Nicholas Anthony Sbalbi of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department is one of three UMass College of Engineering students who are receiving Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each of these distinguished fellowships provides a stipend of $34,000 annually for three years.
According to the NSF website, the purpose of its Graduate Research Fellowship Program is to help ensure the quality, vitality, and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing full-time, research-based graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or in STEM education.
As Sbalbi aptly summarizes the overarching goal of his NSF research, “I want to reach into the unknown and leave my own mark.”
Sbalbi’s proposed research project during the term of his NSF fellowship is titled “Solvent-Assisted Reshaping of Kinetically-Arrested Multiphasic Colloids.”
As Sbalbi explains the background of his research, “Recent advances in micro/nanoscale fabrication have led to a surge in the popularity and relevance of anisotropic colloids. These particles are characterized by a lack of symmetry in physical and/or chemical properties and thus show great promise as advanced materials, including solid surfactants, micromotors, and drug-delivery vehicles.”
Sbalbi says that these vital applications are enabled by selectively imparting desired structural and chemical behavior onto both the surface and interior of particles.
“Broadening the applicability of these systems requires new, highly tunable, fabrication techniques to be developed,” Sbalbi explains.
But Sbalbi plans to take a slightly different pathway to fabricating such tunable techniques. While the current state of the art involves designing and optimizing novel synthesis routes from the ground up, which is extremely time-consuming and resource-intensive, he believes that there are greater opportunities afforded by augmenting “established fabrication routes.”
According to Sbalbi, he plans to introduce a versatile and novel post-synthetic step, which will enable a wide range of new, diverse morphologies to be generated from particle systems that have already been studied. He says that such a step “must be simple in execution and broadly applicable,” taking advantage of a property common to many fabrication methods.
According to Sbalbi, “One potential [common property of this kind] is the kinetically arrested nature of many multiphasic polymer particles. I hypothesize that a one-step, solvent-assisted phase separation process can be utilized to generate new morphologies in these systems, thus providing a platform to reshape colloids into several variations.”
As Sbalbi adds, “Elucidating the underlying mechanism and determining the role of interfacial tension and polymer solubility on the output morphology will help establish design rules for a new spectrum of morphologically-enhanced colloids.”
This kind of sophisticated research is part of an aspiration for Sbalbi that began in secondary school and is now being fulfilled, thanks to his education in the UMass ChE department, undergraduate research in the UMass Polymer Science and Engineering Department, and now the NSF GRFP.
As Sbalbi says, “The idea of making discoveries and developing theories for the first time in history fascinated me then and continues to inspire me now after years of research experience.”
In the fall, Sbalbi will bring the NSF fellowship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering.