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Published: May 01, 2014

Laser Focus Sends Two Seniors to Top Grad Schools for Chemistry

It’s not often two students from the same school, especially the size of UT, are both accepted to the top graduate schools in the nation for their program. But that’s exactly what Hilary Brown ’14 and Jennifer Speer ’14 did.

The two are forensic science majors and both will be pursuing doctorate degrees in analytical chemistry. Both were accepted to multiple institutions including Purdue, currently ranked first in the nation for its analytical chemistry doctoral program. Brown has accepted her invitation to Purdue University, and Speer has decided to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an institution that rivals Purdue for the #1 ranking though is ranked second this year.

“It is unusual and fantastic to have two students from a graduating class go to such prestigious programs,” said Kenyon Evans-Nguyen, assistant professor of chemistry, adding there are only three UT students graduating with a forensic science degree in May.

In addition to their academic achievements, the two have been working with Evans-Nguyen on research funded by a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which deals with threats posted by nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

The research goal is to develop a portable instrument that can be used in the field to measure and determine chemical components, like those from a bomb. The official title of the research is, “A mass spectrometer for elemental analysis based on fieldable technologies.” In laymen’s terms, they are figuring out how to take solids, ionize them with a laser, and then analyze and define their components using a special tool called a mass spectrometer.

Together with Evans-Nguyen, the students have published their research and presented at conferences, such as last summer’s DTRA conference and Pittcon Conference and Expo, the largest conference on laboratory science in the world.

“People are always surprised to learn that they are undergraduates after they have heard the kind of advanced instrumental work that they have done,” he said. “I get to come up with some of the ideas, but they are the ones who make it happen.”

The UT team is working with two other labs on the project. Those labs are exploring how to minimize the size of the mass spectrometer to make it portable.

“We’re working on the front end of the ionization source and how to get the components into the mass spectrometer,” said Brown, of Conyers, GA, who came to UT for the small class sizes and one-on-one opportunities with professors. She said her lab experience and her publications were a big boost on her grad school applications.

“To be able to say I’m familiar with these instruments is a plus,” Brown said. “Most undergraduates don’t have the chance to work with lasers and really experiment with them.”

Evans-Nguyen approached her to join the research team based on her performance in previous chemistry classes. Brown was intrigued by the idea of working with lasers.

“The word ‘laser’ is cool, and when you tell people you work with lasers, they know what you’re talking about. It’s awesome — people raise their eyebrows,” said Brown, who will be the first in her immediate family to graduate from college and the first in her family to get a graduate degree.

The experimentation has brought bookwork to life for Brown and Speer, who said the experience has given her a deeper understanding of chemistry and how it works. The last year of research has also taught Speer a valuable life lesson.

“It’s very rewarding, but it’s absolutely the #1 experience in my undergraduate career that has helped me deal with failure,” said Speer, of Dallas, TX.

“Trying new things doesn’t always work,” laughed Brown.

“When you’re doing research, you’re trying to develop American science,” Speer said. “To do so, we are trying things that have never been done. If it works, it can be the most rewarding experience.”

Have a story idea? Contact Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer 
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