Training the next generation of globally minded researchers

As part of the Research and Education in Active Coatings Technologies for the Human Habitat program, students conduct fundamental research on materials that can improve lives while engaging in international collaborations and educational activities.

react tents at penn singh nano building
REACT students David Gordon, Griffin Murphy, and Mauricio Alvarez discuss how to design a tent that can collect water during NanoDay@Penn. The prototypes were developed as part of the REACT workshop held during the summer of 2017 in Grenoble. (Photo: REACT)

From climate change to resource management, society is faced with numerous challenges and is looking for scientists and engineers to provide solutions. But in order to make progress, researchers must learn how to work outside of their comfort zone and understand how fundamental research findings can be used in an ever-changing world.

Here at Penn, the next generation of globally minded researchers are poised to make such progress. As part of REACT, the Research and Education in Active Coatings Technologies for the Human Habitat program funded by the National Science Foundation, students and faculty conduct fundamental research on materials that are needed after a natural disaster strikes. As part of this collaboration, graduate and undergraduate students also learn about international workplaces at the Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies (GIANT) campus during the summer.

“It’s a very special ecosystem,” says REACT director Russell Composto about the GIANT campus. Here, students can use state-of-the-art equipment and facilities while tapping into the technical expertise of industrial and national labs. “It’s much more segmented in the U.S., so we’re exposing our students to something that doesn’t exist here,” he adds.

It’s a very special ecosystem. REACT director Russell Composto

Students who work in one of REACT’s three “acts”—water, infectious disease, and energy—spend 10 weeks living and working in Grenoble under the supervision of a French adviser. Undergraduate students work on independent research projects while graduate students do work that directly connects to their thesis. REACT sends both undergraduate and graduate students from Penn to Grenoble, along with several students from partnering institutions, while also hosting students from France here at Penn.

To help prepare for their summer abroad, Associate Director for Education and REACT Co-PI Kristin Field organizes onboarding exercises, French language courses, and connects students to REACT alumni who can share their experiences of living and working in France. “Our goal is to get them prepared mentally for the science as much as possible,” she says.

student group in grenoble
REACT 2019 students and Grenoble summer program interns, including undergraduate Rebecca Zappala (third from left, front), pose in front of the Chartreuse Mountains after completing a challenging ropes course. (Photo: Hermine Vincent)

Last summer, Ben Paren, a fourth year graduate student and VIEST fellow who works in the lab of Karen Winey, traveled to Grenoble to use specialized equipment and work with technical experts in his field. His research on “precise” polymers, solid materials that can conduct ions and may work in batteries as electrolytes without the need for volatile or toxic liquids, was supported by the connections he made during his time in Grenoble.

“What I gained was the insight and understanding of these types of materials,” says Paren. “In order to measure their properties, such as their conductivities, we need to get them to be flat films. A lot of what I did was optimizing how to process these materials, then doing some conductivity measurements which I continued here at Penn.”

Paren also got to experience first-hand how science is done in a different cultural setting, with the biggest change for him being how the work day was structured. “You had to leave by 6:30, and you could not come in on the weekend. Here at Penn, if there’s instruments available or if I’m in the middle of a great measurement, I’ll stay late or come in on the weekend, so I had to be a lot more strategic about planning my experiments,” he says.

This summer, Paren mentored a visiting master’s student from France, paying his international research experience forward while providing guidance to Laura Issartel and Arjun Kanthawar, a Penn undergraduate student, while they worked in the Winey lab.

I hadn’t been part of a research team before, and I got a lot of exposure to things that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. Rebecca Zappala, a junior from Miami, Florida

Rebecca Zappala, a junior from Miami, Florida who is majoring in bioengineering, worked in Grenoble this summer on new ways to harvest water from fog. She describes her research project as a “futuristic” way to collect water and says that she’s thankful for the opportunity to work on her first independent research project through the REACT program.

After learning the technical skills she needed for her project, Zappala spent her summer independently working on new ways to modify her material’s properties while working closely with her French PI and a post-doc in the lab. She was surprised to see how diverse the lab was, with researchers working on everything from biomolecular research to energy in the same space.

“I learned a lot,” she says about being in such an interdisciplinary setting. “I hadn’t been part of a research team before, and I got a lot of exposure to things that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.”

