Surrounded by intricate glass structures, Victoria Ranson’s purple-gloved hands work to transfer chemicals into beakers and weigh various substances on a balance. Just another day in the Mays lab at the University of Tennessee, a place that Victoria has made her home for the summer.
Chosen from a pool of nearly 175 applicants, the Marcus High School graduate from Highland Village is one of twelve students to become part of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Chemistry Department’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program. Funded by the National Science Foundation, it is a 10-week program that allows students to gain hands-on experience in a chemistry laboratory.
The directors of the program, Dr. Michael Best and Dr. Shawn Campagna, say it is a chance for students to learn what it is like to work as a research scientist and to make a significant contribution to a chemistry project.
Victoria liked chemistry ever since she was a little girl. During her junior year of high school, she was struck by the multitude of possibilities and says, “I realized then that I was just merely scratching the surface of chemistry.”
From there, she chose to attend Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas and pursue a chemistry degree. She credits her excellent professors at Lyon College for keeping her passion for chemistry strong, citing their willingness to allow students to participate in research as one of the key reasons she continues to enjoy it
As part of Dr. Jimmy Mays’s polymer chemistry group at UT, Victoria has the opportunity to work on cutting-edge chemistry. Aside from receiving grants from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Mays lab is one of only a few places in the world that utilizes a process called anionic polymerization. The lab itself is filled with elaborate glassware, much of which is hand-blown by the same graduate students who conduct the research.
NASA funds Victoria’s research project. She says the objective of her work is “to create high-strength, low-density carbon nanotube fibers to reduce the weight of future aerospace vehicles.” Victoria utilizes various techniques to create long chains of molecules called polymers. The nanotubes are cylindrical, pipe-like structures that serve as attachment points for the synthesized polymer chains.
The goal is to attach the polymers to the carbon nanotubes in a pattern known as cycloaddition, essentially using the polymers as a sort of glue to hold the nanotubes together. Attaching the polymer chains and nanotubes in this way could potentially create much stronger materials than those that are currently in use. These stronger carbon nanotube fibers could be used to create tougher, more lightweight parts for NASA vehicles in the short term and other vehicles, such as passenger cars, in the future.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Victoria plans to pursue a PhD in chemistry. She hopes to one day work in “industry or maybe even a government lab.” Whatever she chooses to do, Victoria says she appreciates the flexibility that a degree in chemistry gives her.