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Research Assistantships - Sampada Borkar & Lauren Ooka assist Dr. Balint Sztaray

by Faith Merino '08Dr.  Balint Sztaray, Lauren Ooka & Sampada Borkar

Before asking Dr. Balint Sztaray about his recent trip to the Swiss Synchrotron Light Source, you may want to brush up on your chemistry. In 2008, Dr. Sztaray, a Chemistry professor at University of the Pacific, was awarded a grant from the Pacific Fund to spend two weeks at the Swiss Synchrotron Light Source at the Paul Sherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland.

Before delving any further into Dr. Sztaray's experiences in Switzerland, the average listener would probably want to know what synchrotron light actually is. It helps to consider synchrotron light in contrast to an X-ray. While an X-ray penetrates the surface of a material to allow for an examination of bulk properties, synchrotron light beams are sharply focused, like laser beams, and allow for the examination of the surface of a material. At the Swiss Light Source, the spectrum of synchrotron light ranges from infrared light to soft and hard X-rays.

Dr. Sztaray specifically wanted to carry out Photoelectron Photoion Coincidence Spectroscopy (PEPICO) in the newly constructed iPEPICO experimental endstation at the Swiss Light Source's vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) beamline. As Dr. Sztaray explained, PEPICO "uses vacuum ultraviolet light to ionize a gaseous molecule to form a positive ion and an electron. These two are both analyzed and detected in coincidence; therefore, we know the energy of the ion very well, and by measuring how the ion falls apart, we can measure the bond strengths in it. Since VUV light is absorbed even in air, the whole experiment has to be in a vacuum, at a pressure more than a billion times lower than air."

PEPICO is important to basic energy research, such as car fuel. As commuters around the world recently experienced record high gas prices in 2008, one of the "holy grails" of modern synthetic chemistry, according to Sztaray, is the "selective activation of the carbon-hydrogen bond in hydrocarbons." This could, one day, allow for the utilization of methane, which is abundant and inexpensive, as fuel. Dr. Sztaray's research could help establish a basic framework for further research and utilization of methane.

Dr. Sztaray wanted more from this project than basic research, however. His goal was to utilize this research trip as an experiential learning opportunity, and he specifically requested enough money to bring along two students to aid him in his efforts. "When I was an undergraduate student, I spent almost as much time in the research lab as I did in the classroom," said Sztaray. "Students can learn more by completing an inspiring research project than taking a course and focusing mostly on getting the best grade in it." Sztaray proposed the project with the intention of bringing along one undergraduate student and one graduate student, the goal of which was to allow the undergraduate student to work closely with, and learn from, the more experienced graduate student. The students' hands-on work at the Swiss Synchrotron Light Source and their subsequent data analysis will lead to at least 2-3 publications in leading scientific journals, thereby setting them apart from their peers and giving them a competitive edge.

Sztaray chose Sampada Borkar, a first-year graduate student in the Chemistry Department at University of the Pacific who has already performed extensive research on PEPICO. For his undergraduate student, Sztaray selected Lauren Ooka, a senior biochemistry major who is working on her honors thesis in Sztaray's research group.

A typical day at the synchrotron lab could be long and grueling. On one of the more memorable days, the fast valve that protects the synchrotron from pressure hikes in the beamline had malfunctioned, and Sampada and Lauren were at the lab by eight in the morning to try to fix the problem. They managed to get the instrument up and running again by noon, at which point they began the data collection that was to run until midnight. While the measurement was run automatically by the computer, Sampada left early to cook an authentic Indian dinner for everyone, including two other scientists. "It was excellent!" exclaimed Sztaray. After dinner, the three went back to the lab and finished up the measurement, changed the sample, and had a new measurement running for the night by 1:30 a.m. It was well after 2 a.m. when the researchers finally got to bed.

"Measurement time at the synchrotron is extremely valuable," Dr. Sztaray explained. "One day costs around $5,000 to the Swiss taxpayers, so we need to use every hour that was assigned to us efficiently."

The trip, which was completed toward the end of the spring 2009 semester, was not only a success in terms of the valuable insights the researchers gained; it was also a one-of-a-kind opportunity for the students to work in another culture with leading scientists in the field.

"From an undergraduate perspective," said Lauren, "this trip gave me the opportunity to apply all of the skills that I have been learning in the classroom to the real world... Not only was I able to learn more about this particular field, but I was also given the opportunity to work closely with people from around the world."

Dr. Sztaray and the students have been granted more instrument time in the fall, and they look forward to returning to Switzerland to run more experiments. As the Synchrotron Light Source was built by physicists for chemists, Sztaray believes that their research will "illustrate how the traditional boundaries of science are meaningless when it comes to an interdisciplinary field like physical chemistry-or chemical physics."

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