Through weekly seminars and networking activities, coordinated by the GIANT international internship program, Zappala says she enjoyed the opportunities to meet others and to learn more about research, including several opportunities to present her work. Overall, she describes her research experience as “self-empowering.”

fab lab workshop for REACT
During the REACT workshop at the end of the summer research program, undergraduate Zach Whitlock (left) worked with Grenoble’s Fabrication lab director to lead a four-day workshop on water resources in urban environments. (Photo: Hermine Vincent)

“You have to really be confident to make decisions, since it’s something new that no one’s ever done it before. I learned that I was able to do some of that decision-making by myself, and felt like I was applying what I’m learning in class by physically doing something,” says Zappala.

REACT students complete their 10-week research experience with a four-day workshop. The goal of the workshop is to use the premises of REACT and create simple prototypes that translate research into something that can be used directly. The workshop takes place in the Fablab open innovation center, a “maker space” complete with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other rapid prototyping tools.

Zach Whitlock, a senior from Washington, D.C., who is majoring in materials science and earth and environmental science, conducted research at GIANT last summer and returned to Grenoble this summer to lead the REACT workshop. His goal was to create a workshop that could help students better think about how they can make a difference through their work.

With a theme focused on urban environments, Whitlock approached the workshop with inspiration from a course at Penn on water resource management taught by Anthony Sauder. Whitlock reached out to Sauder and was able to connect to experts in the areas of managing water resources in urban environments, including Arun Deb, Ariel Ben-Amos, and Allison Lassister, who shared their perspectives during presentations and Q&A sessions. Students also engaged in hands-on activities and learned about the fundamentals of starting a company.

Whitlock says that the workshop got the participants thinking about the structural challenges that need to be addressed when developing high-tech solutions for water management. “The interviews were fantastic, the students had questions, and I felt we were beginning to think deeply about how new technology can be sustainably implemented in diverse settings,” he says.

For Zappala, the workshop helped her think about how her research can connect to other people and communities. “REACT translated what I’m doing at school to something that would be put into the world, and the workshop was more literal about getting our research and physically building a product that could make a direct impact on a community,” she says.

With everyone now back at Penn and gearing up for the fall semester, REACT PIs would like to extend their program by partnering with institutions in South Korea. This will give students a different type of work and research culture to experience and also allows the program to expand into research related to urban sustainability issues.

But even with an expansion of its research focus, having educational experiences as a fundamental component of REACT will remain a constant. Whether it’s presenting their work to a lay audience, networking with other researchers at annual REACT symposiums, or learning first-hand about what it’s like to live and work in a different country, REACT students have numerous opportunities to apply what they learn to an ever-changing world.

Zappala says that getting out of her comfort zone, both academically and culturally, was worth the challenges that came with adjusting to a new city, culture, and work setting. “It’s a great combination of exploring a research career and continuing to try new things. This experience gave me something to go on, so I’m grateful for that,” she says.

working with legos for stem projects
(From left) Anna Tommasi, Jérémie Pioch, Lauren Hurley, and Zappala talk through their ideas for how to bring their fundamental research to life during the REACT workshop. Students worked through ideas using simple materials like Legos before creating full prototypes in the fabrication lab. (Photo: Hermine Vincent)

Whitlock, who hopes to do international environmental impact work after graduate school,  says the experience of leading a project, both as a researcher and as a workshop organizer, will be instrumental for his senior year at Penn. “REACT is such a good way to study abroad without having to leave for a semester. I’ve found the other undergrad’s projects to be fascinating and that my project during the first year was worthwhile because it was self-led and feasible to complete within 10 weeks,” he says. “It helped me think about graduate school, and it was the first time I had complete control over a project.”

Paren’s ultimate career goal is to work in energy policy and says that REACT’s workshops, training, and networking opportunities, including his summer in Grenoble, helped him understand what to expect in the next stage of his career. “I had the opportunity to meet and work with a variety of people, and that has taught me to adapt to different work environments. It’s definitely broadened my horizons and encourages me that being in this Ph.D. program is the right move.”

REACT is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education program, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of Arts and Sciences. REACT institutions include Penn, Alabama State University, Bryn Mawr College, Villanova University, and the six institutions within the Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies (GIANT) in France, which participate through French National Research Agency funding. Solvay, a materials and chemical company, is the industrial partner.

Homepage photo: REACT graduate student Ben Paren (right) conducts fundamental research on ion-conducting polymers. Last summer he traveled to Grenoble to use specialized equipment for his research and spent his summer mentoring French student Laura Issartel.