#UrsinusSummer: Taking a Passion for Research Beyond Campus

Brendan Phillips ’17 wants to make the world a better place. In high school, he envisioned an “agricultural contraption” to help combat world hunger and unsanitary growing conditions. He entered this idea in several invention competitions.

At the time, Phillips’ ambitions outweighed his abilities. He knew precisely what material he needed to make his invention a reality. The only problem: that material does not exist. Yet.   

Fast forward a few years, to find Phillips entering his third year of chemistry studies at Ursinus College. “I never had that crisis of having to choose what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “I have always wanted to study chemistry.”

He chose Ursinus, in part because the chemistry department encourages students to conduct independent research. “It’s almost unheard of for undergraduates to have these kinds of experiences,” says Phillips, who is the winner of the 2015 Chemistry Department Award in Organic Chemistry.

This past summer he took his passion for research beyond the Collegeville campus to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville as one of 11 talented students from across the country participating in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at that site.

For 10 weeks, he explored new ways of creating and altering materials in the lab under the direction of University of Tennessee chemistry professor Brian Long, Ph.D. “We’re looking primarily at polyethylene, a plastic that is used in everything from hard hats to grocery bags,” says doctoral candidate Curtis Anderson. The REU program also offered professional development workshops and faculty-led seminars.

While polyethylene would not likely have helped Phillips’ high school project, the research skills may have been a huge benefit to Phillips when he was envisioning his ambitious “agricultural contraption.” He explained that a porous membrane would filter harmful pathogens from water but allow nutrients in the form of soluble fertilizer to pass through, feeding food-bearing trees. The device would be self-contained and provide a sanitary, nutrient-dense growing medium for crops, with the ability to use depleted soils and contaminated water supplies.

Now, he is cautiously optimistic about the ability to produce such a material. “I think it could work,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time, money and research.”

For Phillips, the desire to study chemistry is just as much about utility as it is about passion. He sees chemistry as the best way to help the most people. “Look at the world we live in now. So much of it is exists because of the discoveries we’ve made in modern medicine and chemistry.”

Phillips intends to continue that tradition. He is studying at Ursinus with Dr. Brian Pfennig and Dr. Ron Hess, working on applications of green chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry. He plans to attend graduate school, earn a Ph.D., run a research lab, and step by step, make the world a better place.

(Originally reported by National Science Foundation writer Brad Hinds.)