Hamline News

Chemistry Summer Research Notes: Pipers Using Plasma


Students Lue Her, Haileigh Lenz, Victor Tymecho, D'Angelo Perez and alumnus Tristan Contreras ‘20 worked with visiting faculty member Urvashi Gangal, Ph.D. to determine how to use cold plasma to inactivate pollutants in drinking water. The sun is made of very hot plasma but these Hamline students worked with cold plasma which scientists create mostly by applying high voltage across two electrodes in a background gas. 

What is the title of your project?

Degradation of Harmful Pollutants Present in Wastewater and Drinking Water by a Cold Atmospheric Pressure Plasma.

How would you explain your project to someone who knows nothing about it?

We work with plasma, which is the fourth state of matter. The sun and stars are made up of plasma, but the plasma we use is at room temp and can be generated at atmospheric pressure. It can be used to destroy harmful chemicals in water and kill bacteria and viruses. Plasma is special because it can destroy harmful chemicals and biological species present in water by using only electricity. It is a green chemistry and toxic waste products are not generated.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research methods?

It has made it so that we have fewer people in the lab, we must wear masks and gloves at all times and sanitize frequently. There are few faculty here to collaborate with - only two Hamline groups are doing face to face chemistry research. All the fun lunches, games, movies, and other group activities we usually do in the department have been cancelled. We are unable to physically present our work to a bigger audience as of yet, but we will be participating in a virtual research symposium this fall instead.

What is the biggest challenge of your project?

Plasma is challenging because it is very interdisciplinary in nature.The plasma source has been designed and engineered by our collaborator, Professor Bruggeman, at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. We are using the plasma source here at Hamline to inactivate harmful pollutants present in wastewater/drinking water and we will be identifying and detailing the mechanism of water inactivation. This involves many areas of chemistry as well as physics, biology, and engineering. Students must think critically and be diversified in their approaches. Plasma is still a relatively new technology with a lot to research and discover.

What has surprised you about the project?

This project definitely prepares us to be ready to investigate and solve problems. Things don’t always go as planned in research - but every failure is a learning experience and one step closer to success. It has made us appreciate how diverse {the experience of conducting} science can be.

How does the project fit with your academic or career goals?

We get hands-on experience with the lab and apply what we learned in our courses. These are our first real jobs in science. There is a lot of collaboration in general, benefitting us as teammates and developing our interpersonal skills. We meet on a weekly basis to present our progress and brainstorm ideas. The interactions with our principal investigator, Dr. Urvashi Gangal, felt very much like a friendly boss-worker relationship, where she guided us directly and worked closely with us, but still let us have a good amount of independence to help us grow as scientists. Her expertise in plasma chemistry and years of experience in research has given us the chance of an excellent training platform in interdisciplinary research. We feel more confident that we will be able to understand and investigate problems in the future and more so with an interdisciplinary approach.

Senior Haileigh Lenz: As an aspiring forensic scientist, this research is preparing me to be ready to investigate and solve problems. The interdisciplinary approach of this research will be very beneficial to me when I will investigate cases as a forensic scientist. This research is also giving me experience with lab equipment and instruments that I will use in my future career. Lenz will complete a B.A. in Chemistry and a Forensic Science Certificate this academic year.

Senior Victor Tymechko: The interdisciplinary nature of this research has provided a valuable experience for me as an aspiring chemical engineer, in addition to insight into wastewater treatment processes. Tymechko seeks a B.S. in Chemistry and Mathematics Minor this academic year.

Junior Lue Her: With my eyes on medical school, this research has helped me gain skills such as team work, perseverance, and patience.It has made me truly appreciate the procedure of understanding and solving problems. In addition, these two summers of research experience in Dr. Urvashi Gangal’s lab under her guidance along with lots of lab work will better prepare me for the challenging times in medical school and ahead. Her is pursuing a B.S. in Chemistry and Forensic Science Certificate.

Junior D’Angelo Perez: Being able to learn different methodologies to analyze substances via the instruments in chemistry labs will be most useful for me if I wish to continue to do research in pharmacy; I also managed to gain skills in collaboration, trouble-shooting, & the patience that comes with doing research. Perez is pursuing a B.S. in Biochemistry

A few words from alumnus Tristan Contreras who recently graduated with a B.A. in Chemistry: I worked in Dr Gangal’s lab in Summer of 2019, Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 on wastewater and drinking water inactivation by plasma. I am currently working on another project with Dr. Urvashi Gangal in Prof. Bruggeman’s lab at UMN since Spring 2020. We are synthesizing polymers and nanoparticles using another plasma source. Working on these projects has allowed me to gain first hand experience on what it is like to work with other people from various disciplines on the same problem in a work setting. Listening to what others have to say about it and working with them to achieve the same goal is valuable experience. It also has taught me that the goal is never straight forward, and that obstacles and failures will pop up but those are necessary to fully understand and appreciate what you are doing. Hamlines Plasma laboratory is brand new and started summer of 2019, and since then a lot of hard work and time has been put into making it a functioning lab that will hopefully grow even more in the future. Professor Gangal has been a great mentor, professor, and friend throughout all of research. She is definitely the backbone of the lab and an inspiration to those who have worked with her.

Image provided by the team. Group photo: Standing L to R: Lue Her, Haileigh Lenz, Urvashi Gangal, Victor Tymecho, D'Angelo Perez and Tristan Contreras

Written by Dr. Urvashi Gangal, Lue Her, Haileigh Lenz, Victor Tymecho, D'Angelo Perez and alumnus Tristan Contreras. Lightly edited by staff.