Often, research requires a lot of precision and patience, which is exactly what Alex Gershanov, a U2 chemical engineering student, discovered this summer while working at Associate Professor and Chemical Research Chair Nathalie Tufenkji’s lab, the Biocolliods and Surfaces Laboratory, in ground water remediation.
“My research surrounds zero valent iron nanoparticles, which are these iron particles that are between 100 nm and 1000nm in size—they’re really tiny [and good at degrading chlorinated solvents],” explains Gershanov. “A lot of times these solvents are stored in underground tanks that can leak or get into ground water. The problem is that they do not degrade by themselves—they just hang out there—and eventually with the current they are going to get into wells that are used for drinking water, and this isn’t good because they are toxic chemicals.”
In order to tackle this problem, Tufenkji’s lab is working on using zero valent iron nanoparticles to dechlorinate these toxic compounds. However, these particles pose a problem, as they have a tendency to clump together. According to Gershanov, the problem is two-fold.
“It reduces the surface area, so [they are] not as reactive, and they get stuck between the sand and soil grains and they don’t get where they need to go, so they’re useless.”
The lab discovered that by coating these particles with lipids or polymers, they will act as arms to keep the particles apart from each other, making them significantly more stable and preventing them from lodging in the ground.
Currently, the lab is trying to model the mobility of these particles with various factors, such as different concentrations of sodium chloride and calcium chloride in ground water, as well as in clean quartz sand compared to sand that contains the bacteria Psuedomonas aeruginosa which creates biofilm.
“What I am doing this year is testing divalent salt (calcium) and the biofilm, with three different lipids [to keep the particles apart], but so far we have had set backs, so we have only done the first lipid and are starting the second one,” Gershanov says.
Although environmental engineering was not exactly what Gershanov was considering pursuing, after completing a class in environmental bioremediation and working in Tufenkji’s laboratory, he is now considering the field as an option in the future.
What Gershanov found most valuable, however, was the opportunity he received through the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) program, which funded his summer project, to get a taste for the field of research.
“I definitely learned how to handle different equipment and stuff, and I learned some lab techniques, [but] the most I learned was just what research was like,” explains Gershanov. “In engineering there are really two ways you can go, one is industry and one is research. Research is more academia based and it’s frustrating a lot of the times, because we do a bunch of experiments and we try to change only one variable for the next day. [However] even though you think you’re doing the exact same [thing], you find there are variables and little things that happen that you can’t really control. [I learned that sometimes] you’ve just got to kind of go for it and hopefully the results will come out still okay.”
Favourite lab task:
“I worked with a machine called a Zetasizer, which does dynamic light scattering. Basically you have a cuvette that you put into the machine and you shoot a laser through it. As the laser hits the particles, the light diffuses around it and the computer monitors the shaking of the particles—this shaking is called Brownian motion—which correlates to size, [allowing you to] compute that. So that was pretty cool.”
Least favourite task:
“When we were preparing our solution, we had to adjust the pH of it to 7.7, which is roughly like ground water. When we started doing it with calcium […] I’d stir it and the pH would shoot up and come back down, and I would just be like, ‘…what?’ It took us a little while [before] we just realized there must be a reaction going on with the oxygen, forming calcium carbonate, but that took weeks of it being really frustrating.”
Advice for students applying to a lab:
“I would definitely say to try it out and see what it’s like. I would consider myself a quick learner, and in the summer jobs I had [in the past], I would get the ropes really quickly. I came in here and assumed it would be the same, but it’s a little harder—it takes a lot more repetition, care and thought […] When you start, it is going to be frustrating at times, but in the end you actually get a really good idea of what you’re doing.”
If you could be a mad scientist, what would you do in your lab?
“[I would] try to genetically modify plant cells to use photosynthesis to create some form of harvestable energy for us—it’s kind of where I want to go with my education. I want to go into artificial photosynthesis and plants do that a lot better than solar panels. So if you ask why I went into chemical engineering then, it’s because I didn’t know what chemical engineering was, and I [was] like, “But now, I see that this is still a field I can dive into with a chemical engineering degree.”
Favourite ice cream flavour:
“Cookie dough Oreo.”