Monday, July 7, 2014

Solar powered water purification

Zhe Zhang ’15 set out to learn about solar-powered water purification. But his summer research project has taught him at least as much about determination and hard work.

He has spent much of his summer trying to make one chemical reaction happen, which he originally assumed would take only a couple of days. But he takes that in stride. “It’s always fun to try different things and to finally get a solution,” he said. “I just don’t want to fail.”

Zhang has long had an interest in ways of using chemical reactions to purify water. Considering the world’s demand for potable water as well as the potential for energy shortages in the future, he thought developing a sun-powered water purification system would be important. Zhang was particularly interested in titanium dioxide, a semiconductor that is known to purify water when it is exposed to sunlight.

If only that process worked quickly.

“The process is not new, but it’s not efficient enough to be practical,” said Bill Bare, a Randolph chemistry professor advising Zhang on this research. “We’re hoping to make it a little more practical.”

Sunlight causes chemical reactions that increase energy in titanium dioxide atoms, causing the semiconductor to break down organic compounds. But it only absorbs ultraviolet light, meaning much of the light that hits it has no effect.

Bare and Zhang suggested that binding a luminescent compound called ruthenium to titanium dioxide could help increase the spectrum of light that can interact with the material. They designed an experiment to test this. Zhang began the summer by measuring the rates at which titanium dioxide would purify water on its own. But he hit a roadblock when he tried to attach the ruthenium to the semiconductor. The molecules that would make the binding possible were not connecting.

Zhang and Bare experimented with the problem for several weeks. Finally, two weeks ago they made the chemicals bind by changing the acidity of the solution, although the process needs more testing to confirm the success. Zhang looked back at the detour as an effective learning opportunity that helped him understand how to solve problems in original research.

“It’s both a process of learning and researching,” he said. “In the lab, the professor knows everything and can answer all the questions. But in research, there may be a topic that the professor is not very familiar with, and you have to research together.”

Bare added that this is part of the purpose of fostering research opportunities for students who may spend much of their lives solving research problems. “In a research project, we don’t know what’s going to work and what isn’t,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, we have to put our heads together and find out why.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Student examines links between social media use and narcissism

Recent psychological research has shown links between Facebook usage and narcissism—a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of importance, a constant quest of admiration from others, and a lack of empathy. What does that mean about the millions of people who check Facebook daily?

Penny Trieu ’15 wants to find out. She is using her summer research project to study the links between activity on the social network and narcissism. Particularly, she wants to find out whether engaging in different activities on Facebook in different affects a user’s personality.

Trieu said that scientists have tracked an increase in narcissism over the past 40 years. The increase began after a period of “positive psychology” that focused on self-esteem. “The theory was that if you have a high self-esteem, everything will work out well for you,” she said. “Parents and schools started to work on ways of raising kids that builds self-esteem, regardless of the accomplishments of the children.”

Those attempts, however, can lead to negative repercussions related to narcissism. For example, people who are accustomed to receiving a reward regardless of their performance might not know how to handle a minor failure. “It’s healthy to accept that, rather than inflate self-esteem by saying everybody wins,” Trieu said.

Social media may have magnified the effects for self-esteem among some users. Trieu started wondering about that as she saw many people posting multiple self-portraits and talking openly about their accomplishments and other good things about their lives. She then read scientific studies about links between Facebook and self-esteem and started formulating ideas for her own project.

This summer, Trieu has read many research studies about links between Facebook and narcissism. She has worked with project advisor, Beth Schwartz, the Catherine E. & William E. Thoresen Chair in Social Sciences and assistant dean of the College, about those studies to glean ideas for an original research project.

Trieu plans to have participants use Facebook in different ways. Some would share photos and information about themselves. Others would use the network to post photos and talk about other people. She will have each group participate in an activity to help gauge narcissism.

Trieu and Schwartz believe that focusing Facebook use on interacting with others might decrease traits of narcissism. “Research in the past has shown that connection to others leads to lower levels of aggression and narcissism,” Schwartz said. “It could be that it’s not going on Facebook, but it’s what you’re doing on Facebook that leads to narcissism.”

Trieu plans to begin her own research on the topic sometime this fall and continue in the spring.