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Students receive research experience through PREM
By Jennifer Berghom, Public Affairs Representative
(956) 665-2741
Posted: 05/05/2011
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Ever since he was a child, David Muñoz has wanted to do something to help the world and decided engineering would be the path that would lead him to his goal.


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UTPA senior David Munoz, pictured left, shows his poster outlining his research to UTPA Assistant Professor Dr. Dumitru Caruntu during a visit from representatives from the National Science Foundation and experts to learn more about the Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) UTPA has with the University of Minnesota.

Now a senior at The University of Texas-Pan American majoring in mechanical engineering, Muñoz said the research he has been able to conduct—Conceptual Design for Nanofiber Yarns Spinning System using ForceSpinning™ Technique (invented by UTPA faculty members Dr. Karen Lozano, Julia Beecherl Professor in Engineering, and Dr. Kamalaksha Sarkar)—has great potential to benefit society.

The research he and other undergraduate and graduate students have done is now being made possible through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM).

UTPA and the University of Minnesota (UMN) Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) received a five-year, $2.7 million grant from the NSF in 2009 with the intent of the two institutions working together on the development of polymeric and nanoparticle-based materials and devices.

UTPA faculty from chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering are collaborating with each other, as well as with faculty from UMN, on a wide range of projects, including:

• Nanoparticle and Photonic Crystal-based Materials for Photovoltaic Devices;

• Organic Semiconductor-based Materials for Photoelectronic Devices;

• Nanoporous Particles for Interfacial Energy Storage;

• Structural Properties of Coated Nanoreinforced Polymer Composite Materials;

• Nanofiber Development Through Force Spinning Methods; and

• Self healing of High Elasticity Block Copolymers. More than 40 students have been assisting faculty members with their research under this grant.

Earlier this month, representatives from the NSF and the PREM advisory committee visited UTPA where they received updates on research from UTPA and UMN faculty members, as well as information on how the grant has impacted students and the community.

During the visit, students presented their work to the representatives.

Muñoz, whose research involves investigating how nanotechnology can be used in textiles, said there are many possibilities for this technology. For example, he said, nanofibers can be used to make better-quality, lightweight Kevlar (bulletproof) vests.

"If we can create textiles out of this, we can help everyone; we can start creating Kevlar vests, improving the Kevlar vests, and with this weight they would be really light weight," he said. "(It would) benefit the entire world."

Muñoz, who began working with Lozano and student researchers this school year under the PREM program, admits he wasn't as enthusiastic about his research when he first started. When he realized the potential to help mankind with his work, his interest grew.

"When you're doing something that benefits everyone, it creates a passion," Muñoz said. "Right now it is my main passion. I want to graduate and continue to help people doing research."

Like Muñoz, Richard Patlan, a graduate student majoring in mechanical engineering, said he is grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved in such advanced research since he was an undergraduate at UTPA.

"When I was an undergrad, PREM didn't exist," Patlan said, adding there were fewer opportunities then for undergraduates to engage in research. "PREM allowed me to get involved with research; it allowed the resources that are available. And I'm able to collaborate with another institution."

Patlan's research, which is also being funded by the U.S. Army through the University's Physics Department, looks at creating nanofibers using bio-compatible polymers (materials that are safe for the human body) in biomedical engineering. In his study he is using polylactic acid. Applications on which these materials can be used include tissue engineering, wound dressings, and soft tissue application such as ligaments and muscle, Patlan said.

Patlan, who graduated from UTPA with his bachelor's degree in 2006 and was part of a team of students who assisted Lozano and other researchers in their work on the ForceSpinning™ technology, said he is happy to conduct his research using the technology and having the opportunity to continue working with Lozano, as well as other faculty from UTPA and UMN.

"The benefit is basically having professors being able to provide feedback on the research and having somebody there if you have questions you can go to and they can help you solve these problems," he said.

UTPA and UMN already have received praise from the NSF regarding PREM, especially in the areas of providing research opportunities to students and reaching out to grade school students in the community to promote STEM education.

"The participation of students and faculty in the REU (research experiences for undergraduates) and faculty-student teams programs ... are helping to promote further collaborations and improve the students’ research experiences, which will help to raise awareness of materials science careers as a route to solve current technological issues," NSF officials said in their report to the universities.

For more information about PREM, visit the partnership's website.