first three weeks of the program in Tokyo, where they got a crash-course in the Japanese language and in nanotechnology. Predictably, the language barrier was one of the participants’ biggest challenges in navigating their way through a new country.

“During the first few weeks when we went out to eat, I think restaurant owners thought we were pretty serious about making a good decision about what to order,” Head said. “Really we were just looking for something we could pronounce.”

After the orientation period, the participants were sent to various universities around to country to conduct research. Head was assigned to Tohoku University in the city of Sendai, where he conducted research at under the guidance of Hiroyuki Nojiri and Yugo Oshima.

Head’s efforts focused on what has become the workhorse of nanotechnology: single-walled carbon nanotubes. These tubes could potentially be used in the next generation of electrical circuitry, for example, or they could be used to create light, strong materials for everything from oilfield equipment to spacecraft.

Since the field of nanotechnology is a relatively new one, though, how carbon nanotubes interact with various environments and respond to different forces is still an unknown. Head, therefore, was part of a larger effort investigating the permeability and dielectric (or insulating) properties of carbon nanotubes to electric and magnetic fields.

Specifically, Head was investigating how carbon nanotubes dissolved in a thin polyethylene sheet react to resonating microwaves at room temperature. The sheet was stretched in order to align the nanotubes and to study the affects of orientation in relation to the microwaves.

“The application of this is to gain a better understanding of carbon nanotubes, and that knowledge can be applied to other research,” he said.

While he conducted this research in Sendai during the week, Head was able to spend a few of his weekends traveling the country. His stops included the cities of Kyoto and Osaka, as well as some smaller communities in the Japanese countryside.

Perhaps the highlight of his adventures as a tourist, he said, was a seven-and-a-half hour hike he and other students took up Mount Fuji starting at 9:00 p.m. one evening. “We got to the top just in time to watch the sunrise. That was pretty incredible. It was difficult but it was worth it,” he said.

Head said he plans to keep in contact with the scientists and students he met while in Japan, potentially fulfilling the program’s stated goal of encouraging international collaboration. Moreover, the trip cemented his desire to pursue research on the graduate level.

“I had never worked in a lab…I don’t think I’ll be doing the same type of research again, but just to have this experience reaffirmed for me that I do want to do some sort of research,” he said.

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