NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College senior physics major Matthew Hershberger, Clay Center, knows the power of a speck of dust.
As a part of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network’s Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (NNIN REU), Hershberger spent last summer in Colorado working with structures that are less than 100 nanometers in at least one dimension.
“When you work with structures this small,” Hershberger explains, “a piece of dust landing in the wrong spot could destroy all of your work. Most of the work must be done in a special laboratory, such as the Colorado Nanofabrication Lab, designed to keep the air and working environment clean. I wore a lab coat, gloves and shoe booties every day I was in the lab.”
As part of its summer research program for undergraduates, NNIN has 14 sites around the United States, with five or six undergraduates helping with research at each.
According to its brochure, “NNIN provides users across the nation – in academia, small and large industry, and government – with open access, both on-site and remotely, to leading-edge tools, instrumentation and capabilities for fabrication, synthesis, characterization, design, simulation and integration, to help enable their individual nanoscience research projects. The NNIN also has extensive education, training, and outreach activities.”
Tracy Tuttle, Bethel assistant professor of physics, says that these programs seek out “sound, rigorous, liberal arts educated students – like the kind of education Bethel excels at.
“[Bethel students] can communicate their experience and results well both in written and verbal form,” Tuttle adds.
Hershberger conducted his research at the University of Colorado at Boulder with funding from the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, the National Science Foundation and the Colorado Nanofabrication Lab.
“My specific project, in lay terms, was making tiny drawbridges out of gold with the intent to trap a molecule in the drawbridge as it closed,” says Hershberger. “Once a molecule is trapped, the resistance of the molecule can be measured, which can help model how electrons move through the energy levels of the atoms in the molecule.
“This has applications in making molecule-sized circuit components, which could lead to smaller, faster computers,” he adds, “but converting the research to industry applications is still decades away. Since I only had 10 weeks, I focused on making the drawbridges and combining designs from other scientists so the process would work on the machines available at the University of Colorado.”
Besides the scientific results of his research, the summer experience also resulted in a rare opportunity for Hershberger. Each year, the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network International Research Experience for Undergraduates (NNIN iREU) selects about 10 students from those who participated in the summer program to conduct research at an international location the following summer.
Hershberger has been invited to work at the Forshungszentrum Jülich, a research laboratory in Jülich, Germany, in summer 2010. “The goal of [NNIN iREU] is to develop an awareness of the global nature of research and technology in the 21st century,” he says.
One of the challenges of the experience will be language. “We were told that in the lab everything would be in English,” says Hershberger, “but outside the lab we would have to fend for ourselves.
“As of February 1, 2010, I knew no German,” he admits. Since then, he has been learning basic German from his roommate and another mod-mate. While he has not traveled in Germany before, he has been to Latin America several times.
“I know a little bit of Spanish, so [at least] I have been in situations where I did not know the language of the land before and survived.”
Hershberger has been able to use last summer’s research experience for his senior seminar paper and presentation, a Bethel graduation requirement, and he says he believes “the education I received here at Bethel allowed me to gain access to this amazing opportunity.”
“I am always very pleased and proud of Bethel students when they are able not only to be accepted to REU programs but to have an opportunity to show off their fine Bethel education,” says Tuttle. “Research Experiences for Undergraduates are a fantastic opportunity for students to travel and put their Bethel education to good use in the ‘real world’ setting of research.”
After this summer, Hershberger plans to pursue graduate school for condensed matter physics, which covers nanotechnology. After graduate school, he hopes to go into industry for research.
“There is an increasing demand for scientists with nanotechnology experience,” he says, “and any research experience I am able to pick up will certainly help me through my career.”
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.