Neha Manohar: Crossing Oceans and Disciplines for Research

Neha Manohar, a graduate student co-advised by professors Daeyeon Lee and Kathleen Stebe in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is at the center of a wide-ranging research project to develop materials for multifunctional coatings on emergency tents. Their goal: enabling them to manage water, prevent the spread of bacteria and capture and store solar energy. These disparate capabilities all stem from fundamental research on how materials behave on the nanoscale, where minute structural details can produce large-scale effects.

The project, REACT, Research and Education in Active Coating Technologies, is supported by a five-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation. REACT is also part of the NSF’s Partnerships in International Research and Education program, which seeks to foster global collaborations on topics of societal importance. As such, collaborating with researchers from around the world is a major aspect of the experience for students like Manohar. Last summer she mentored a French master’s student; this summer, she is working in Grenoble, France.

Neha Manohar at a REACT poster presentation.

In December 2015, I became a fellow in the Research and Education in Active Coating Technologies (REACT) program at Penn. This program is focused on developing simple, scalable coatings that can be used to collect and purify water, prevent bacterial growth, and capture and harness solar energy. Such coatings, when layered on a tent or shelter, could potentially provide relief in post-disaster regions and other areas where water contamination and lack of electricity are a major concern.

My research on nanocomposite membranes fits right in with the goal of collecting and purifying water through coatings. Nanocomposites are materials that are made of inorganic nanoparticles that are dispersed in a polymeric (essentially, plastic) matrix. These materials are very exciting because of their enhanced mechanical strength, and they also have the potential to greatly improve membrane efficiency. My project focuses on making these materials in a way that is scalable, which means that they can be manufactured easily on a large scale.

In addition to honing my research skills, REACT allows me to participate in many research and mentoring activities on campus. I will also spend ten weeks during the summer of 2017 at our partner institution, GIANT, in Grenoble, France. I am very excited to explore a new culture while also engaging with a group of talented international scientists and engineers.

REACT has been such a valuable experience because the collaborative atmosphere between all of the professors and students involved makes research both more exciting and more effective. One of the first experiences I had as a part of the program was a symposium, where I got the chance to meet the other fellows and share our research through a poster session. Through these interactions, I was able to test new metal nanoparticles in my system that I hadn’t yet had access to, while also lending my experimental expertise to others with less of an engineering background. All the fellows in this program have expertise in very diverse fields, and I have been able to leverage this to expand my research in exciting ways.

Additionally, meeting our French partners from GIANT gave us resources that we couldn’t easily access at Penn. David Ring, one of my colleagues who visited France last year, was able to take neutron scattering measurements during his stay in Grenoble, and the information he gained from this has inspired my own experimental plans for my upcoming trip to France.

This program also gave me the opportunity last summer to meet and mentor a French master’s student, Maxence Bouvier. Maxence was new to experimental research and took to it like a fish to water. I had the pleasure of helping to set him up with his own independent research project on aligning nanoparticles using a flow-coater, which was a technology that his PI in Grenoble did not have access to. By combining their expertise on synthesizing zinc oxide nanowires with ours on flow-coating, we were able to try something truly novel. Our discussions and troubleshooting sessions were numerous, and it was very rewarding to watch Maxence quickly grow as a researcher. By the end of the summer, Maxence was completely independent and working with ease in the lab.

Maxence Bouvier and Neha Manohar

While Maxence was learning how to conduct research, he was also getting the full Philadelphia experience. I remember one night, towards the end of his stay at Penn, where the entire lab went out to a beer garden and watched a Shakespearean play at Clark Park. The night wound up with a group of us — a Korean, a German, an Italian, a Malaysian, a Frenchman (Maxence) and me, the only American — sitting in a circle in the grass sipping our craft beer while enjoying a hysterical performance of Twelfth Night, language barriers aside.

After mentoring Maxence, I gained confidence in my abilities to guide a new researcher, and have mentored several other masters’ students at Penn since. Along with these fruitful collaborations and mentoring experiences, as a part of the REACT program I attended several seminars targeted at improving our ability to communicate science to the public through presentations. This helped me a lot when we visited Villanova to talk to undergraduate students about our research. Since the audience was not in my field, it was a challenge to convey my research without losing them. However, thanks to the seminars, I was able to explain my motivations and limit my technical jargon to get my message across clearly and concisely.

Manohar presenting her research to Villanova undergrads.

This skill also came in handy during the REACT symposium this past January, where I had the opportunity to present my research progress to an open audience. Getting up and speaking in front of members of the broader research community was nerve-wracking, but also very rewarding, and I got great questions and feedback from the audience.

Now, as the semester is wrapping up, I am preparing for my trip to France. I am very eager to meet our French collaborators and incorporate their novel zinc oxide nanowires into my system. I look forward to meeting the international community at GIANT and learning about their research and gaining new expertise to bring back to Penn with me. I am also eager to experience European and especially French culture (and cuisine!). I plan to travel with the other fellows and hopefully return to Penn with some very crucial wine and chocolate expertise!