Spotlight on EdCC: Undergraduate researchers head to UW symposium

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From left, Zumrad Makhkamova, Erica Toikka, Kim-Lien Vu, Lauren Valdez, Shannay Kammann. Photo by William Mun.

Edmonds Community College student researchers are headed to the University of Washington Undergraduate Research Symposium on May 19. One EdCC team, including student Erica Toikka, worked on a magnet project beyond the scope normally seen at the community college level. The team built, scrapped, and rebuilt a magnet while seeking to create a powerful, stable field to grow crystals. Toikka provided this preview of their research:

“My team is Kim-Lien Vu, Shannay Kammann, Lauren Valdez, and Zumrad Makhkamova, and we started out wanting to explore the relationship between ionic crystals and magnetism. We found research that shows that zinc sulfate, a diamagnetic crystal, had 40% increased growth when exposed to a magnetic field between 0.3 and 0.7 Tesla. A team of scientists found that copper sulfate, a paramagnetic crystal did not show the same increased growth when exposed to a magnetic field.

Erica Toikka, Shannay Kammann, and Kim-Lien Vu creating the Nickel Sulfate Hexahydrate solution that will be used to grow crystals. Photo by Robert Kingen.

We wanted to see if that held true for other diamagnetic crystals, and we thought we would start out by repeating their experiment with nickel sulfate, which also happened to be easy to acquire, relatively safe to work with, and inexpensive. Also, it made really beautiful blue-green crystals.

Step 1 was to gain access to a magnet that could provide a sustained field of 0.3 to 0.7 Teslas, with a field diameter large enough to contain a small beaker where we could grow our crystals. Our school does not have a magnet that big, and we made some calculations and thought we would be able to make one ourselves.

We have since built, scrapped, and rebuilt our magnet three times, using a variety of materials that we sourced and/or made ourselves. We have now switched our design to the c-frame magnet shown in the photos.

A petri dish of Nickel Sulfate Hexahydrate solution crystallizing in the magnet constructed by the EdCC team. Photo by Erica Toikka.

The magnet pictured above is our final re-design. We chose to construct a steel C-Frame that would amplify the magnetic field provided by two strong N52 Neodymium Magnets This provides a stable field of between 0.6 and 0.7 Tesla, but it cannot be adjusted.  We will do our very best with this last magnet design, then use it to grow our crystals.

From left, Shannay Kammann, Lauren Valdez, and Erica Toikka grind the welded C-Frame of the magnet. Photo by Robert Kingen.

The University of Washington symposium on May 19 is a very important opportunity for us to see what real science is all about. We will be able to present our experiments to our peers, and see what they have been working on, as well.

Seeing our work through from beginning to end, conception to completion, with all of the small victories and failures along the way has been incredibly powerful for each of us on this team, because it has really been problem-solving on a level we have never experienced before.

Nickel Sulfate Hexahydrate (NiSO4.6H2O) crystals, after vacuum filtering. Photo by Erica Toikka.

It turns out building a magnet isn’t easy for anyone – who knew? –  the materials needed are not readily accessible, and the concepts involved get exponentially more complicated the more you look at them, but we’ve had such tremendous support from everyone at our school. We have collaborated with our professors in this Physics class, and but also professors in several other disciplines of Chemistry, Engineering, and Materials Science, and that is not to mention our peers, the other students at our school who have taken an interest in our project and offered their time and knowledge to help us get this together.

Two petri dishes of Nickel Sulfate Hexadyrate with crystals slowly forming on the surface outside of the magnetic field as controls. Photo by Erica Toikka.

My team is the best group of women I could ever hope to work with! I wouldn’t trade my team for any other, as we each have strengths that we bring to the table to get this project made, but no science occurs in a vacuum, and one of the greatest learning experiences we’ve had is that our colleagues are an amazing resource. The symposium offers wonderful opportunities to cultivate that resource, and we are very excited to meet other new scientists and see what they are working towards as well.

Given our experience – that our first goal could not be realized or explored because we did not have a magnet available to us – one of my first wishes for EdCC would be a magnet lab. There are so many fascinating things that could be explored if we had a big, reliable magnet. This research project would have taken us just a week to complete if we had had access to one, as opposed to the six months we’ve been working on it so far.

Secondly, I’ve personally attended EdCC for quite a long time (I was pursuing a Nursing transfer degree before I switched to Engineering) and I am really very impressed with the quality of education I have received, especially in the various science departments. I would love to see Edmonds Community College be able to offer more four-year degrees – the professors would certainly be up to the task!”

To learn more about the Edmonds Community College undergraduate research program, see here. And to view the schedule for the University of Washington symposium set for May 19, see the website.

— Janette Turner

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