Student Spotlight: Ph.D. student receives two awards for research

Nicole Hill, center, receives one of her awards from Rodrigo Martinez-Duarte, the president of the American Electrophoresis Society. Her professor and principle investigator from the Microscale BioSeparations Lab, Blanca Lapizco-Encinas, stands to her left.

While attending the 2019 American Electrophoresis Society (AES) annual meeting at the Scix conference, Nicole Hill, a microsystems engineering doctoral student, received two awards for her research: The Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies (FACSS) first place Poster Award and the Wiley Innovation Award.

From Oct. 13-17, Hill traveled to the Scix AES annual meeting in Palm Springs, Calif., with fellow RIT students from the Microscale BioSeparations Lab to present their research, which was carried out with the guidance of Blanca Lapizco-Encinas, professor of biomedical engineering. The conference is considered a “unique and ever-welcoming forum for scientific exchange” where scholars can come to present their research, learn about new scientific innovations and network with other professionals in the field of analytical chemistry and related subjects.

While at RIT, Hill has traveled to this conference to present twice. She has also published six research-based journal articles and will have a seventh published in 2020. She joined the Microscale BioSeparations Lab in 2017.

What is the Scix AES meeting and why is it significant?

The AES meeting, which is the reason we go to Scix in the first place, is the annual meeting for the American Electrophoresis Society. The reason it’s significant, especially for us, is that is it’s the closest we have to a home for our research. We work on dielectrophoresis and electrophoresis on micro-scale systems. So, the meeting basically provides a forum where we can go and talk to people and we can figure out what kind of research is going on right now. It’s a very nice place where we can go and see all of the most up-to-date research from people who are also in our field.

Can you tell me about the research you presented at the conference?

One of my major projects is dielectrophoresis (DEP) chromatography. What we are doing is taking DEP channels and expanding them so all of the very small differences between particles are accentuated as they move through the system. A lot of times, when you’re using DEP, what you’re doing is trapping particles in order to make a separation happen, or you’re directing them through very long channels and through different forces. You might have two particles with very similar characteristics, but slightly different charges. They’re going to move at different velocities through the systems, but you won’t notice if they’re only traveling a short distance. When they have to travel a longer distance, you’re going to notice a lot more of those differences. My research is focusing specifically on a proof of concept. We are showing that this can work in a lab, but we also show how these processes work with the introduction with biological materials, such as E. coli or yeast. This is helpful because it shows how these processes can be used in the real world to effectively separate particles for analysis purposes.

How did it feel to win two awards for your poster and research?

It was kind of funny, actually. I got an email about the poster award while we were sitting through a presentation. Right after that, I told my professor, who was in charge of handing out the Wiley Award, that I got an email about my award. We didn’t realize they were two different things at the time, so when I told her I got the email she was like, “they weren’t supposed to tell you.” I still didn’t realize until the next day that I won two different awards. It was a nice feeling. The previous year for the same poster topic, I had gotten close but didn’t quite win, so it was a nice moment of, “yes, I finally did it!”

Why do you think presenting your research to peers is beneficial?

I think presenting research in general is important for everyone. One of the things that I find hardest about the world in general is we are all very siloed into our own experiences. If we were all able to just openly share what research we have it would be a lot easier to make innovations that really matter. With peers in our field, the more things that we do and present, the more opportunities there are for improving on an idea and making it marketable, and that’s the goal. It may not be my lab’s name on the paper or product at the end of the day, but the goal is to make a product that is actually useful and can help people. It’s important to be able to show things and spread ideas. A lot of things in our field are incremental changes or recycling of concepts in a new way, but that’s how the world works. The goal is to just constantly improve.

Aside from the awards, what was your favorite part of the conference?

One of the nice things for us specifically was, because we have our AES meeting forum, we were able to talk about research that isn’t usually talked about in a lot of other places. Things like capillary electrophoresis and gel electrophoresis exist in other fields, but they’re not really the main focus. There, we are able to talk about all of that stuff and we’re all on the same page. It’s really nice. It also means that, when people present their research, most of the audience members generally understand what’s being discussed. You don’t have a lot of people sitting there like, “what’s happening?” These meetings are a nice chance to see what’s out there and it’s a nice chance to have a sense of belonging with people in your own field.

Would you recommend other students try to present their research at a conference?

Conferences in general are great. It’s important for students to get their work out there, but it’s also important for them to see what’s out there, especially if you’re considering graduate school. You want to see what research exists because you want to see what interests you and draws you in, and conferences are perfect for that. There are also really great networking opportunities where you can meet new people in your field and be introduced to new opportunities. Even if you’re already a graduate student, you may be looking for post-doc positions and networking at conferences can be very helpful. There are a lot of good professional reasons to go to conferences, but they can also be a lot of fun.

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