Small-scale Science Leads to Large-scale Collaboration

Graduate students Arielle Mensch and Mimi Hang conduct chemistry research as part of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology

Mimi Hang (right) and Arielle Mensch (left), graduate students in the Hamers group, are part of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, an NSF-funded Center for Chemical Innovation involving researchers at 12 institutions throughout the U.S.

For chemistry graduate student Mimi Hang, science is all about connections. Whether the connections happen among ideas or among people, she recognizes that scientific and interpersonal intersections will help her get where she wants to go. 

As a first-year graduate student, Hang quickly landed in Professor Robert Hamers’ research group. She saw the group as a good fit because she knew she would gain exposure to new areas of science, even beyond chemistry. 

“I wanted to make sure what I was doing wasn’t just me at my lab bench doing something that would only impact science on a small scale,” Hang says. “I wanted to do something that would be quite impactful, where I could collaborate with a lot of people.” 

Her arrival in the group coincided with the launch of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN), a National Science Foundation-funded Center for Chemical Innovation directed by Hamers and headquartered at UW-Madison. Even in its nascent stages, Hang saw the opportunities that such a collaboration would afford and was eager to sign on as one of the very first graduate students involved with the center. 

Although it began in 2012 as a three-year, $1.75 million Phase I center, the CSN is now a Phase II center with an additional $20 million in funding over five years. The collaboration involves three research groups at UW-Madison, as well as researchers at 11 additional institutions throughout the U.S. Its mission is to investigate the molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems. 

Hang uses synthetic methods to develop nanomaterials that show promise for use in various technologies. She is currently synthesizing complex metal oxide nanomaterials that could be used as next-generation battery cathodes. 

In typical research collaborations, chemists might develop nanomaterial samples and send them off to colleagues at other institutions for further studies. And to some degree, that is what happens within the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology. However, because the center is devoted to collaborative science, some of the researchers go beyond the normal process. 

Hang is one such scientist. In 2013, she began pursuing opportunities to visit and work alongside her CSN colleagues in person. She set up several trips to other CSN sites so that she could get a hands-on sense for the other steps involved in studying the nanomaterials she develops. She began with a one-day visit to Northwestern University to see the experimental setup in Professor Franz Geiger’s laboratory. 

Her second trip took her to the University of Minnesota to work with Professor Christy Haynes’ group. She shadowed graduate student Ian Gunsolus, who demonstrated how he conducts bacterial exposures to see how Hang’s nanoparticles impact the growth and survival of bacteria. 

Hang then visited Professor Rebecca Klaper’s group at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Working alongside graduate student Jared Bozich, she learned how he prepares gene expression assays and also developed a new appreciation for the tiny water fleas used to assess nanoparticle toxicity. 

Hang’s role in the CSN involves creating nanoparticles, sending the samples to collaborators to study their biological impacts, then redesigning the materials to lower these impacts. These visits have helped her to better visualize her collaborators’ processes and more fully understand their findings. She feels more involved with each step of the project as a result. 

“It’s a cycle,” Hang says. “I’m continually a part of it, and my collaborators are continually a part of it. For example, Natalie Hudson-Smith from the Haynes lab and Jared Bozich from the Klaper lab have traveled here to synthesize these materials with me.” 

To date, CSN researchers from Northwestern University, Tuskegee University, and University of Maryland-Baltimore County similarly have visited Madison to learn from the Hamers group. The research, collaboration, and connections go in all directions, Hang says. 

“Being able to work with people from other fields and obtain knowledge in that area and having people share their expertise with you and sharing my expertise with them is a really neat experience,” she says. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a graduate student from being able to do such collaborative science.” 

When she returns to Madison, Hang reports back to her labmates. Since her on-site collaborators are mostly chemists, the information she shares is new for many of them as well. 

She has enjoyed the fast-paced research happening in the center, as well as the opportunity to strengthen her scientific network by getting to work with collaborators across the country. She anticipates that the skills she’s learning now — effective time management, working with a decentralized team, collaborating with other types of scientists, and working on several projects at once — will equip her for a variety of potential future paths. 

Libby Dowdall