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Ursinus Students Bringing Research Experiences to MIT

MIT-built carbon nanotubes have been at the forefront of research being done in Professor Mark Ellison’s lab for more than 10 years, work that could have significant applications across science and technology.

Carbon nanotubes are tiny, hollow cylinders that are about 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. They are, quite literally, the world’s smallest pipes.

Now, imagine trying to navigate an object through one.

That’s that task at hand for students in Professor Mark Ellison’s research lab. Specifically, they’re studying how ions (an atom or molecule with an electrical charge) move while passing through the nanotube.

“It leads to some interesting behaviors that are different from flow in ‘normal’ pipes,” Ellison said.

This winter, three Ursinus students—Jackie Allen ’24, Aaliyah Russell ’24, and Liana Davis ’26—will have the opportunity to gain research experience at MIT, one of the world’s most innovative and prestigious universities that has long been at the forefront of research using carbon nanotubes since their discovery more than 30 years ago.

In 2010, MIT chemical engineers first observed single ions moving through a tiny carbon-nanotube channel, a discovery that has led to significant applications across a variety of fields of science, medical technology, and more. Ellison, Ursinus’s David Laucks Hain Professor of Chemistry, began his own foray into the world of carbon nanotubes in the fall of 2011 during a sabbatical in which he worked closely with the man at leading the MIT work, chemical engineering professor Michael Strano.

From that point forward, Ursinus would receive MIT-made carbon nanotubes from MIT and use them for research on the Collegeville campus.

Charged molecules, such as the sodium and chloride ions that he uses, rapidly flow one at a time through the carbon nanotubes and “because they are charged, it allows us to control what they do,” Ellison said. “Otherwise, they would just sort of bump around randomly, and it would make its way through by random chance,” Ellison said.

“The exciting thing about science is that it brings up new questions,” Ellison said. “And so, we communicate our results to MIT and then work together to figure out how to interpret the data.”

Two different National Science Foundation (NSF) grants have supported Ellison’s research over the last 10 years and a portion of the funding will allow Allen, Russell, and Davis to head to MIT this winter to work with professors, graduate students, and post-doctoral researchers on the project in the very place it originated. Russell has also presented their work at a conference in Indianapolis, and all three students will soon present in New Orleans.

“We’re all so proud to have the opportunity to share our knowledge on something we’ve been working on for so long,” Allen said.

All three students have worked with Ellison on the research through Ursinus’s Summer Fellows and FUTURE programs. Russell was a FUTURE mentor in the summer of 2022, and Allen was Davis’s FUTURE mentor in 2023.

“It’s been a really rewarding experience to learn the research from someone who is as interested in science and chemistry as me, and how that research ultimately benefits society,” Davis said.

Russell added, “It allows you to become more well-rounded not only by being in a lab, but by understanding why your work is significant and what it means to be a scientist.”

From left to right: Liana Davis '26, Jackie Allen '24, and Aaliyah Russell '24. From left to right: Liana Davis ’26, Jackie Allen ’24, and Aaliyah Russell ’24.

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