My current research involves cellulose nanomaterials (CNMs) which are basically ground up plant material. When you really zoom into what plants like trees are made of you find little tiny crystals called cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs). These are made up of long chains of cellulose molecules, hence the name. A whole bunch of these will then be connected by looser chains of cellulose making a cellulose nanofiber or nanofibril (CNF). Together CNCs and CNFs make up the broader category of CNMs.
My work is to take these materials and see how they flow. If we want to use these to reduce or enhance modern plastics, they need to be able to withstand the current processing techniques we use to make plastic bottles, bags, etc. This tends to require incredibly fast flows through tight openings, which produces what is known as a shear force on the molecules. (Think of your burger sliding out of the bun, all the ketchup/mayo/whatever toppings you put on are being sheared.) I’m evaluating how CNMs behave under these conditions and what these really high stresses due to the materials.
For my masters, I worked on biosynthetic plastics called poly(hydroxy-alkanoates) or PHAs. Basically, I took E. coli bacteria and genetically modified them to make a certain kind of polymer. I could then feed them fatty-acid molecules and the bacteria would take all those molecules and link them together. This would be difficult in a synthetic chemistry lab, but the bacteria are champs at it. I could then harvest those bacteria, extract out my new polymer (poly- being many and -mer being unit, specifically a fatty acid unit in my case) and do some more chemistry to make it into a film. This film was neat because it had shape memory characteristics. What that means is that if I originally made the film in one shape, I could heat it up, deform it, and then cool it in a new shape. The film would hold that new shape until it was heated again, then it would remember the original shape and return to it. Some really cool materials will go back and forth between the two shapes, but not mine.
Before that, I grew and killed ovarian cancer cells. I took the DNA equivalent of an antibody, called an aptamer, and tested whether or not it could selectively target and kill certain kinds of tumor cells.