It really is a small world after all in the chemistry department at The University of Texas at Dallas [UTD], where tiny technology is making a big impact and one doctoral candidate in particular is playing a large part.
After winning a prestigious fellowship award from the United States government in 2003, Vicky Zorbas, now in her third year, conducts research at UTD for the Department of Homeland Security.
If not for the efforts of Inga Musselman, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry, Vicky says she might not have won the grant.
“I would have never won if it hadn’t been for Dr. Musselman. She called me up one day at home and said, ‘Hey, I just read this on the Internet, and I think this is good for you and I thought you’d be interested.’ The deadline was that day. And we jumped through hoops and it turned out that I actually earned the scholarship. But I would have never had that opportunity if she hadn ’t been looking out for me,” Vicky said.
“And she does that all the time,” Vicky continued. “She helps a lot of people with their recommendation letters — a lot of students and post docs. It just shows that she cares about you as a person and not just the research that you’re doing,” she said.
The New York City native and West Point graduate said she chose to attend UTD for personal reasons.
“My boyfriend actually got a job in the Dallas area. We didn’t know where he was going to work, so I applied to pretty much all University of Texas schools in the area and the University of North Texas.
Vicky lives in Hutchins and daily commutes 40 minutes each way to and from campus.
After getting out of the Army, she knew she wanted to go back into grad school.
“I visited UTD and immediately liked the program they have here, and I particularly liked that the chemistry department was small and growing. I thought it would be a good environment for me to work.
“At the time I was starting here they were really bringing nanotech on. And just within the couple of years I’ve been here, we are doing some really great research that’s comparable to some larger universities.
“But we still get a lot of personal attention because we’re small and there are not a lot of grad students. We get to interact a lot with our advisors as well. So to me, that’s really good because I’d been out of academia for five years when I was in the military, so I was kind of nervous about starting in a lab where I would be so much on my own,” Vicky said.
‘The up and coming battleship’
"It’s really cool. I go to some conferences, too, and everybody calls UTD ‘the up and coming battleship’ because we’re really taking off in a lot of research areas. So it’s fun to be a part of that,” she said.
Vicky pointed to her own research as an example.
“The project that I’m working on is in the area of bio-nanotechnology. We are interfacing proteins with single-walled carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes have really great electrical and mechanical properties, but there are a lot of challenges toward exploiting those properties. Two of the more common problems are first to isolate individual nanotubes from the raw material and second to assemble these isolated nanotubes into useful geometries or structures,” she said.
“A lot of people think of homeland security only as stopping terrorists and nuclear attacks. But a lot of the science and technology departments within homeland security are actually interested in energy, floods, natural disasters. They consider all of that as protecting the homeland. One thing is the fact that we are going to run out of oil pretty soon so we need alternate ways of reducing energy demand. Reducing or miniaturizing electronic devices that we use will be a step toward that.
“There are so many other things for biomedical and biophysical applications that people are looking at. It’s going to be – 20, 30 years down the line – great,” Vicky said.
She describes nanotechnology as a combination of chemistry, physics, biology and material science.
“It’s like a real fusion of all these fields and that’s what I like. And I think it’s going to be really advantageous for grad students because I think a lot of companies are going to be looking for that. They want you to be good at what you do but you have to have an understanding of how other fields interact with yours. And the environment of this school is like that, because it’s small, so everybody’s collaborating with each other. We work with biology, the electrical engineering department and you can do that because of the way UTD is set up,” Vicky said.
Research on biosensors
“The project that I specifically am working on is the idea of having biological materials, specifically peptides, interact with nanotubes in terms of potentially making some type of nano-biosensor. That is kind of the long-term vision.
“Proteins are well known in nature for having unparalleled tailorability, specificity and ability to self-assemble. We have shown that designed peptides can coat and debundle single-walled carbon nanotubes and promote assembly of these coated nanotubes into novel hierarchical structures via peptide-peptide interactions.
“The way the protein interacts with the nanotube – the protein will fold and have two surfaces. One surface is hydrophobic, which interacts with the nanotube. The other surface is hydrophilic and it interacts with water. And it disperses it in an aqueous solution.
Looking in on progress
“Where I come in – and the Musselman lab specialty – is microscopy. I use atomic force microscopy [AFM] and scanning tunneling microscopy [STM],” she said.
“We use AFM to measure diameters and lengths of peptide/nanotube dispersions. We use STM and scanning tunneling spectroscopy to examine the effect of the peptide on the electrical properties of the carbon nanotube,” she said.
Vicky recently gave her visiting mom a tour of the imaging laboratory.
“When my mom came to visit, I showed her around and I said, 'This is a microscope,' and she goes, 'Oh, this is great,' and I’m like, 'Whoa, not that one!'” Vicky said laughing.
Her mom had reached for the first item she could find that had a scope on it. But that particular scope was part of an air table, a device used to reduce the effects of noise and vibrations when taking delicate measurements.
“The atomic force microscope uses a tapping probe and taps along the surface and you get the surface profile. So it’s almost like a blind person reading Braille. That’s kind of what this does except it does it on an atomic force level. We are able to get a vertical resolution of 0.1 nanometer of the surface.
“The scanning tunneling microscope is similar but it doesn’t use a mechanical probe. It actually is electrical. It actually tunnels electrons through the surface and you are getting an electric and a geometric surface profile of your sample. The STM demands that you keep a low humidity and temperature because you are actually tunneling electrons through the surface so there are a lot of variables. That’s why we have the room temperature controlled.
“I work with the main controller here. You can control everything. This is all controlled electronically and inventoried in our computers,” Vicky said.
She displays on a computer screen a series of images of graphite and carbon nanotubes captured with the microscopes.
Changing the world as we know it
“I don’t know if it’s groundbreaking. But we are kind of up there with the level of research going on in this field. I think we are pretty competitive with what we are doing now, especially the peptide work.
"Drs. Musselman, [Gregg] Dieckmann, [Ray] Baughman, the whole bio-nanotech group, we’re kind of establishing ourselves in that area.
"The whole area of bio-nanotechnology is going to have a great impact on our society, there’s no doubt. There are so many things that can be changed in our society. Especially in areas like energy,” Vicky said.
- Updated: March 23, 2006