Undergraduate research: exploring the unknown

Professor Ann Anderson

Prof. Ann Anderson

Ann Anderson often finds herself reminding students that research is about exploring the unknown.

“If we knew the answer, it wouldn’t be research,” said the Agnes S. MacDonald Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of Energy Studies.

Getting students to explore the unknown is part of the experiential and immersive learning that is a priority of Union’s new Strategic Plan, and a key element of the Powering Union campaign.

Prof. Anderson and two faculty colleagues – Mary Carroll ’86, the Dwane W. Crichton Professor of Chemistry, and Brad Bruno, professor of mechanical engineering – mentor students in the College’s Aerogel Lab, an interdisciplinary facility that hosts students from mechanical engineering, chemistry, biochemistry, computer engineering and environmental science.

For nearly two decades, the Aerogel Lab has brought together students under faculty guidance to research and produce the materials commonly known as “frozen smoke.” Aerogels are porous nanostructures that are up to 99 percent air. They are used as insulation, to collect comet dust, and as chemical sensors and electronic capacitors. Other applications continue to arise.

More than 150 students have been part of Union’s Aerogel Team, which has received three patents for the production and characterization of the materials.

Prof. Anderson notes that though students from various disciplines may come to the project speaking different languages – “What’s ‘small’ to a mechanical engineer is ‘big’ to a chemist” – the collaboration requires that students feed off each other’s base of knowledge. “What we do is so dependent on both disciplines,” she adds.

The Aerogel Lab, like other fields of undergraduate research at Union, fosters an interaction between students of different class years, sometimes a rarity in disciplines that feature cumulative learning.

Donors make a difference for student researchers, particularly those who rely on summer stipends, Prof. Anderson said. “I can’t tell you how many students might not have persisted without that support.”

For Prof. Anderson and her colleagues, the goal is much broader than the results of their lab. “We are not training students in making aerogels,” she said. “We’re training them in research, in exploring the unknown.”

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