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Training Tomorrow’s Research Leaders

Students Work in the Lab as Summer Interns

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Methuen High School student Michaela Cullum-Doyle working in the lab with her adviser, plastics engineering Assoc. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Pharmaceutical drugs. “Green” polyurethane foams. Fire-resistant plastics. 
These are just some of the materials that three young researchers — Tyler Harrison of Westford and sisters Samantha Cullum and Michaela Cullum-Doyle of Methuen — are working on at the Center for Advanced Materials as part of the University’s summer internship program.
Harrison is an incoming sophomore in the Chemistry Department. His study is funded through the co-op program of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.
Cullum and Cullum-Doyle are incoming senior and junior, respectively, at Methuen High School. Their works are funded through the Army’s Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (REAP), which provides high-school students pursuing careers in science and engineering an opportunity to interact with some of the best faculty in the country.
Producing Life-Saving Medicine Faster
“In the lab I have been synthesizing compounds that contain a carbon-nitrogen double bond to see if these bonds can join together to form a ring when subjected to ultraviolet radiation,” explains Harrison, whose adviser is chemistry Prof. Daniel Sandman. 
“If they do, then this process can create compounds with nitrogen-containing rings much more quickly and easily,” he says. “These rings are prevalent in pharmaceutical drugs; for example, penicillin has one of these nitrogen rings. If we can find a way to synthesize the rings with fewer steps, we can then produce medicines at a faster rate.”

“I came into this research without having taken organic chemistry yet,” says Harrison. “With the knowledge and skills I have acquired over the summer, I should have a solid foundation when I do enroll in organic chemistry. In addition, working in the lab has given me an idea as to how research really works, which will prove invaluable to my future professional career.”

A Safer Way of Manufacturing Polyurethane

“My project is unique because it has never been done before,” says Cullum. “Polyurethane is used so widely as coatings and foams that if we succeed in making the manufacturing process safer, the entire industry will benefit. It will also make people’s lives healthier.”

Cullum, who is also advised by Sandman, is working with the enzyme lipase to see if polyurethane can be produced without using harsh chemicals, especially isocyanates, which are dangerous irritants and potential carcinogens and are thus heavily regulated. 
“It is possible the process can be used on a commercial scale, which will help make the mass-production of ‘green’ polyurethane a profitable option,” she says. “Using safer chemicals would reduce the cost for companies in disposing isocyanates.”

After high-school graduation, Cullum plans to go to college to become an environmental scientist. 

“I am interested in environmental policy so I may choose to work in the government to help regulate how people interact with the environment and help preserve our natural resources,” she says. 

She adds her research experience at UMass Lowell has already helped her education in a big way. 

“It has taught me how to work in a real research laboratory, how to deal with different instruments, chemicals and techniques and how to harness scientific ingenuity,” says Cullum. “These lessons are invaluable and I am very thankful to have this opportunity at my age. It has been a summer I will never forget!”

Making Fire-Retardants and Electrically Conducting Plastics 

Cullum-Doyle is exploring ways to transform ingredients present in lignin into flame-retardant additives. 

“Lignin is found in trees: it's what holds the tree together,” she explains. “It is a waste product of the paper industry since they have to extract it out of the wood pulp before high-quality bleached paper can be made. Lignin is usually just burned as fuel.”

Cullum-Doyle is trying to get lignin to polymerize with different additives and then blend it with plastic or coat it onto plastic products.
“The goal is to make everyday plastics safer by making them harder to burn,” she says. “In a fire, the plastic will burn more slowly, giving people more time to safely get out of a burning home or building.”

Cullum-Doyle’s other research project is using enzymes to create semiconducting polymers that could be used in electronics and solar panels.

“Neither of my projects has been conducted before, so being able to publish my work is a big possibility,” she says.

Cullum-Doyle’s dream is to become a medical doctor. 

“I have a passion for science,” she says. “I have also been a competitive dancer for more than 13 years. I attend a dance teachers' training course every summer, and I hope I can be a dance teacher, as well as a doctor, in the future.”