Research Never Sleeps
Research Never Sleeps
Building the future means working past dusk
for these graduate student researchers
In the world of engineering research, the path from turning a concept into a marketable solution is paved with challenges, which requires resources, substantial funding and a commitment to work that can span decades. This dedication can translate into working longer hours, which sometimes stretch into the night.
For three doctoral students and their research teams at The Grainger College of Engineering, periodic adjustments to sleep schedules are a small trade-off when a potentially significant breakthrough is around the corner.
At various stages of their work, Materials Science and Engineering students Arghya Patra and Rimsha Bhatta, and Agricultural and Biological Engineering student Dong Hoon Lee, conduct experiments with cycles that can last longer than 24 hours under observation. From taking small naps to consuming caffeine as needed, these researchers have access to some of the best equipment and technology that labs across campus have to offer. As they hone their skills mentored by world-class faculty, they pursue meaningful research that will impact future generations.
Re-imagining battery electrodes to power everyday technology faster
Arghya Patra, the 2023 recipient of the Ross J. Martin Award for his contributions to materials research with Braun Research Group, joined the team almost six years ago to work with Paul Braun, a Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering and director of the Materials Research Laboratory.
Patra, who describes Braun as a visionary, works with three other graduate student researchers to re-invent how battery electrodes are made so one day smaller batteries will fully charge portable technology and electric cars at a faster rate while making them lighter and more compact.
According to Patra, the carefully controlled growth and observation of the thick electrodes is conducted inside an inert atmosphere overnight to create the highly anisotropic, grain boundary engineered cathode material. Braun’s research team developed electrochemical tools to remotely control and study the growth process.
“The electrodes, which have spun out of my research, are 10 times thicker than conventional electrodes,” Patra said. “They are almost one millimeter thick and need to be grown very carefully.”
During material growth, an observation period can last up to two days.
Patra, who admits the calm of night helps him focus, once turned to energy drinks for overnight stays at the Engineering Sciences Building where his labs are located. Now he observes part of his experiments from the comfort of his apartment, letting the software monitor the growth and auto adjust the growth conditions while he sleeps. The hybrid approach is worth it to him.
“I personally believe in tangible research that can impact the lives of people,” Patra said. “The research should not be limited to papers and patents; it should also have a deep, societal impact for years to come.”
“I personally believe in tangible research that can impact the lives of people. The research should not be limited to papers and patents; it should also have a deep, societal impact for years to come.”
Arghya Patra, Materials Science and Engineering
Team researchers include Michael Caple, Nathan Fritz, Brian (Jr Wen) Lin and Jarom Sederholm
Developing biomaterials for targeted, life-saving cancer treatment
Rimsha Bhatta describes her environment at Wang Research Lab as being a collaborative space where experts in the fields of biomaterials and cancer immunotherapy exchange their knowledge and ideas. This dynamic is what drew her to the lab’s team, led by MatSE professor and Cancer Center at Illinois researcher Hua Wang, when she began her doctoral work at Grainger Engineering in 2020.
“The graduate school here is really renowned along with its professors,” Bhatta said. “I knew that MatSE was among the top five in the country when I applied.”
She is among eight graduate researchers in the lab and creates different biomaterials targeting cancer cells with the goals of developing cancer vaccines and better immunotherapies. Metabolic labeling technology allows her to label cancer cells, which emit extracellular vesicles, with chemical tags on the surface. The approach enables the researchers to make a more targeted conjugation of the molecule targets, according to Bhatta, who usually stays late twice a week to help make it happen.
“There are some conditions that can only be met during the nighttime,” Bhatta said. “Some of the experiments just take too long, even when you begin early in the morning. You can’t stop in between because it’s just the nature of the experiment.”
Bhatta takes advantage of her five-minute drive to the lab, housed inside the Materials Science and Engineering Building, by often eating dinner at home. Short naps also help. On those nights when she leaves the lab closer to midnight, she is usually joined by up to four colleagues who are also trying to complete experiments while helping each other.
Her doctoral experience at Illinois has provided her with opportunities like presenting her research at conferences, acting as a mentor to high school students in the ResearcHStart summer program and taking on the role as first author for a recently published paper in the Biomaterials journal related to T cell therapy.
“I hope to see myself as an aspiring leader who is making a positive impact on people’s lives through my field as I continue to grow as a researcher,” Bhatta said. “This research means a great deal to me because it’s providing an opportunity to develop something that saves the lives of cancer patients.”
“I hope to see myself as an aspiring leader who is making a positive impact on people’s lives through my field as I continue to grow as a researcher. This research means a great deal to me because it’s providing an opportunity to develop something that saves the lives of cancer patients.”
Rimsha Bhatta, Materials Science and Engineering
Team researchers include Dhyanesh Baskaran, Yang Bo, Joonsu Han, David (Minsup)
Lee,Yusheng Liu, Daniel Nguyen, Yueji Wang and David (Jiadiao) Zhou
Dong Hoon Lee
Creating an advanced agricultural biomolecule detection platform with nanozymes
When Dong Hoon Lee arrived at Illinois five years ago, he brought his strong interest in working with nanozymes with him. While these nanomaterial-based artificial enzymes are often associated with the biomedical field, Lee was fascinated by their expanding applications in agriculture. The ABE department, affiliated with The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and Grainger Engineering, was the perfect fit for him.
Lee credits his adviser, Mohammed Kamruzzaman, an ABE assistant professor, for granting him a leadership role for his work while providing the necessary resources to support his nanozyme research.
“I love our department’s academic atmosphere where the faculty and staff highly support students to conduct important scientific research,” Lee said. “We developed the Illinois Nanozyme Engineering Lab (INEL) to enable me to pursue my own research day and night.”
At the Agricultural Engineering Sciences Building (AESB), Lee is developing a novel, organic compound-based nanozyme using different constituent materials. Currently, he is creating an agriculture-focused, next-generation nanozyme that is bio and eco-friendly and cost-effective with a sufficient catalytic performance. These nanozymes can be utilized on a customized optical sensing platform for on-demand, agricultural biomolecule detection with related biological applications.
Each time Lee creates a new nanozyme, he must understand its properties first by testing it under optimized conditions. He then proceeds with a substrate-dependent colorimetric assay, which indicates the existence of intrinsic, enzyme-like catalytic activity in the synthesized nanostructure. This stage often involves a continuous 24-hour observation using facilities at AESB, Materials Research Lab (MRL), Beckman Institute and Noyes Lab.
Lee’s dedication is evident in his late-night sessions, often extending past 11p.m. During those late nights, which he says, “elevate his concentration,” he reads research-related topics, communicates with collaborators and writes papers. He recently saw his first paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry Nanoscale journal, which was related to organic compound-based nanozymes for agricultural herbicide detection.
“Ever since I was young, I’ve dreamed of creating something that would be beneficial to others,” Lee said. “I’m confident that my polymer-based nanozyme will help address some of the unresolved challenges in agricultural and biological engineering.”
“Ever since I was young, I’ve dreamed of creating something that would be beneficial to others. I’m confident that my polymer-based nanozyme will help address some of the unresolved challenges in agricultural and biological engineering.”
Dong Hoon Lee, Agricultural and Biological Engineering