Many of our seniors are nearly ready to begin their Senior Projects, a trimester-long commitment to research, development, art, or social causes. We are thrilled to start off this new season of projects by formally announcing the 2019 winner of the BASIS Curriculum Schools Founders’ Prize for Excellence in a Senior Project: Ethan Feng!
Ethan (right) with a fellow alumnus from the class of 2019
Ethan’s project, Optimizing Supported Platinum Catalytic Nanoparticles, was advised by Dr. Ivana Bozidarevic at BASIS Independent Silicon Valley, and took place under the leadership of Dr. Matteo Cargnello in Stanford University’s Chemical Engineering Department. Ethan studied palladium and platinum nanoparticles in hopes “to conclude which species and configuration of support material maximizes the performance and longevity of these metal catalysts.” As with many projects, Ethan’s didn’t go completely according to plan, but this didn’t stop him from working throughout the summer to develop a more accurate and efficient method to characterize these nanoparticles. Ethan and Dr. Cargnello wrote an article about these developments that may significantly impact the field of chemical engineering, possibly leading to more efficient vehicles and greener machinery. Their article is currently under review for publication in the American Chemical Society’s journal Applied Nano Materials, and we will be looking for it in the coming months!
Ethan in front of his presentation materials during the Senior Project Presentation
BASIS Curriculum Schools’ Director of Curriculum, Linda Louis, interviewed Ethan in his first month at Columbia University to hear about his experience doing a Senior Project and how his time at Stanford impacts his plans for further study, as well as how his education at BASIS Independent Silicon Valley has contributed to his success.
Linda Louis: One of the reasons why we chose you as the winner of the Founders’ Prize is because your blog chronicled your Senior Project in such an authentic way—you explained things in ways that everyone could understand, and you found something productive in every challenge that you came across. Can you talk about that a bit?
Ethan Feng: When I first started in February, the professor I worked with kind of assigned me a project, and this is what I wrote about in my blog under the mentorship of one of the grad students there. Toward the end of it, we realized that we kind of hit a roadblock because we weren’t able to measure the concentration of nanoparticles that I was working with due to the standard techniques the lab was using. But then I remembered from Honors Chemistry that there’s another separate technique applicable to what we were doing, called UV-Vis spectroscopy. The current techniques were slow, inaccurate and expensive, so I thought, what about the spectroscopic method?
LL: And this is where your blog ends, but it obviously worked, because you stayed the entire summer. You say you left only the day before you headed off to Columbia!
EF: My professor was expecting that there would be no relationship between the particle size and the optical spectroscopic size of the particles, but this [approach] opened a whole new door for us. I had only been working with platinum nanoparticles during my Senior Project, but he proposed trying UV-Vis with other metals. It turns out that this cool relationship holds across many different species of nanoparticles! As we started uncovering more and more, it was clear that not only have we shed more light on the details of this unknown relationship, we have also uncovered this new method that, when practically applied, eliminates this really old method with all its problems and hassle. This new method is cost-efficient, very fast and accurate. With the old method, a single measurement would take half and hour and you’d need 3-5. Now, 2-3 measurements is enough and the 3 in total may only take up to 10 minutes. So [the success] was twofold. On one hand it was practically applicable and made life easier for us, and from a theoretical standpoint, we were able to pioneer the study of the optical properties of these nanoparticles.
LL: That’s amazing! How did the article come about?
EF: I narrowed my focus to platinum, palladium, and nickel because they’re commonly used in this field in general. Eventually we built a nice picture of how these particles look, what influences their particle size, and what happens if you don’t synthesize the by-products. My professor proposed sharing this with the scientific community, and In June we decided we would publish a scientific paper. This was amazing because this is not something I was expecting coming into my senior project—publishing is a huge deal! I was extremely grateful that I got this opportunity and that my professor trusted me to see this through. So from then until the end of my stay there I was working on writing the paper, going through the results with him, making graphs, and writing the abstract. This was really cool for me because that’s essentially what every scientist dreams of doing. I wanted to make it perfect, so my prof and I submitted it on the last day before I flew to New York [in August]. It wasn’t a rushed thing, it was more like, this felt like how it was meant to be.
LL: It sounds like your expectations and initial experience in your Senior Project morphed into a truly authentic opportunity to impact this field.
EF: At first it was a pretty typical lab project in which I didn’t get to determine the scope of the project. But in committing to it and really thinking about all the aspects of our work, my supervisors saw me as a contributor. I got to propose the ideas and run the experiments and to think through the data; it wasn’t someone else’s hypothesis, and it came together for me in an amazing way. It was a new experience for me, too: when you do experiments in high school, you know what the outcome will be, or what would happen if you changed things, but [in a lab] you don’t know what will happen. That’s really what drove me to keep going, and that’s what I find most appealing about science in general.
Zues, the reactor rig that Ethan used most often in the lab
LL: How would you say that being a BASIS Curriculum graduate impacted how you approach life at Columbia?
EF: I’m loving it here so far. It’s really diverse, and the academics are great to dive into. The faculty are down to earth but incredible—they’ve won a Nobel Prize, but oh no, call me Joe! In high school I made a lot of close bonds with my teachers and so that was a really big thing for me before I came to college. During all my college interviews, I would always ask what is it like to talk to the professors, and I feel like Columbia gave me a good impression on how willing they were to engage with the students. It was important to have that as a component to my college education after having such great relationships with my teachers at BASIS Independent Silicon Valley.
Ethan at the 2019 BASIS Independent Silicon Valley Commencement with Head of School, Mr. Toby Walker
LL: So are you going to continue studying chemical engineering?
EF: Actually, before I started the Senior Project, it’s funny, I had decided I was going to go to law school after college. Despite how much I love chemistry, research is a daunting thing, and law school felt like more of the right path for me… but there’s an opportunity for me to take advantage of this experience. As I started getting more and more into it and the research process, I really fell in love with it on a whole new level, and it pushed me over the edge into thinking what I really want to do. Previously, I teetered between chemistry and law school, and this solidified it for me. I had never worked with anything like this before. Metal nanoparticles was completely foreign to me. I did fall in love and I’d definitely like to continue working in this field. I’m planning to declare as a Chemistry major with a double major in Philosophy.
LL: I’m so happy that this was such a meaningful experience for you! Is there anything else that was particularly valuable about Senior Projects in general?
EF: Another really cool part of the Senior Project is that a lot of the students in the grade below me have been reaching out about prospective majors in Chemistry, or for advice on research later this year. It’s been great getting to connect with students outside the bubble of my class, and I feel like that gave me a different aspect of fulfillment. I think it’s awesome, because if I’m not mistaken there are two students in the year below me they’re going to work for that lab for their Senior Projects.
In fact, the reason I initially found out about the opportunity to work with this professor is because a friend of mine worked for him the year before. I love how we’ve created this culture of passing down the knowledge, passing down the wealth of opportunities.
LL: What’s next for you at Columbia?
EF: I’m taking Organic Chemistry, which Dr. B. is not happy about, haha, but it’s really interesting! Columbia also has this unique core curriculum, so I’m currently taking “Literature for Humanities” and “Frontiers of Science.”
“Frontiers of Science”?? Sounds like he is already there! We congratulate Ethan on his success, and we are excited to see what the future brings for him and for this year’s group of seniors!
BASIS Independent Silicon Valley is a grades 5-12 private middle and high school based in San Jose, California, providing students an internationally benchmarked liberal arts and sciences curriculum.