Student Research

Meet NDSEG Fellow Mason Freund

Mason Freund
Ph.D. student Mason Freund has aerospace science at the root of his research.

Since its inception in 1989, the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship has been awarded to only 4400 students.  In that time, over 65,000 have applied.  The highly competitive fellowship, sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Army Research Office (ARO), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), was established by the U.S. Congress to increase the number of U.S. citizens receiving doctoral degrees in science and engineering disciplines of military importance.

Materials Science and Engineering Ph.D. candidate Mason Freund has been named a recipient of this prestigious fellowship.  IMS News spoke with Mason about his early interests in science and the catalysts and decisions leading to his being named a NDSEG Fellow.

You earned your Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in aerospace engineering.  In your pursuit of your Ph.D. your focus remains on aerospace science.  When did you begin to be interested in aerospace science and what about aerospace science keeps you engaged? 

I think there’s always been some interest in aerospace science starting from playing with toys and enjoying sci fi movies as a kid. This steered me towards spaceships and planes and slowly evolved into interest in the sciences and engineering. Finally, being able to learn about aerospace engineering during my undergrad seemed to bring everything together. And now being a fellow under the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) I will be able to interact with the field on a deeper level. I am constantly learning new information and techniques that keeps the learning experience engaging but there are also always new discoveries and ideas that keep pushing the known boundaries to something that is better, faster, or stronger. I think those new discoveries and possibilities will keep me engaged for a long time.

How/when did you begin to tie materials science into your interest in aerospace science?

The mechanical engineering curriculum requires an introduction to materials science. I didn’t know what the field of materials science was or could lead to, but I quickly became interested in learning more about the field. I decided to go for a minor and take courses that could add another dimension to my curriculum and benefit my aerospace science interests.

Congratulations on being named a 2022 DoD NDSEG Fellow.  How did you come to apply for the NDSEG Fellowship and what was your reaction after learning you had been selected for the fellowship? 

My advisor (Volkan Ortalan) made me aware of some different fellowships early on in my graduate studies. After doing more research over the course of last fall, I applied to a few different fellowships. Then came a long 4-6 month wait to April when the results were expected to come out. I checked my email one night at the end of March and was surprised to see an email from NDSEG. I was then even more surprised and excited to realize it was an acceptance letter. It was the first one I got back, and I wasn’t even expecting a letter for at least another few days. I was very excited and slightly caught off guard, but it made my night and my week.

Tell us about your research and its short- and long-term implications for real-world applications. 

My group is primarily a microscopy group. We spend most time on transmission electron microscopes (TEM) in addition to other instruments and techniques. Our lab has a special ultrafast TEM which allows us to investigate reactions and dynamics at very short time scales. Specifically, my research will take advantage of these capabilities to investigate reaction dynamics of nano energetic materials to better understand behaviors from these materials as well as nanoparticle enhancement at the necessary timescales.

This work is useful for further insights into nano energetics and optimization for use in propellants and other related technologies as well as directly relating to programs within the AFOSR. The field of nano energetics plays a role in many propulsion applications as well as high power linear actuators. There are also possibilities for use in miniature applications such as micro or nano satellites. This research will provide a more fundamental understanding of the behaviors and can lead to better control, optimization, and performance of the technology.

After earning your bachelor’s degree, you chose to continue your graduate studies at UConn.  What was the catalyst for your decision?

As I mentioned, I started my minor and was taking MSE courses throughout my time in undergraduate studies. In one of the MSE courses the professor was Dr. Ortalan who is now my advisor. He asked me what I was planning on doing after graduation. I knew that I might want to go back to graduate school eventually, but I was also initially looking for jobs in industry. He mentioned about his open position for a graduate student and about the work that would be required but also the benefits and investment that it would be for my future. This really was the catalyst for my decision. I would have taken it either way but graduating in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic and hearing about difficulties in job hiring made the decision even easier.

