SURFing at NIST

Posted by Richard Wu


 

So, what was I up to this summer?

me-in-the-lab-1
Working in the lab

I went SURFing, but without surfboards and not at a beach. I got caught in a Capitol lockdown while visiting a congressman’s office in Washington, DC. I encountered peanut butter with the hefty price tag of $835 per unit. I got to meet Senator John Cornyn and 1997 Nobel Laureate William D. Phillips. And I learned about block copolymers and small angle x-ray scattering and differential scanning calorimetry and Matlab coding and more.

Oh, and I also met lots and lots of geese.

This summer, I was at Gaithersburg, Maryland, conducting research at NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology), which is the US government agency dedicated to promoting and maintaining measurement standards. These measurement standards include everything from the definitions for scientific units of measurement (think meter, kilogram, second, ampere, etc.) to Standard Reference Materials (SRMs) for food that are used by the food industry for calibrating nutrition content tests – speaking of SRMs, I did get to personally behold the great and wondrous SRM peanut butter, which currently costs $835 per unit due to the precision involved in the SRM manufacturing process (however, it supposedly doesn’t taste very good).

really-expensive-peanut-butter
Really expensive peanut butter

Anyway, I was at NIST for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, and while there were no surfboards or beaches involved, it still made for a great and very memorable summer experience. As a SURF student, I worked under the supervision of Dr. Daniel Sunday from the NIST Material Measurement Laboratory. Our research dealt with analyzing a type of polymer called block copolymers, which have the fascinating ability to self-assemble into various nanoscale structures – lamellae (sheets), cylinders, spheres, and more. In particular, we were interested in lamellar structures, which have applications for manufacturing more powerful computers and other electronic devices.

me-and-my-mentor-dr-daniel-sunday-1
Me and my mentor, Dr. Daniel Sunday

To characterize the different block copolymer samples, we looked into using some fancy-sounding techniques like small angle x-ray scattering and differential scanning calorimetry. Additionally, as part of the project, I learned how to run some data simulations using Matlab, which represented my first major dose of computer coding experience (if you don’t count my pre-college days of making graphing calculator games and programming Lego Mindstorms robots). I also wrote an abstract and gave a fifteen-minute presentation at the end of the summer, which was my first time delivering an in-depth scientific talk.

me-receiving-certificate-1
Receiving my certificate

Aside from the research, another great part of the NIST SURF program was the opportunity to meet new people. Every week, NIST hosted seminars for SURF students with speakers from places like NASA, the FBI, and the Toy Industry Association; at one of these seminars I met 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics, William D. Phillips, who’s conducted some really cool research on laser cooling (forgive the pun).

Another memorable experience for me was the NIST SURF Capitol tour in Washington, DC – we got to visit congressmen/women at the Capitol. Several other SURF students and I happened to get stranded in a congressman’s office during a Capitol lockdown. We had a nice view of the Capitol building’s dome during the ordeal, and thankfully, we managed to make it out unharmed. We later went on to meet Senator John Cornyn, who hadn’t been available during my McDermott trip to the Capitol.

picture-with-senator-john-cornyn
With Senator John Cornyn

 

Outside of interning at NIST, I spent my summer sightseeing around Gaithersburg and Washington, DC (finally managed to explore the entire National Gallery of Art!), volunteering at the National Maker Faire to teach kids about chromatography, and working on assorted independent art/writing projects. I also diligently worked on mastering the fine art of microwave cuisine, a crucial college survival skill that I will be further honing in the fall semester.

surfers-at-the-renwick-gallery
SURFers at the Renwick Gallery

So with all this said and done, ‘twas quite an action-filled, swashbuckling summer. And I’ll be sure never to look at a jar of peanut butter quite the same way again.

poorly-taken-obligatory-selfie
Poorly-taken obligatory selfie

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