Sometimes, big things start small. As in, microscopically small.
Since its arrival on campus in November 2020, Hamline’s Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) has provided more than the ability to explore the microscopic structure of materials. It’s provided students the opportunity to conduct real-life research.
The arrival of the SEM, which has the capability to identify atomic elements, enabled a group of students and Lifeng Dong, physics professor, to win an Environmental Protection Agency grant for a research project to detect lead in tap water. They began the work last fall.
This summer, a team of students continued the project. Through Hamline’s summer collaborative undergraduate research program, a small group of students were paid full-time to continue the research, an experience similar to the way graduate students pursue advanced degrees in a university lab.
The experimental process
The learning happens in the microscope use, but also in the larger problem-solving that goes into the research.
For example, the SEM can identify the element of an object placed on a slide一important for detecting the presence of lead. But this requires gold slides for viewing samples, which is expensive. At first, the student researchers tried cleaning the slides with acetone, but this stripped the gold from the surface, making the method unusable. Eventually, after several rounds of trial and error, the students found a workable solution to the problem.
“Just being able to play around and experiment and go through that creative process is a really valuable skill,” said Maddie Sowinski ’23, an applied physics major with an emphasis in energy and environmental science, along with a minor in computational data science.
The research team learned to use the SEM on the job, practicing the process of setting up samples, focusing the image, and taking a clear picture until professor Lifeng Dong, the project’s faculty advisor, was confident that students could work independently.
The close connection with Dong and other faculty made this project possible for the student research team. Sowinski said that she hadn’t taken a class from Dong yet, but he still knew about her and invited her into the research. For Sydney McCutchen ’23, this supportive physics community of both faculty and students helped her realize it was the major she wanted.
“I’ve had great experiences with the physics professors,” said McCutchen, an applied physics (engineering emphasis) major and math minor. “They know who you are. They’re always ready to help. It’s fantastic.”
Beyond microscope skills
From this summer’s SEM project, student researchers gain the skills to design and carry out scientific experiments and use complex equipment. Beyond that, the list of gains goes on: They’re learning to write about and present their findings at conferences, solve problems, secure funding, and advocate for themselves and their goals.
If student researcher Josh Sedarski ’24 had to put a headline on his first year at Hamline, he’d say it’s that you don’t know until you ask. During his first year at Hamline, the physics major knew he wanted to get involved in research. Turns out, getting involved was as easy as asking a professor.
“You can have a high chance of participating in undergraduate research even as a freshman. Staff support you, but they also pursue you. They’re trying to give you as many opportunities as possible,” said Sedarski.
And, perhaps above all else, the student researchers explore the SEM’s capabilities with enthusiasm, an excitement that signals they’ve found a field that truly interests them.
“It’s just so much fun,” said Sedarski.
‘We’ve got it here for you’
Though the research project has brought them together, these three students came to Hamline from across the country. Sedarski’s hometown is Rochester, while Sowinski grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and McCutchen in Denver, Colorado.
All three mentioned the small campus community as a big draw to Hamline, along with the ability to get to know professors on a personal level.
Sowinski had chosen Hamline as a school where she could continue her gymnastics career while studying exercise science, but found her home in physics instead once she got to know the close-knit department. And, as the first student to take on the applied physics’ optional emphasis track in energy and environmental science, the SEM project fit right into her interests.
What she appreciates about Hamline is the way she’s never tied down to just one activity, she said. Along with physics research, she also competes with the gymnastics and track teams. On top of that, she’s a New Student Mentor and a SPROUT (Students Proposing Real Options for Underutilized Territory) garden intern through the Wesley Center.
McCutchen was also drawn to Hamline’s athletics community. A member of the swimming and diving team, she’s a fan of Hamline’s ongoing opportunities to get involved, whether it’s research or with her team.
“The community of athletics is definitely strong,” she said. “I knew these people were going to be my friends no matter what.”
Sedarski, a recipient of the Fulford-Karp Physics Scholarship, said that Hamline was an easy pick due to the full-tuition scholarship. It was also a place he felt he could fully explore his interests.
“If you want to be busy, if you want to work on a bunch of different projects, we’ve got it here for you,” he said.
The SEM project is just a sampling of research happening on campus this summer and beyond. For these three students一and the many others putting their education into practice at Hamline一it’s the opportunity to get involved in different projects and communities that will launch their careers, even before graduation.
Photo: From left to right, Josh Sedarski ’24, Maddie Sowinski ’23, Osman Sesay ’21, Zach Griebel ’23, and physics professors Jerry Artz and Lifeng Dong explore the microscope's capabilities in November 2020.
Meet the students
Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin
Graduation year: 2023
Major: Applied physics with a concentration in energy and environmental science
Minor: Computational data science
On-campus activities: University Honors, New Student Mentor, Hamline Initiative for Professional and Academic Liaisons, Hamline gymnastics, Hamline track & field, Omicron Delta Kappa
Off-campus activities: SPROUT garden intern (with Hamline United Methodist Church and the Wesley Center for Spirituality, Service and Social Justice)
Scholarships: Malmstrom Research Scholarship, Jerry Artz “Freebody” Award, Kent Bracewell Memorial Fund, Presidential Scholarship
Hometown: Rochester, Minnesota
Graduation year: 2024
On-campus activities: University Honors, Hamline Initiative for Professional and Academic Liaisons, Hamline track & field
Accomplishments: Fulford-Karp Physics Scholarship recipient, Richard Pontinen Scholarship, Wasie Foundation Scholarship, Presidential Scholarship
Hometown: Denver, Colorado
Graduation year: 2023
Major: Applied physics with a concentration in engineering
On-campus activities: University Honors, Hamline swimming & diving