Student Research

North Central College graduates pursue careers in cutting-edge nanotechnology field

Oct 08, 2015

Landing a position in research in the cutting-edge field of nanotechnology may seem like an unattainable dream job for many graduates right out of college. But for North Central College alumni, it’s becoming a bit of business as usual.

Three Cardinal alumni—Abby Hooper ’08, Chris Boffa ’15 and Daisy Lauriano ’15—are working at Nanophase Technologies Corporation. The Romeoville, Ill.-based company grew out of Argonne National Laboratory in 1989, where some of the earliest research in the nanotech space was taking place.

Hooper’s problem-solving skills and determination led to her first patent not long after she began working at Nanophase in 2008. With nanoparticles, stability is key to realizing the potential benefits the particle’s small size can offer. While developing an architectural coating product designed to keep windows cleaner longer, she encountered a problem where two vital components in the formula were not compatible with each other and as a result destabilized the nanoparticles.

“The market launch of this product was imminent,” Hooper says. “Literature searches of the issue suggested a fix was not available. However, through some determination and trial-and-error testing, I serendipitously observed a change in the stability of the composition by adding a rather benign component.”

Further exploration revealed Hooper was able to form a new particle type through the combination of different particles. Small nanoparticles were able to “ride along” with a new base particle, basically like decorating the outside of a basketball with ping-pong balls, she says.

“A new particle with dual-functionality was something never seen before. This discovery led to my first patent at Nanophase. This exercise was rather early in my career and taught a valuable lesson that determination is key to success,” she says. “Even if the evidence in front of you suggests failure is more likely than success, it is important to always use rational problem-solving skills to explore the landscape yourself and look for solutions that exist and have yet to be discovered.”

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular and supramolecular scale. Nanophase began as a small group of scientists able to produce a few grams of nanoparticles a day and looking for a way to commercialize the new technology.

The company patented technology made it possible to efficiently produce meaningful volumes of zinc oxide—commonly used in sunscreen. Nanophase opened a manufacturing plant in Burr Ridge, Ill., and now produces hundreds of metric tons of nanoparticles each year. The company went public in 1997 and invests in research at the nanomaterial level in a variety of applications—from coatings that strengthen architectural surfaces, to window screenings that save money by reducing energy consumption, to technology that produces more efficient batteries.

Jeff Jankowski, North Central associate professor of chemistry, helped make the connection between Hooper and Nanophase. Upon graduation she was hired as a chemist and now holds the title of senior scientist/lab manager. It’s a good career trajectory for a 20-something graduate with a science degree from a liberal arts college.

“If you’re from North Central you know how to get down and dirty and figure out how to solve a problem,” Hooper says. “Individuals from other schools tend to get caught up in the book work.”

Hooper credits Jankowski and other professors with teaching critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that set North Central graduates apart. Students also benefit from being exposed earlier in their studies to hands-on laboratory and internship experiences, where they gain valuable skills.

Boffa, a biology major who interned at Nanophase and was then hired as a chemist after graduating in June, agrees his North Central education prepared him well for employment.

“Working in a commercial lab is a different world (than the classroom),” he says. “You learn fast.”

Jankowski recalls Hooper and Kathleen Gongaware ’08 Lathrop approached him during their first year at North Central and asking if he’d consider letting them do research with him.

“To me, the fact that they were ‘only first years’ wasn't even an issue,” he says. “I was very impressed at their initiative and not letting their ‘status’ hold them back or keep them from pursuing opportunities. I took them on as student researchers and they did a phenomenal job.”

Jankowski recalls Hooper and Lathrop presented their research at an American Chemical Society meeting. An attendee was so impressed he approached Hooper with his business card.

“I think he was ready to hire Abby right then and there,” Jankowski says.

Boffa possesses the grit and determination sought by employers, Jankowski says. Boffa’s schedule as a transfer student was loaded with tough science courses but he persevered, he says.

“It seemed like the harder things got, the harder Chris worked,” Jankowski says. “Any time I saw him in the hallway he was studying something. He took every single moment he had to better himself and do his best. That’s why, when I got a call from Nanophase and they were looking for ‘another Abby’—their words, not mine—I had no reservations recommending Chris.”

Nanophase is a small company, with 46 employees between its two locations. Though she works in the research and development division of the company, Hooper says she and her fellow researchers are involved to some extent in all aspects of a project, from production to marketing.

“We get to touch the product every step of the way,” she says. “As developers, we understand the product better than anyone.”

Hooper has made the most of her opportunities. Within two years of starting at Nanophase, she secured her first patent and has additional ones pending.

“We get to be very creative in our work,” she says.

Hooper’s work impressed a vice chair of the Illinois Senate Higher Education Committee. State Sen. Pat McGuire of Joliet met her during a visit to Nanophase Technologies’ Romeoville facility.

“That a graduate of an area college is performing so well in a cutting-edge field gives me real hope for Illinois,” McGuire said.