Ali Abdel-Maksoud ’21, electrical engineering, and Nicholas Sbalbi ’21, chemical engineering, have been named Rising Researchers by UMass Amherst Research Next.
Ali Abdel-Maksoud ’21, electrical engineering
“In college, things clicked for me. I took the time to find what I like and I learned not to quit when things got hard. When I found my passion, I knew I had to focus.”
Ali Abdel-Maksoud describes himself as a curious kid, the kind who would take things apart and poke around in an electrical socket. As an intern in the Wearable Electronics Lab of Trisha Andrew, associate professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, he put that curiosity into action.
The Andrew lab makes textiles that can harvest solar energy. These textiles can be used to make wearable electronic garments that can power devices and monitor health and activity. Ali works on fabricating solar cells using soft electronic materials and a technique, known as oxidative chemical vapor deposition, that the lab developed to create electronic polymer films on textiles.
Ali’s curiosity brought him to the lab and secured him a place there. He read an article on the UMass home page about Andrew’s research and, intrigued by the green energy potential of her work, met with her and peppered her questions. After joining the lab, he learned how to perform highly specialized deposition and characterization techniques using the lab’s state-of-the-art equipment. “Every day was me on a playground,” he says. “When I used the glovebox, I felt like an astronaut.”
After training from graduate students David Bilger and Kwang-Won Park, Ali was soon performing his own experiments. “It is rare that a young undergraduate will demonstrate sufficient maturity and technical and experimental mastery to be trusted enough to perform specialized experiments on their own,” says Andrew.
Ali contributed to two published research papers. The first investigated a new method to improve the coating on solar textiles and was published in Organic Electronics. The second, published in Polymer Chemistry, investigates the use of guaiazulene, a natural hydrocarbon dye that comes from such sources as the Australian cypress pine, for green electronics.
“We were told guaiazulene couldn’t be polymerized successfully, but we did it easily and consistently,” Ali says. “We showed that this is a brand new, less expensive, greener polymer material. Essentially, it’s a simple material for harvesting solar energy.”
Ali is now working on a third experiment, attempting to create low cost and ultralightweight solar-harvesting textiles.
After two years in Andrew’s lab, Ali’s curiosity is still powered up. “I want to see how Professor Andrew does things so that I can contribute,” he says. “I watch her closely and take notes.” And he’s excited about the potential applications of the lab’s work, including virtual reality garments and t-shirts for older adults equipped with a pressure sensor that could detect falls.
Ali will continue at UMass Amherst to study for a PhD in electrical engineering. He credits his immigrant parents with his transformation from a curious kid with average high school grades to a published researcher. “We came to the US from Egypt when I was nine, and it was a shock for me,” he says. “But my parents’ unwavering faith in me has been my rock and my motivation.”
Nicholas Sbalbi ’22, chemical engineering, Commonwealth Honors College
“While simultaneously tackling classes and my research projects can be a lot to handle at times, I have found that my research work has enriched my classroom experiences.”
What excites Nicholas Sbalbi about research is the element of surprise. He says, “At UMass I have experienced the frustration of sensitive experiments, the mystery of unexpected data, and the satisfaction of confirming hypotheses. None of these emotions have matched the simultaneous joy and intrigue of discovery—whether it is finding a unique or wacky morphology under the electron microscope or generating surprising yet impactful results when analyzing data.”
Nicholas has already made some useful discoveries, and this spring his potential as a scientist was nationally recognized when he was one of three UMass juniors to win a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.
Nicholas began working with Laura Bradley, assistant professor of polymer science and engineering (a graduate program that welcomes undergraduate researchers), in his first semester at UMass Amherst. Since then, he has worked year-round for Bradley’s HIP Materials Group and has had his name on one of their published academic research papers. He likes the complexity of materials science, an interdisciplinary field that investigates the properties of matter. “In my research, I’m just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” he says. “It’s a puzzle to figure out which knobs you can turn without drastically varying the system.”
Nicholas’s first project was working on a new chemical vapor deposition chamber for producing functional polymer coatings. These nanometer-thin coatings can be used for battery technology, controlled wettability, and other applications.
His second project was synthesis of micromotors through the modification of the lab’s previously made Janus particles. These particles, named for the two-faced Roman god, have two distinct sides. It was during this research that he made a discovery: a particle in the shape of a jellyfish with one rough and one smooth side. “I was trying to make micromotors, expecting one thing to happen, and instead I got this,” he recalls. “Its weird shape surprised me.”
The unusual shape of the Janus jellyfish particle also gives it unique properties. For his Commonwealth Honors College thesis, which he hopes to develop into a published paper, Nicholas will further research the formation mechanism of the Janus jellyfish particle.
Says Bradley, “What makes Nick an exceptional researcher is his ability to define scientific questions and then compile data in the context of these questions in order to make concrete conclusions.”
Bradley also lauded Nicholas for playing a significant supporting role in the research of others. Working remotely from home last summer, he collaborated with graduate students to write custom programs in the coding language MATLAB to assist them in data and image analysis, speeding up these processes significantly.
Nicholas plans to study for a PhD in either materials science or chemical engineering, a route that should lead to many more of the scientific surprises he relishes. “My goal is to lead a group of researchers in either an industrial, academic, or national laboratory setting, helping to bring others to their own discoveries,” he says.