My first research experience

Author: Danny Yang

I am currently an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech, studying biochemistry. This summer I had the chance to participate in the scieneering program, which is aimed to promote interdisciplinary research. As such, I was able to work on nanoscience related research. I worked on the nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory by updating it, as well as doing lab work involving the effects of nanoparticles on the environment.

The more I update this database of consumer products, the more I realize how vague companies are when it comes to nanotechnology. Many of the columns are often left blank, including basics such as what kind of nanotechnology. There are exceptions though: products utilizing silver nanoparticles are quite common, but for good reason I suppose; they are proven to have antimicrobial properties. With products like these, it’s always mentioned in the product description. With other products, such as clothing, at most the description will have the words “with nanotechnology.”

It would appear that skin care products and the like are the most common kind of products to advertise through ambiguity. Sometimes, companies will have no mention of any sort of nano except for a prefix they lopped onto some patented delivery system that they claim makes it better. There have even been “nano fruit extracts.”

Sunscreens are another big group of products that utilize the term nano. But most sunscreens do use nanoparticles, specifically zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide whether they mention it or not. The decisions companies have to make in this cased seems to be whether or not they should advertise the nano aspect.

The most ridiculous use of the term nano came when I was searching for new products. I stumbled on this site that sold necklaces and pendants and such. One product they had was a magnet that they claimed to increase car acceleration, torque, etc. just by sticking them on cars. They use words like “quantum mechanics” and “life force” to describe the function of said products, and I actually think it takes a bit of creativity to think up of some of their descriptions. The one that took the cake was this piece of cardboard with knobs on it; it claimed to manifest desires, whatever that means.

Another aspect of nanotechnology I’ve worked with is nanocellulose. As an increasing amount of uses is being found for nanocellulose, ranging from body armor to food fillers, its presence will somehow impact our lives in a way that I don’t know. I worked with a Ph.D. student to study its toxicity and biodegradation in the environment. For some reason, I expected to work more with nanocellulose, but as it turns out, I worked more with the microbes that were exposed to the nanocellulose. I did a lot of DNA work, which to me, was more abstract. There was a plan to see the effect of nanocellulose on microbes, but they’re both too small for the eye to see. The only things I get to really see are graphs from qPCR and pictures of our gel electrophoresis.

One memorable experience was when I was working with acid. One day, I had to dilute something like 97% sulfuric acid into a lower concentration in order to hydrolyze the cellulose to analyze somewhere down the road. It was scary at first, especially with all the pictures of acid burns we had to see at one point in a safety talk. Then I became comfortable after working with it for a day or so. The next day, I had finished diluting it and aliquotting the acid, so I was cleaning up. I noticed there was a dark spot of liquid on my right shoe, so I took a paper tower and wiped it off, along with the top layer of my shoe, leaving the meshey layer underneath exposed. And that is why we all wear closed-toed shoes!

About the Author: Danny Yang is a Virginia Tech undergraduate student in Biochemistry. He participates in the Virginia Tech Scieneering Program.

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