Friday, July 10, 2015

Where Science Meets Engineering: Dr. Vivian Fernand's Research Team

It’s summer break on LeTourneau University’s campus, but that doesn’t mean the work comes to a halt. Labs are still put to good use on a daily basis, and they’ve even been the workplace for several LETU students.

Assembled by chemistry professor Dr. Vivian Fernand, an LETU team of two chemistry, one biology, and three biomedical engineering students are pioneering new types of sensors that will be used for detecting harmful chemicals.

Dr. Vivian Fernand
The sensors, which resemble small squares of paper, will be an easy method to detect chemicals harmful to the body. Placed on a surface in question, they will turn certain colors that indicate whether a dangerous substance is present.

 The final product will be especially useful for law enforcement investigating crime scenes and cleaning crews in situations where hazardous materials may be a concern.

Funded by a $25,000 departmental grant from The Welch Foundation, these scientists- and engineers-in-training are being paid to develop valuable skills that they’ll one day use in professional laboratories in addition to receiving research credit for the project.

“The nice thing is, everyone can get a degree, especially in science and engineering, but how you want to distinguish yourself is through research,” Fernand, the project’s faculty advisor said. “Not everyone gets the opportunity to participate in research at the undergraduate level.”

“Research during undergrad is not that common,” she added. “If a student graduates with research experience along with a published paper, they are directly accepted into graduate or medical school. Research is a big plus, but the maximum plus is a published paper. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with these students. Many of them are starting to write their own papers on this project.”

Each student was also required to present their work at the end of every week to perfect their presentation skills. “Because of that, whenever they present in a professional setting, they’re really confident,” Fernand said.

After the project is completed, each student will have the opportunity to present their findings at seminars and conferences.

The research team
The experience will also benefit the students should they decide to enter the workforce directly after they complete their undergraduate degrees. They’re establishing the same skills used universally in labs: safety, working individually and
in a group, developing and analyzing new ideas, and problem solving.

The strength in her team, as Fernand points out, lies in its variance of areas of study among the students.

“I believe every one of us has different gifts and capabilities. That’s why I’m trying to utilize both engineering and science students,” she said. “Whenever you have diversity in your team, you come up with better ideas as a whole.”

Developing the sensors – and students’ lab skills – is an ongoing project. The team grows in number every year, moving forward with LETU’s mission to develop competency in the workforce and commitment to effective hands-on experience.