During pandemic, science advances

Student research in solar energy and copper separations

Kevin Pataroque, Contributing Reporter

When Case Western Reserve University decided to transition to remote classes in March, students worried about how COVID-19 would affect their professional development. In the weeks after, co-ops were withdrawn and internships were forced to transition to remote spaces. Those who could still work during summer had to transition to a virtual environment or wear a mask to work during the pandemic. For the 20+ researchers sponsored by the Support Of Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors Office (SOURCE), as well as other students who worked independently, the nature of their research shifted dramatically. An email sent out by the university in late April stated that, if the project could not be completed remotely, students could conduct research on campus. However, when COVID-19 worsened within Ohio, CWRU was forced to postpone undergraduate research until a later date. 

Despite the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, many undergraduates chose to continue their research. Carolina Whitaker, a third-year electrical and computer engineering student, used the cutting-edge technology provided in the Solar Durability and Lifetime Extension Research Center to search for deformities on the exposed surface of solar panels. Under the mentorship of three different professors—Dr. Roger French, Dr. Laura Bruckman and Dr. Jennifer Braid—Whitaker spent the summer using Python to create a program that allowed her team to see how much a single crack, invisible to the human eye, could affect the performance of a medium-sized solar panel. Using modern technology, researchers can predict where these cracks might appear, guiding us closer to a future powered by clean energy. 

While the pandemic may have delayed others’ research projects, Whitaker noted that isolating herself, as well as picking up painting and cooking during the pandemic, helped maintain her work-life balance. Being by herself allowed her to perfect her code. 

“Although it was extremely stressful sometimes, this situation taught me how to adapt to change,” Whitaker said. “As a researcher, you have to work with what you got and do the best you can with what you have.” 

For Benjamin Fugate, a third-year student researching in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, his plans for the summer changed drastically. As a SOURCE student, Fugate planned to continue his research with Dr. Christine Duval towards improving membranes, paper-thin layers that can be used for copper separation. While Fugate researched during the school year and was planning on conducting further experiments in a physical lab, he soon discovered that labs at CWRU wouldn’t reopen during the summer.

“Turning to the summer, I expected the labs to reopen to undergraduates, considering we would have been a very small group of people who are not at risk.” Fugate said. “170 days later, and the lab has been approved to reopen.”  

After shifting to a virtual format, Fugate noted that conducting research with SOURCE helped him delve into other papers relating to membrane research. While he was unable to collect further information, looking at the work of other scientists helped contextualize the data he had already collected during the school year.

“Understanding the broader literature can feel like standing in an endless field with no defining features,” he explained. “And if one tries to focus on something, it goes right over his head.” 

Both Fugate and Whitaker were able to progress their individual projects, building upon data previously collected to delve deeper into their work. As many labs are currently in the process of reopening, undergraduates will likely be allowed back in the distant future. One thing’s for certain: even when these labs do reopen, research will be starkly different than before the pandemic. However, working this summer in a virtual format has taught undergraduates to adapt to change, giving CWRU researchers the ability to transition successfully when lab spaces reopen.