Finding Her Niche in STEM
Zeynep Alptekin '23
“With research, you can’t always predict the direction a project will go, and that makes it exciting.”
Zeynep Alptekin ’23 of Shrewsbury, Mass., was drawn to study chemical engineering at UMass Amherst because of its versatility and emphasis on problem-solving.
“I saw it as an opportunity to find my niche in STEM while solving challenging problems,” she says.
Alptekin has long been interested in issues of sustainability and soon found a fitting challenge to explore: developing permanent magnet alternatives that are less environmentally harsh to mine than existing options. The need for these magnets is ever growing in technology, in everything from phones to cars, and are especially important for renewable energy technology, such as turbine generators.
This led her to the lab of James Walsh, assistant professor in chemistry, where Alptekin began working as a sophomore in fall 2020 on a high-pressure synthesis research project that aims to investigate the exotic phases of a cobalt-carbon system that could exist under intensely high pressure, similar to the pressures present within the Earth’s mantle.
“Metallic carbides have been a topic of study for decades due to their durability and resistance to high temperatures, which makes them ideal compounds for applications in hypersonic flight, rocket engine coatings, and architecture,” Alptekin explains. “These metallic carbides are also of interest due to their magnetic properties, which make them promising alternatives to the environmentally-taxing rare-earth metal permanent magnets.”
Initially, she did a computational survey of high-pressure phase space in the cobalt-carbon system.
“This is a challenging technique with a very steep learning curve, but Zeynep was soon running and diagnosing the calculations by herself,” says Walsh. After discovering that high pressure was likely to stabilize cobalt carbides in bulk form, Alptekin learned the diamond anvil cell technique to conduct experiments at the Advanced Photon Source at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this work was done remotely.
“We were able to manipulate the heating and pressure in the cells from a remote desktop, and we worked with the national lab faculty over video chat, who set up the beamline and switched out cells for us,” Alptekin describes.
With this project, she was able to take part in preparing experiments, using state-of-the-art instruments, and gaining valuable hands-on research experience. Most exciting? “Being in the ‘driving seat’ of the beamline and using it to synthesize a material that had only existed in a computer calculation a few months prior,” she said.
Thanks to the extensive facilities and resources available at UMass, I was able to work with Dr. Walsh on a cutting-edge research project. I was given the resources to independently and remotely contribute to the project, which allowed me to build my research experience portfolio even during the challenging COVID pandemic school year.
Ultimately, the team was able to successfully synthesize and characterize Co3c, a cobalt carbide. These results were published in the journal Chemistry of Materials, with Alptekin as second author.
“Zeynep is one of the most intelligent and creative researchers I have worked with, and her potential as a future research leader is beyond doubt,” says Walsh. “She exemplifies all the qualities that underpin research excellence.”
Alptekin cites her research experience at UMass as being “incredibly valuable” to her goal of pursuing a PhD after graduating. Eventually, she hopes to lead her own research group in an industrial or academic lab, discovering novel sustainable materials.
“Thanks to the extensive facilities and resources available at UMass, I was able to work with Dr. Walsh on a cutting-edge research project. I was given the resources to independently and remotely contribute to the project, which allowed me to build my research experience portfolio even during the challenging COVID pandemic school year,” she said.
In April 2022, Alptekin received the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which provides support for highly qualified students who have a passion for research, potential to contribute to their disciplines, and who plan to pursue a graduate degree. She has also been honored with the Dean’s Scholarship, the UMass Amherst Department of Chemical Engineering Memorial Scholarship, and the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE) 2020-21 Donald F. Othmer Sophomore Academic Excellent award. She serves on the AIChE UMass Chapter as the junior representative.
Alptekin has gained many valuable lessons from her undergraduate research experience. “I have learned how important it is to ask for help early on, ask questions, and to collaborate with others who have more experience. I learned how important persistence is, and that failures in the lab are only learning opportunities.”
Research often takes unexpected turns, in Alptekin’s experience. “For example, I observed how discovering an incorrect assumption in our computational model could improve our experimental hypothesis. With research, you can’t always predict the direction a project will go, and that makes it exciting.”