Rapid Virus Test Being Studied in Zhang Group will Differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from Other Respiratory Viruses

Yi Zhang Group
(from left to right) Guangfu Wu, Huijie Li, and Zhengyan Weng, advised by Professor Yi Zhang, are checking an array of graphene field-effect transistors.

In recent years, from H1N1 and now to SARS-CoV-2, global pandemics caused by highly contagious viral species have been threatening human life and putting tremendous pressure on healthcare services as well as the economy. Rapid testing and timely interventions for asymptomatic or mild infections caused by SARS-CoV-2, for example, would enable efficient quarantine of infected patients, thus significantly reducing the spread rate of the virus. Importantly, SARS-CoV-2 is expected to continue in the future fall/winter seasons, when it will coincide with the seasonal outbreak of other infectious respiratory diseases, including those caused by influenza virus and respiratory syncytial virus, which have similar signs and symptoms in the early stages. Considering the overlap in the seasonal peaks, symptoms, and underlying risk factors of these illnesses, having a rapid test to detect and differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from other infectious respiratory viruses will be clinically important.

In response to this clinical need, the Institute of Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Yi Zhang led the development of the most sensitive amplification-free SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic platform, the CRISPR Cas13a graphene field-effect transistor. This study, entitled “Amplification-Free Detection of SARS-CoV-2 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus Using CRISPR Cas13a and Graphene Field-Effect Transistors,” was published online on May 12, 2022, in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

“The key features of viral diagnostics are rapidness and sensitivity,” said Zhang. According to Zhang, most virus detection techniques, including the gold-standard RT-PCR, relies on viral sequence amplification, which can dramatically complicate the detection process and increase the risk of cross-contamination, therefore subject to elevated false-positive rates. However, current amplification-free methods are still limited by compromised sensitivity. “Our work revolutionized the field of amplification-free nucleic acid diagnostics by introducing a biosensing platform with sensitivity comparable with RT-PCR,” he said.

Yi Zhang
Dr. Yi Zhang

Derived from adaptive immunity in prokaryotes, Nobel-winning clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated (Cas) technology leverages nucleic acid base pair complementarity between a guide RNA and targeted nucleic acid sequence and affords high target specificity capable of discriminating single mismatches. Recently, several CRISPR/Cas systems, including Cas13a, were found to perform cleavage of nonspecific bystander nucleic acid probes triggered by target detection, known as “collateral cleavage.” Such collateral cleavage demonstrates a multi-turnover behavior, turning a single target recognition event into multiple probe cleavage events, and therefore leads to signal amplification.

“The idea of our biosensor design originates from exploiting the signal amplification by translating CRISPR technology onto an ultrasensitive detection platform,” said Huijie Li, a Ph.D. student in Zhang’s lab; she is also the leading first author of the study. Graphene, as a two-dimensional material, exhibits extraordinary charge carrier mobility and thus high electrical conductivity. Thanks to its atomic thickness, graphene, when constructed into biosensors as a sensing material, is highly sensitive to the interaction with biological analytes. In this study, by immobilizing probes on graphene-based field-effect transistors and allowing Cas13a collateral cleavage of these probes activated by target detection, SARS-CoV-2 down to 1 aM level in both spiked and clinical samples, was successfully detected within a 30 min detection time.

Simply by changing the guide RNA design, CRISPR Cas13a graphene field-effect transistor platform was reconfigured to target respiratory syncytial virus with the same attomolar sensitivity. “As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, our virus diagnostic tool can be easily adapted to combat the future outbreak of unknown viral species,” Guangfu Wu, a Postdoc in Zhang’s lab; he is the co-first author of this work, said.

This study marks a significant milestone towards our goal of developing an integrated point-of-care biosensing platform for viral diagnostics. “We are aiming to offer patients a fast, ultrasensitive all-in-one tool that can streamline sample treatment and analysis and deliver results without any specialized training,” said Zhengyan Weng, a Ph.D. student in Zhang’s lab; he is also the co-first author of this study.

