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Undergrad’s research blends major with physics

The boundary between busy and overwhelmed is a treacherous one, but chemical engineering student Sonja Glaser walks it with force.

Chemical Engineering Department rising senior Sonja Glaser sitting in a chair with her microscope's monitors behind her.

Chemical Engineering Department rising senior Sonja Glaser works with an atomic force microscope in her research to examine non-fouling polymers.

“I like too many things,” said Glaser. “I love distractions, and distractions seem to love me — maybe a little too much.”

For the past two years, Glaser — an upcoming senior — has worked as an undergraduate researcher with Gavin King, associate professor of physics and joint associate professor of biochemistry. King is working to develop a new, ultrastable atomic force microscope (AFM) that can more closely reveal the protein structures that make up cell membranes.

Atomic force microscopes don’t ‘see’ like traditional microscopes; instead, it’s more akin to reading Braille. A nano-scale probe, like a record needle, runs across the surface of whatever is being examined, and the instrument registers undulations along the surface, generating an image based off of topography.

“So, for about a year I was learning a little bit about the machine, and then I started doing work under a physics grad student,” explained Glaser. “Then, it got to the point where I couldn’t really help her anymore, so I worked on finding my own project, something in my major.”

After approaching Matthew Bernards, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and one of Glaser’s instructors, Glaser initiated a co-op between Bernards’ and King’s labs.

“I didn’t want to leave my project in the lab that I had made a family out of, so I found a way to do chemical engineering,” explained Glaser. “And it’s kind of fun to do something interdisciplinary like that. You see things from a different perspective. I work with a lot of people in the Physics department, so it’s nice to get out of this building once in a while.”

Bernards works with non-fouling polymers, materials that do not absorb proteins as easily as standard materials. Glaser now uses a special AFM probe, coated with proteins, to determine if Bernards’ non-fouling polymers really are non-fouling. It’s a chemical engineer’s project in a physicist’s lab.

“Sonja is the first student to approach me with a research project of her own design,” said Bernards. “Sonja had not only outlined a basic project framework, but she had convinced Dr. King and I that it was a good interdisciplinary, collaborative project for her to undertake,” said Bernards. “Despite all of Sonja’s other time commitments — which is quite a lengthy list — she has been working tirelessly to keep her project moving forward.”

Interdisciplinary work is right up Glaser’s alley, she says, because it keeps her feet in different camps.

“If I didn’t involve myself in other things in and out of class, I just wouldn’t be able to do anything at all anymore. I would just kind of stall out.”

Her freshman year, Glaser briefly joined the Mizzou Swing Society. Now she’s more committed to University Band, a cross-disciplinary ensemble where she plays percussion. With a little bit of notice, she says, she might even be able to fill in for violin, which she played as a kid.

Between her two great loves — chemical engineering and music — she says the latter is tragically less lucrative.

She’s currently an officer of the Chemical Engineering honors fraternity Omega Chi Epsilon, and is wrapping up her presidency with the MU chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AICHE). She’s also a member of the Engineering honor society Tao Beta Phi.

“I got in charge of [AICHE] because, when I first got into chemical engineering, I had no idea what a chemical engineer actually did,” said Glaser. “I wanted to use it as a platform for understanding what I might be doing on a day-to-day basis, and of course meet all the ‘grownups’ in the field.”

She says, despite all the late nights organizing events, reaching out to peers and professional mentors has been the most rigorous and rewarding challenge of her college career so far.

“I haven’t always been someone who would just put myself out there and approach people like that,” said Glaser. “It’s definitely a learned skill, but I’ve gained so much from just trying my luck at different things. Because, really, you never know what interesting projects will pop up if you just strike up a conversation.”

Glaser plans to take her undergraduate work as far as she can, but with a bit of a break this summer to complete an internship with Monsanto Corporation. She’ll be working as a process engineer in the company’s RoundUp plant in Muscatine, Iowa.

“The internship with Monsanto is going to be a make-or-break for me this summer,” said Glaser. “Maybe I’ll really like it and decide I want to go work in a plant for the foreseeable future. But if not, I’ll go to grad school and find a lab to settle down into.”

For the time being, Glaser thinks research is the way to go, but taking a summer internship just to see what it’s like is precisely her M.O.

“That’s the important thing about doing undergrad research, doing internships, involving yourself in clubs, meeting new people,” explained Glaser. “I’m not the person that says, ‘I want to do exactly this.’ I’m the type of person that says, ‘Well, I don’t like this and I don’t like this, and this is halfway interesting so I’m going to try this out for a while.’”

Her response, tongue-in-cheek, when people ask her about her present and future plans: “Just the same ol’ same ol’.”

“And I really think that’s the way to do it,” said Glaser. “You just get yourself into habits and groups as soon as you can, and just kind of truck along.”