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Undergraduate Research Report 2021-2022

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Isabelle Galko: My experience at IUCN in France

Isabelle Galko at IUCN

by Isabelle Galko ’22

This month, I traveled to Marseille and presented at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, a global meeting that takes place once every four years and serves as an assembly of leaders and decision-makers from government, academia, society, indigenous cultures, and industry working towards conserving the environment.

My presentation for the forum at IUCN was titled “Preparing Families to be Act as Stewards to Combat Climate Change and Restore Ocean Health.” The presentation showcases three projects (including my own) designed to increase individual stewardship and mitigate climate change risks in local communities. I specifically focused on female leadership in conservation and using the featured projects as models for future youth-led community-based initiatives. I also worked with IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication (CEC) over the 10 days at the conference. The commission’s current focus is an initiative called NatureForAll, which promotes equitable access to nature to cultivate love and appreciation for nature, with the goal to increase conservation of nature. When I arrived in Marseille, I set up the CEC’s “Youth Oasis,” where I connected with other young conservation leaders from around the world, helped put on interactive programs for the conference, and shared information about NatureForAll.

The first night, I saw French President Macron and the actor Harrison Ford speak at the Opening Ceremony. I attended sessions on many different topics, including the blue economy, environmental law, and amplifying indigenous voices in conservation, sat in on the member’s assembly, and heard from amazing experts, including the Prince of Monaco, the UN Special Envoy to the Ocean, and National Geographic explorers. I learned so much in Marseille, but my biggest takeaway from IUCN is that future approaches to address environmental challenges must be transgenerational, intersectional, and inclusive. Ultimately, conservation must be re-centered around people.


Interview with Dr. Andita Das (SMU Chemistry)

by Aya Bellaoui ’24Anindita Das

This summer we talked with a few of the faculty who hired students to be part of the Office of Engaged Learning’s Summer Research Intensive. Dr. Anindita Das is a new assistant professor in the department of chemistry at SMU who is working with 3 post-doctoral fellows, 2 graduate students and 8 undergraduate students to create renewable energy and deliver drugs using atomically precise nanomaterials. Dr. Das and her students have been working on these highly interdisciplinary projects in collaboration with various other research groups at SMU including the Lippert Lab.

Dr. Das attended Osmania University 2004-2007 for her Bachelor of Science, the University of Prune 2007-2009 for her Master of Science, Carnegie Mellon University for her PhD in 2010-2015, and Northwestern University for her post-doc in 2016-2020. She is an expert in biocompatible nanomaterials synthesis, materials chemistry, nanoparticle characterization techniques, inorganic chemistry, and catalysis.

What led you to conduct your current research?

The field of nanotechnology is making itself present in many kinds of scientific research areas. Dr. Das learned about the field when she moved to the United States ten years ago. For her PhD at Carnegie Mellon University, she got to know about the exciting field of designing materials at the nano scale and then and using this to address challenges in a variety of fields such as, renewable energy and drug delivery. That was the beginning of Dr. Das’ journey.

A major limitation in the field of nanotechnology pertains to the inherent structural inhomogeneity associated with conventional nanoparticles which precludes an atomic-level understanding of their structure-property relationships (e.g., exact catalytic and biological mechanisms). During her PhD, Dr. Das developed strategies to make nanomaterials with atomic precision and molecular purity in order to understand catalytic mechanisms at the atomic level.

What challenges have you encountered throughout your research and how have you worked to overcome those challenges?

Dr. Das says that there is always more to learn. For example, in Organic Chemistry I and II, they do not usually teach you about nanoparticles and how to address issues pertaining to renewable energy or drug delivery. There are techniques you are taught in chemistry courses that you may never use in research, and there are techniques that you will learn about throughout your research which will not be taught in school. So you have to learn throughout the process and adjust. It is all about applying what you learn in school to real-world problems.

What are you currently researching and why? What is the essential question that motivated you to conduct it?

There are different projects within the lab being conducted by different people. The main goal of lab is to circumvent some of the current challenges in the field by developing multifunctional atomically precise nanomaterials to answer critical questions in areas like catalysis, energy storage, targeted drug delivery and sensing, wherein efficiency and reproducibility heavily rely on materials that can be synthesized without batch-to-batch variations.

For example, we are currently collaborating with the Lippert group to develop novel nanoclusters which are capable of exhibiting chemiluminescence, which can help detect diseases at earlier stages. Another important criteria for using nanomaterials for bio-applications is that the probes need to be biocompatible. For instance, the FDA requires that all the drugs and probes that are used to diagnose diseases to be cleared out of your body after its action is done. Hence, our group is focusing on developing nanomaterials which are less than 2 nanometers in size so that these can be cleared from the kidneys after their intended use.

We are also involved in several other projects, such as making new kinds of catalysts based on metal nanoclusters for sustainable reactions including electroreduction of carbon dioxide (which is the main reason for global warming). In this regard, we have synthesized and characterized several new metal clusters with different surface structures and are currently evaluating their catalytic performance.

What resources have you needed to further your work? Have those resources been accessible?

We use the library to try to track down articles that aren’t easily available through other sources. It has also allowed us access to thousands of articles on nanoparticles. Also, in order to accurately study the properties of these interesting materials which lie at the interface of small molecules and solid-phase materials, these need to be analyzed by several techniques such as X-ray diffraction, NMR, FTIR, fluorescence microscopy, etc. Given the highly diverse research groups at SMU, these resources have been easy to access which has allowed our new group to establish various collaborations with the neighboring research labs.

What one piece of advice would you give someone who is interested and conducting an experiment or research project?

Do not be afraid to reach out to professors conducting research in areas you are interested in getting involved with. Take your chances.

Thank you, Dr. Das!