After more than three years of work, chemistry professor Ryan Coppage and senior Nathan Dinh were finally ready to present their pioneering research on ceramic glazes at the American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition.
COVID-19 altered their original plan.
The student-professor team has been working together since the summer of 2017 to develop a safer and more efficient way to create ceramic coatings. The coatings that Dinh and Coppage made are more environmentally friendly and contain fewer toxic ingredients compared to an alternative, widely-used way to create ceramic coatings, while still providing artists a means to create with vibrant color, Coppage said.
“There’s a standard color mechanism in ceramic glazes called crystal field theory, and it requires a large quantity of metal somewhere throughout the glaze for light to hit,” Coppage said. “It’s inefficient and uses a lot of material to generate color.”
Coppage said Dinh and he had worked on an alternative method called plasma resonance.
Plasma resonance is effectively nanoparticle color, or a color that appear a certain shade because of the specific light wavelengths that it absorbs, Coppage said. Plasma resonance also uses less material to achieve the same brightness of color, he said.
The American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, had invited Coppage and Dinh to hold a news conference and present their findings at the ACS biannual national convention, according to a University of Richmond press release.
The spring convention was scheduled to be held in Philadelphia the week of March 22 but was canceled March 9 because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The only other time we didn’t host a convention was during World War II, when you needed a national government approval to do something of that nature,” said Glenn Ruskin, ACS vice president of communications.
In place of the in-person convention, the society decided to hold the meeting virtually on a platform called SciMeetings, Ruskin said.
“It was a happy coincidence [that] our ACS Publications division had been exploring means for more virtual opportunities for scientists to explore their research and have facilities to go back-and-forth with other researchers,” Ruskin said. “This crisis accelerated their efforts.”
Word of the convention’s cancelation was tough for Dinh to hear, Dinh said.
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“I was really disappointed,” he said. “I have never gone to a national meeting, so I was really looking forward to that and doing the press conference in person. A national meeting is on a totally different scale compared to any other symposium you would attend.”
Coppage echoed Dinh’s sentiment about disappointment and missed opportunities.
“It’s a great networking opportunity to connect with other organizations, see other research and for students who want to go to grad school after college,” Coppage said.
Additionally, switching to an online presentation required omitting much of the research's detail, Dinh said. At the in-person convention, Dinh said he would have used a physical poster display tool, but now he had to switch to a virtual poster template.
“My [physical] posters generally contain more figures than text since I like verbally explaining my research and using the poster more as visual reference,” Dinh said. “[The virtual poster] has to stand on its own while still being restricted by the poster size. So, unless viewers are going to the original publications, you miss a lot of the science.”
However, there is a silver lining to meeting virtually, Dinh said.
“Before the switch, my research was really only available to those who travelled to Philadelphia and paid the $225 registration fee for the conference,” he said. “Right now, I think my poster has about 60 views, which is honestly probably more than the number of people who would have approached my poster in person at the conference.”
Ruskin agreed that there were some benefits to meeting virtually.
“It can’t possibly equate to in-person meetings,” he said. “But the world we exist in with this pandemic is opening the door to some unique opportunities and technological advancements. I think we’re going to see a lot more of this. For ACS, we're committed to the advancement of science, in any way we can.”
Coppage and Dinh said they had been looking forward to the opportunity to showcase all the time and effort that went into their research.
“There is extremely specialized equipment required to do this kind of research," Coppage said. "Specifically, a transmission electron microscope.” “The University of Richmond is a special-circumstance place in which we have access to this equipment and we’re very lucky.”
The microscope requires training. Dinh estimated he “clocked in over 60 hours on that thing" and then trained others to use it as well.
Part of Dinh and Coppage's research also included the [kilns, tools used for firing pottery,] at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond and plans to use a microscope at Virginia Commonwealth University, Dinh said.
For now, all science/lab-based research at UR is at a complete standstill and UR has donated all lab gloves to Richmond-area hospitals, Coppage said.
Although Dinh is graduating this spring, Coppage said he hoped to continue advancing their research well into the future.
“Whenever life starts back up, I’ll keep working,” Coppage said. “If you turn any scientist loose on something, they don’t just leave it alone.”
Contact features writer Alex Maloney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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