As one of the senior cross country runners on the Albion College roster, Michelle Samson is used to taking a few turns on the way to the finish line.
Thanks to her fine work on a research project this summer, sponsored by chemistry professor Kevin Metz and the College’s Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity (FURSCA), the biochemistry major may have altered the course of her career.
Samson believed the project--using natural products like sawdust, chili powder, and corn husks to create a nanoparticle composite material for water filtration--would give her the laboratory experience that would boost her application for medical school. The work, however, proved so enjoyable that even though Samson sat for the Medical College Admission Test in mid-August, she can now envision a career researching green technology.
“Being in a lab all day would not be bad,” Samson said. “Once we started in the lab it didn’t seem like work because I found it so interesting.”
‘We got a lot more done than I thought’
Samson has always been interested in eco-friendly technology. In fact, biofuel was the subject of her presentation for a scholarship program before enrolling at Albion.
The progress Samson made since joining Metz’s lab was remarkable considering her faculty mentor left for his own research project at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. That gave Samson two weeks to read the previous research completed in the lab and to learn the steps involved in making carbon microparticles and growing silver nanoparticles on their surfaces.
“I liked the idea of this water-filtration project after reading a paper about it,” Samson said. “We planned out the summer based on that. Learning the procedures was overwhelming at first. He gave me such detailed descriptions and drew out everything so I understood the theory behind it before I understood when I was doing.
“I’m pretty sure I have a type-A personality,” she added. “Kevin came back from Ireland and I had my to-do list set up on the chalkboard. I tried to keep myself on track with those lists.”
And, independent of Metz, Samson was trained to use expensive equipment like a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer and scanning electron microscope. The spectrometer, which measures the vibrations in molecules, posed the greatest challenge because it forced Samson to modify the jet black-colored nanoparticles to get meaningful results.
“It is rare for undergraduates to use the scanning electron microscope,” Metz said. “She traveled to Wayne State [University in Detroit], was trained as an independent user and did her own microscopy without me. Michelle is mature, detail-oriented and I was comfortable with her ability to use a $1 million microscope.
“Michelle went from reading papers about techniques to making carbon nanoparticles from multiple sources and growing silver nanoparticles and characterizing the resulting composite,” Metz added.
Samson will continue to work in Metz’s lab this fall. Her independent study will test how water is filtered through the composites she made this summer. Bacteria from the water flowing through the filter grow on the nanoparticles. The quest now becomes to keep those bacteria from fouling the filter.
“One of the comments from my summer work was how do we know the silver will not contaminate the water,” Samson said.
Support for a change in course
In addition to running, Samson is a member of Albion’s jazz band and band fraternity and she works as a lifeguard and swim instructor at the YMCA in nearby Jackson. All that activity leads Samson’s dad to say his daughter is overworked, though she says she wouldn’t know what to do if given extra time.
Her dad, however, is supportive of her choices, even if it includes changing her original career choice.
“I was interested in medicine until I got to upper-level chemistry labs,” Samson said. “My dad is supportive of whatever I do.”