A unique partnership between Middle Tennessee State University and the Centre of Molecular and Macromolecular Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences will allow MTSU undergraduate students to interact daily with European scientists as the students conduct National Science Foundation-funded research on liquid crystals.
Liquid crystals are fluids that are the basis of modern display technology, commonly known as LCD technology, which is found in many flat screen TVs.
This high-level research addresses the chemistry of boron clusters while contributing to the understanding of the physics of liquid crystal phases. It also produces materials of interest for LCD applications.
Part of a memorandum of understanding, the collaboration involves the exchange of personnel between the two institutions. Project leader is professor Piotr Kaszynski, formerly of Vanderbilt University. Kaszynski moved to his native Poland in 2015 to take a position at the Polish Academy of Sciences and has many international collaborators. He chose to retain a part-time appointment at MTSU.
“I have been fascinated with liquid crystals since I was in high school” Kaszynski said. “Working with MTSU is a great opportunity for everyone involved.”
Kaszynski has published more than 160 articles in scientific journals, mostly about synthesis and properties of new liquid crystal molecules and mixtures. He also supports his experimental work with computer modeling.
The MTSU project has a unique organizational design in which research is performed by MTSU undergraduates with constant technical help from established scientists. Several scientists are visiting from the Polish Academy of Sciences, which is similar to an American national laboratory such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Jack Lasseter, an Honors student and MTSU professional chemistry major, is taking his first international trip as a visiting student at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Lodz. He flew to Poland May 6, completed safety training and immediately jumped into the chemistry portion of the project that ends July 6.
“Our research is primarily on boron cluster-based liquid crystals, which tend to have a very strong charge separation in the molecules,” Lasseter said. “These liquid crystals are an interesting hybrid of organic and inorganic compounds. Exploring them opens a door to specially engineered molecules that can fit a variety of modern technological needs.”
Lasseter, 20, a Murfreesboro resident and Blackman High School graduate, said derivatives of cholesterol “were the first observed liquid crystals, although they did not know the ‘how’ behind it in 1888.” He added soap is another common liquid crystal in daily life.
Lasseter’s role involves investigating the structure-property relationships in the utilized compounds.
“In my work, I am switching the ‘tails’ of certain liquid crystals around and observing how this change impacts the properties of the material,” he said, adding the changes relate to color, temperature ranges and more.
Chemistry researcher Kaszynski and MTSU chemistry professor Andrienne Friedli advise and mentor students.
In the program’s first year, five MTSU undergraduate chemistry and biochemistry students, several associated with the Honors College, worked on group research projects.
In addition to Lasseter, student researchers include senior Muhammad O. Ali, a chemistry major born in Karachi, Pakistan; junior Anas N. Hajhussein, a biochemistry major from Amman, Jordan; junior Alexandria “Allie” McGuffey, a biochemistry major from Branden, Florida; senior Kenya King of Chattanooga, Tennessee; and senior Marissa Williams of Pegram, Tennessee.
The international component works both ways. Each summer, an MTSU undergraduate researcher has the opportunity to travel to Lodz to work with Kaszynski and other Polish Academy of Science scholars, who had formerly visited MTSU.
There are four active NSF-Research in Undergraduate Institutions projects in the MTSU Department of Chemistry, a record level of research project support for the university.
Friedli and Kaszynski said according to NSF, MTSU has graduated from Primarily Undergraduate Institution status and must now compete for funding with universities having the highest research activity.
“There’s more pressure to produce,” Kaszynski said. “It’s a challenge for us and it’s an opportunity, too.”