 

This research is supported by the University of Connecticut start-up and the National Science Foundation under the award number CBET-2103025. The collaborators of this work include Dr. Xue Gao at Rice University (co-corresponding author), Drs. Kevin D. Dieckhaus and Lori Avery at UConn Health, and Dr. Yupeng Chen in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UConn.

Elyse Schriber Named NSF Graduate Research Fellow

ElyseElyse Schriber Schriber, a second-year materials science graduate student in the lab of assistant professor of chemistry J. Nathan “Nate” Hohman, was named among five UConn students to receive the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP).

Elyse began working with Hohman as an undergraduate research assistant in 2017, when he was a staff scientist at the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab before coming to UConn.

She started working on method development for serial femtosecond chemical crystallography (SFCX) at an X-ray free electron laser (XFEL) facility in 2018. This is an X-ray crystallography technique that determines single crystal structures of materials from microcrystalline powders. She continues that work at UConn currently. The duo recently published their first paper on the method in Nature.

She plans to continue to work on different facets of the SFCX project in her graduate program, including studying ultrafast nonequilibrium excited state structural dynamics in materials.

“I started my undergraduate degree as a nontraditional student at the local community college and as a result, did not have a straightforward pathway into graduate school or academia,” says Schriber. “Being awarded the GRFP, especially with my background, makes me hopeful that more students with similar experiences can be empowered to believe that they can be successful, regardless of how they got their start.”  Read the full UConn Today Story

IMS Faculty Members Mentor 2022 SURF Award Winners

SURF AwardsWith the assistance of faculty mentors, UConn students in all majors, across all UConn campuses, conduct research or creative projects each year in pursuit of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) Award. 

UConn recently announced that 39 students had been awarded the 2022 SURF Award. Two Institute of Materials Science (IMS) faculty members served as mentor to winners for this year’s cohort of winners.

Dr. Helena Silva (Electrical and Computer Engineering) served as mentor for Derek Lefcort (’23, Electrical Engineering, ENG) for his project entitled Fabrication and Electrical Characterization of Multi-Contact PCM Toggle Device.

Dr. Linnaea Ostroff (Physiology and Neurobiology) served as mentor to Rebecca Tripp (’23, Physiology and Neurobiology, CLAS) for her project, Characterizing Neurons Containing Calcium-Binding Proteins in the Amygdala of Female and Male Rats.

IMS congratulates all the winners and commends Drs. Silva and Ostroff for their dedication in serving as mentors.

Read the full announcement

 

MSE Students’ Fluxtrol Research Makes Semifinals at National Heat Treat Society Conference

MSE Group Poster Wins
Dean’s group in front of their project at the Heat Treat Society Conference. From left to right: Ryan Gordon, Cole Accord, and Quenten Dean.

Two MSE students made it to semi-finals at the 31st Heat Treat Contest which took place Sept. 14 and 15 in St. Louis. This year, the student/emerging professional portion of the conference hosted the Fluxtrol Student Competition and the new ASM Heat Treating Society Strong Bar Student Competition.

The talented group of rising materials engineers from UConn consisted of three undergraduate students, three graduate students, and one recent graduate.

The Heat Treating Society as a whole serves professional and aspiring material engineers who work in thermal processing. The annual competition offers awards and widespread recognition to young innovative scientists. Through this, the program seeks to encourage the participation of younger generations in the ASM Heat Treating Society. It also provides a pipeline to worldwide opportunities in the thermal processing community.

Recent MSE graduate Brittany Nelson and MSE senior Ryan Gordon were the two participants from UConn who made it to the semi-final round of the Fluxtrol Student Research Contest. “Unfortunately, they did not make it to the final winner slot, but everyone did a great job and they had some steep competition,” their faculty advisor, MSE Assistant Professor Lesley Frame, says. Frame currently serves as the first female Vice President of the Heat Treat Society.  Read the full MSE Story.