David Wang (EngSci 1T6)

This summer ESROP (Engineering Science Research Opportunities Program) has made it possible for me to work in an intellectually charged environment over a period of four months, together with fellow undergraduate students, graduate students, and other faculty members. I had the privilege of exploring natural and bio-inspired nanomaterials as part of the nanOntario research group under the supervision of Professor Uwe Erb. nanOntario is a youth outreach program which explores how nanostructures perfected in Nature over millions of years can be mimicked to make engineering materials with outstanding properties. The program has been running since 2009 and our tasks this year included completion of the Year IV theme: “Strong and Lightweight Materials”, as well as initiation of the Year V project: “Hexagonal Structure”.
Five undergraduate students, including myself, worked full-time managing all aspects of the project. We created laminates and posters describing nanomaterials in nature, the underlying structure and theory behind their properties, and related bio-inspired applications. Activities and display boxes were completed to accompany this written information, with an emphasis on engaging student participants (e.g. calculating whether Spiderman could theoretically stop a train). Other logistics included contacting companies and research groups for collaboration/sponsorship and creating activity summaries for graduate students who would be presenting the program in the fall. Our primary resources included graduate students, Ken Lee and David Kim, who had been on the nanOntario team in years past and made significant contributions to our Year IV theme, as well as Yijian Zhou, a senior scientist who supported our progress through coordination of experimental work. Last but certainly not least, Professor Uwe Erb frequently reviewed each facet of our work and provided the research team with a constant flow of ideas.
Everything from learning about the importance of a lab notebook on the first day to frantic final printing and lamination on my last has made nanOntario an incredible experience. The holistic approach used to showcase each year’s theme has given me an overview of the transition from research to commercialization of nanomaterials. For example, to examine strong and lightweight materials, we explored materials such as spider silk, nacre, and porcupine quills. A scanning electron microscope was used to obtain high magnification images depicting the structures of these materials, which demonstrate an incredible diversity in the ways strength manifests in lightweight structures. Each material also offers distinct properties, from the biocompatibility of spider silk to the deformation resistance of nacre. The research team collaborated with companies and other research groups to present applications such as lightweight metal foams and barbed medical bandages. Working on nanOntario has enhanced my existing skills while developing new ones. Summarizing publications from scientific journals has made me more proficient in navigating complex information. I became familiar with Scanning Electron Microscope operation as well as various sample preparation techniques including cleavage by liquid nitrogen freezing and ultrasonic cleaning using cavitation bubbles to agitate a liquid. Whether it was attending trial runs for a Ph.D defense or meeting technicians in research labs and machine shops, I have gained invaluable insight into the world of research and built a foundation for my future endeavors.
Without doubt, the University of Toronto is invested in the growth of its students, and I hope even more scholarship programs similar to ESROP are created to leverage student engagement in the research of distinguished faculty members. In addition, students should not undermine what they are capable of bringing to the table in any project. I encourage many more students to be proactive in approaching faculty members about their diverse fields of research.