Students build instrument for chemistry professor

May 28, 2014

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Dr. Soma Chattopadhyay
Dr. Soma Chattopadhyay

PLATTEVILLE, Wis.­­­ — In a unique interdisciplinary collaboration, two University of Wisconsin-Platteville students designed, built and tested an operational instrument for use in chemistry research led by Dr. Soma Chattopadhyay. Under the guidance of Duane Foust, UW-Platteville physics laboratory manager, Brett Holschuh, an industrial technology management major from Fond du Lac, Wis., and Aaron Decker, a software engineering and mathematics major from Fond du Lac, constructed the instrument based on Chattopadhyay’s requirements.

Chattopadhyay is working on developing a drug delivery vehicle that will load and transport drug molecules and release them in the body in a controlled fashion. One of the steps in the design scheme involves building a polymer shell around nanoparticles using layer-by-layer assembly of oppositely charged polymers. The process is repetitive and would normally take 10 to 20 hours to do by hand. She approached Foust to see if some students could build her an instrument that would automate this process. It featured a moving platform that would rotate beakers in order for a dispensing arm to dip into each one deposit the chemical or rinse as necessary.

“I saw the work that students did with quadcopters at the EMS Expo and thought that if students could do that type of work, they would be able to build the instrument,” said Chattopadhyay. “I knew what I needed the instrument to do, and there were many tricky requirements and much back and forth as the students, Duane and I collaborated.”

Foust, who has worked previously with professors seeking student help to build instruments, thought that Holschuh and Decker, with their experience in robotics and software design, would be a perfect fit for the project.

“I gave them an overall idea of what I envisioned the instrument looking like, and it was pretty similar to what they were thinking,” said Foust. “They asked me a few questions and then ran with it. Our goal in engineering physics is to instill confidence in our students and give them real world application. This is what research and applications engineers do in industry, and I’m quite proud of my students.”

Decker and Holschuh began work on the project last spring. They met with Chattopadhyay to learn the requirements, drew up a design in Inventor, a CAD program, and then started work on the instrument itself. Enabled by a Wisys grant, Decker and Holschuh were paid for their work and gained experience on producing a working product for a client in a timely manner.

“We had the opportunity to take a project from the requirements to completion,” said Decker. “That skill is useful for going into projects in software design. Because we were able to deliver a professional product, it gives us a competitive advantage when it comes to future jobs.”

“Going from start to finish isn’t something we get to do every day,” said Holschuh. “We had to deliver a finished product that worked as correctly as possible before giving it to our customer. We had to make sure that it was completed.” 

Holschuh drew on his knowledge and experience from competing for several years in the FIRST Robotics team, and Decker taught himself how to program the controls that would run the instrument, but nevertheless, the pair faced technical challenges along the way. Their instrument faced motor and power supply issues at first, and they even ended up scrapping their first version of the electrical board and starting over.

“They were good at going back to the drawing board to rethink concepts and fix things that didn’t work,” said Chattopadhyay.

The instrument, which is now ready to be used in research, would have cost around $15,000 on the market, but because it was custom built by Decker and Holschuh, it performs the same tasks at a substantially lower price.

“I think it’s nice for the students to look at a project they’ve worked on for months, hit the button and have it work,” said Foust.

Contact: Dr. Soma Chattopadhyay, department of chemistry, (608) 342-1662, chattopadhys@uwplatt.edu; Duane Foust, physics lab manager, (608) 342-1696, foustd@uwplatt.edu

Written by: Angela O’Brien, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications, (608) 342-1194, obrienan@uwplatt.edu

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