Hunter AllenHunter Allen with graduate student mentor Neha Mehra

Hunter Allen and Lee Ngochi, rising seniors at South Bend Riley High School, had an unusual summer. Instead of finding a typical summer job, they took a leap of learning and worked in research laboratories on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. 

Allen and Ngochi were Notre Dame’s first Young Scholar Summer Research participants, sponsored by the Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources (CISTAR). Funded by the National Science Foundation, Notre Dame is one of five affiliated universities in CISTAR, along with Purdue University as the lead institution, Northwestern University, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of New Mexico. In addition to the goal of developing the enabling technologies to convert shale gas into transportation fuels and other useful chemicals, the Center aims to develop a well-trained workforce through educational programs such as this one.

Ngochi’s project focused on developing approaches to convert ethane, a major component of shale gas, into ethylene, a more valuable chemical product. Current technologies are plagued by the production of undesired by-products that foul the system. He helped his group in their work on preparing and evaluating a new, nickel phosphide catalyst. Allen’s project revolved around developing zeolite materials that will combine ethylene molecules into longer, more useful chemicals and fuels. Both students learned how to prepare materials in the lab, analyze them using modern laboratory instrumentation, and evaluate them using flow reactors.

Modern chemical research integrates experiments with computational modeling. To round out their experience, both researchers learned to use the python programming language and modern molecular modeling software to predict the outcomes of experiments and to guide the experimental research. They got to see first-hand how scientists build models to describe real systems.

Because CISTAR is a collaboration among five universities, weekly online meetings enabled Allen, Ngochi and their mentors to compare experiences and share findings with other Young Scholars and mentors from across the country. Mini-lessons on doing background research, writing abstracts, and presenting posters enriched the overall experience. 

Outside of the lab, the two students spent time exploring campus and the services offered. They learned how to use both the Hesburgh and engineering libraries and attended a session on giving “elevator pitches.” Allen and Ngochi also had the opportunity to join graduate students and post-docs at a picnic and participated in an outreach activity offered at the Art 2 Science summer camp.

Lee NgochiLee Ngochi with graduate student mentor Jessica Muhlenkamp

At the end of the six-week program, the Young Scholars presented their research along with eighty other students during Notre Dame’s Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Jordan Hall of Science. “I was amazed by the wide variety of things that were being researched on campus,” Ngochi said.

“Before this summer, I never would have seen myself participating in a poster presentation. I found myself gaining confidence as I presented and felt good about it by the end,” reflected Allen.

Both scholars felt that they learned much more than they expected to during the summer. In addition to the technical aspects of the research, they met people from all over the world and gained a lot of self-confidence. Ngochi summed it up by describing his mother’s reaction to his research poster. “I don’t know what any of it means, but you do, and that makes me proud,” she said.

The faculty advisors were William Schneider, H. Clifford and Evelyn A. Brosey Professor of Engineering and Jason Hicks, associate professor in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering. The graduate student and post-doctoral mentors were Galiya Magazova, Neha Mehra, Jessica Muhlenkamp, Hanyu Ma, and Jeonghyun Ko. The Center for Sustainable Energy at Notre Dame (ND Energy) administered the program.

ND Energy is a University Research Center whose mission is to build a better world by creating new energy technologies and systems and educating individuals to help solve the most critical energy challenges facing our world today. For more information, visit the ND Energy website at energy.nd.edu or contact Barbara Villarosa, Business and Communications Program Director, at bvillaro@nd.edu or 574-631-4776