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Lab Lessons

Large NSF grant funds undergraduate research and outreach programs

With a mixture of patience, encouragement and a little hands-on demonstration, Wafic Ellakis, ’25, discovered the ideal formula to guide curious high schoolers in building solar cells.

Under the watchful eyes of Wafic and his Bridgewater peers, the AP environmental science students from Fall River’s Durfee High School constructed the cells during a special visit to Bridgewater State University.

“It gives me a perspective on whether I like teaching,” said Wafic, a chemistry major who appreciates opportunities at BSU to explore careers. “I think it’s great to give back to the community. This is part of the reason why I choose to go to BSU.”

Approximately 30 high schoolers assembled cells from scratch using frozen blackberries as a key ingredient. Blackberries have a dark pigment that is good for absorbing sunlight. Students also toured BSU labs and ate lunch on campus.

The event was part of an approximately $350,000, three-year grant that Dr. Sarah Soltau received from the National Science Foundation. The award supports research at predominately undergraduate institutions and helps build the scientists of tomorrow.

“Most of the funding is to pay students to do research,” said Soltau, an associate professor of chemical sciences. Rather than work a job outside of their academic interests, “they can spend that time on something more related to their degree or future goals.”

Using a protein from algae and molecules synthesized in the lab, Soltau and her students study how to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and create products useful in the alternative fuel and plastics industries. They aspire to do this with solar energy to avoid emitting more carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Two students work with a machine in a chemistry lab.

Jolie Casali, ’25, learned to use a variety of advanced scientific devices, including a fast protein liquid chromatography machine that helps researchers analyze proteins. She enjoys working collaboratively with her peers and taking ownership of sections of the overall project.

“Being in the research lab is something that will prepare me for my future goals,” said Jolie, a chemistry major (biochemistry concentration) who aspires to work in a laboratory. “Bridgewater really does have something for everybody, whether an outreach event or research itself.”

The visiting Durfee students got a taste of those opportunities through the solar cells project, which complements lessons on renewable energy.

“I feel more engaged and more into it,” said Durfee junior Calfeny Moreira, who is considering attending Bridgewater State. “I met new people and got to see how the school actually is. All of the staff are wonderful.”

For Wafic, the day was especially meaningful because he is a Durfee graduate.

“I loved giving back to a school that gave a lot to me,” he said. “It really helps students’ development and love of science. We always need more chemists in the world.”

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