Institute Report, April 2010
First-class Cadet Jacob Cox took second place in the science poster division of the recent Undergraduate Research Symposium at the Virginia Military Institute, but he conducted much of his research on film electrolytes and silicon nanowire anodes 3,000 miles away.
Last summer, Cox was selected to participate in the National Science Foundation Solid State Chemistry Program with scientists at the University of California Los Angeles’ Nanosystems Chemistry and Engineering Research – NanoCER – program. NanoCER supports the NSF program by working in teams that develop new materials, devices and applications in nanotechnology. Cox’s team focused on developing an electrolyte that could be used in a three-dimensional battery.
“The way batteries have been designed in the past simply doesn’t allow them to power tiny devices effectively,” said Cox. “As technology gets smaller and smaller, we’re losing our ability to actually power those devices, but a battery that has a 3-D architecture should work extremely well on a tiny scale. All batteries, regardless of their design, have an anode, a cathode, and a separating layer.”
While the solution seems simple, the challenge for the team at UCLA is to design a separating layer that works successfully with the anode and cathode prototypes they’ve developed. Cox also worked on a second project that involved etching a silicon wafer with hydrofluoric acid and silver nitrate to form an array of silicon nanowires.
“It was rough doing two projects at once, but it was really rewarding, and I made a ton of progress,” said Cox. “Actually, I found myself spending more time in the lab than the grad students. Thanks to the NSF Solid State Chemistry Program, I now have a much better feel for how cutting-edge research is conducted at large research labs, a much better understanding of what grad school is like, and insight into what a career in research might look like.
“Also, the research Dr. Joe Nemanick and I conducted [on the silicon wafer] should be published sometime within the next year.”
Throughout the eight-week experience, Cox presented his work four times; the last was an hour-long presentation to his research group, which was comprised of three other undergraduate students and 15 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. That was good preparation for the recent URS poster session and a presentation he made at the Southeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society last October.
Maj. Daniel McCain, Cox’s mentor at VMI, is pleased with what he has accomplished during his cadetship and that he was able to participate in such a rewarding experience off Post. In fact, the NSF stipend didn’t cover all of Cox’s expenses, so VMI’s chemistry department supported part of his housing costs so he could participate in the program.
“I did the NSF Solid State Chemistry Program when I was in college, and I know that it helped me decide that I wanted a career in chemistry,” said McCain. “Jacob is an exceptional student and could go anywhere and achieve anything he desires. The chemistry department has always placed a high value on research as one of the best ways of educating cadets, and most of our chemistry majors do research with a faculty member on Post at some point during their cadetship, but Jacob took the initiative in seeking this unique off-Post opportunity, and we wanted to facilitate that.”
With URS behind him, Cox is finalizing his Institute Honors thesis on enzyme kinetics. Since last spring, he and McCain have been studying an enzyme in humans called PP2C, which is involved in a large number of signaling sequences in the body. They hope the data collected in this project will lead to a better understanding of cellular processes and eventually drug treatments for a variety of diseases.
While such a project complements Cox’s interest in going to medical school and pursuing research professionally, the time demands of the project have been difficult for a cadet who also is involved in many extracurricular activities. He’s held rank for the past three years and is an Institute EMT and volunteers once a week with the Lexington Rescue Squad. He spent a semester at Oxford the summer after his 4th Class year and the spring semester of the next at the Auckland University of Technology. He also is a member of the English Honors Society and has written poetry for the Sounding Brass and the VMI Poetry Symposium.
Cox said participating in undergraduate eesearch has made things harder at times – he recently logged approximately four hours each day in the lab finalizing work for his Honors thesis while juggling his extracurricular commitments and preparing for graduation, but the work is paying off. If he can secure funding for his travel and living expenses, he plans to spend a year after graduation with a research team at the University of Yaounde in Cameroon, Africa, that is working to develop new drugs to treat African sleeping sickness. This life-threatening disease is endemic to 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and, according to the World Health Organization, threatens an estimated 60 million people.
“Despite the time commitment, undergraduate research has really enhanced my education and given me some opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Cox. “I wouldn’t have been accepted into the NSF program last summer, and Dr. [Barthelemy] Nyasse probably wouldn’t be so open to letting me work in his lab next year if I didn’t have these research experiences. Also, it’s allowed me to get much closer to my professors than I otherwise would have, and Maj. McCain and I have become good friends.”
Most importantly, Cox said, his research has enhanced his understanding of science.
“Science isn’t done by reading through a book and working the problems at the end of each chapter,” he said. “It’s done in the lab. It’s all about research and publications, and my work here has taught me that.”