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Chemical engineering scholarship allows for graduate student’s research

Leonard Sze works in the research lab of chemical engineering Assistant Professor Sheila Baker. He is working to characterize deep eutectic solvents (DES), which create a material with a much lower melting point than its two separate components.

When looking for graduate programs in chemical engineering last year, Leonhard Sze decided to apply to the University of Missouri. Never mind that his first introduction to MU was picking Mizzou to go to the Final Four in his NCAA basketball bracket.

The offer of the Robert and Dorcas Holtsmith Graduate Student Scholarship enticed Sze to choose the University of Missouri College of Engineering over the other programs he was accepted into. He’s pleased with his decision and excited about the research he’s doing with Sheila Baker, an assistant professor in chemical engineering.

“I’m really glad he picked Mizzou,” Baker said. “He has been very productive.”

The Holtsmith scholarship that attracted Sze to the program was set up specifically to recruit outstanding students for the chemical engineering graduate program by Bob Holtsmith, an alumni of the department. It adds $5,000 a year to the college’s stipend for up to five years.

Sze’s first project with Baker in the fall 2011 semester was working with ionic liquids. Baker was interested in finding one that could be used in carbon dioxide capture but found that the system did not achieve that goal.

“Our first experiment didn’t work as we expected,” Sze said. “But we still found a lot of applications.”

Sze used the equipment in the lab to investigate the properties of the ionic liquids. They have potential for detection of the metallic chemical element Europium, which is slightly toxic, and has pH sensing capabilities.

“It’s always rewarding when you can find a new direction for a project if it does not work as you expected,” Baker said.

A manuscript on the results from that project is complete and will be submitted to Chemistry–A European Journal for review and potential publication.

Sze is working to characterize some deep eutectic solvents (DES), which create a material with a much lower melting point than its two separate components. He says he’s learned how to use many different types of equipment and instrumentation and believes that knowledge will be useful experience for the future.

“I definitely don’t want to have a desk job,” Sze said. He enjoys the more hands-on nature of research, but his least favorite part is the waiting. “Some experiments take a very long time,” he said.

Baker says having good graduate students is essential for successful research.

“They’re usually the ones who are in the lab doing the experiments — the workhorses,” Baker said. “But it’s not just about having them do the experiments. It’s also about them being able to look at the results, interpret what they mean, and determine what they should do next.”

Baolin Deng, chair of the chemical engineering department, said a strong graduate program is essential to the research mission of the university.

“This scholarship allows us to attract the brightest students to our program, and provide financial support for them to conduct cutting-edge research,” Deng said. “I truly appreciate such support to our students while our faculty strives to further grow our research activities.”

Sze describes the work he’s done so far as “starter projects.” He also is doing background research for a project on nanomaterials, which is his main interest. This work will focus on nanomaterials as coatings.

One application for coatings that particularly interests Sze is oil-resistant nanomaterials for phones “Right now, most screens and screen protectors have scratch resistance and water repellent properties, but are not very good dirt and oil repellent properties,” he said. “So hopefully we can develop a cheaper and better way to eliminate finger prints and dirt on phones.”

Kevin Zurick, a graduate student in Assistant Professor Matthew Bernard’s lab, also receives funding from the Holtsmith scholarship.



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