URI chemistry student earns national research prize for nano-scale work with gold plating

Posted on
North Smithfield resident is second URI student to win Eastern Analytical Symposium award

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 8, 2015 — University of Rhode Island senior Caitlin Masterson is one of four national recipients of a distinguished undergraduate research award, which was presented at the 2014 Eastern Analytical Symposium, a prestigious conference for analytical chemists.

She presented her work Nov. 18 at the conference in Somerset, N.J.

URI Assistant Professor Jason Dwyer nominated Masterson (North Smithfield) for the award in recognition of her valuable contributions to a challenging research project.

“Caitlin is very focused and rigorous in her approach to her work,” Dwyer said. “This allowed her to make contributions to the project very early on. She asked insightful questions that showed she was intellectually engaged in the process of scientific discovery — at every step, she was thinking about what she was doing, and why.”

What Masterson was doing was helping to develop a new technique for gold-plating silicon nitride, which Dwyer’s group uses to create chemical sensors and biomedical diagnostic devices. The senior chemistry major focused on modifying the way the atoms were clustered in the gold film, which changes its sensing capabilities.

“It’s exciting to experience a breakthrough,” Masterson said. “If you’re doing something and it doesn’t work, you have to find new ways to work around it and not get discouraged. But there’s nothing quite like it when you finally get it to work and you can explain the chemistry behind it.”

Dwyer said the new process holds many real-world applications that give the metal coating a value far beyond its luster. The ability to gold-coat silicon nitride allows the URI research group to chemically protect the surface of sensitive biomedical diagnostic instruments and to craft high-performance electrical and optical sensors for a wide range of applications.

“Ancient alchemists wanted gold for its monetary value,” Dwyer said. “We are far more concerned about the value it holds when used to improve the performance of a medical diagnostic device, or an environmental sensor monitoring water quality.” The experience has sparked Masterson’s intellectual curiosity and she has decided to pursue further research in pure and applied chemistry by attending graduate school. She has applied to URI.

Masterson is the second URI student to earn the award. Cameron Frament (’12) won the prize in 2012.

“It’s fantastic when URI students get out of the classroom and into the research lab, work independently, and as part of a team, to produce something of value,” Dwyer said. “And it’s nice to see Caitlin produced something of value not just in my eyes, but in the eyes of national experts.”

The work was supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER award to Dwyer, and by an NSF EPSCoR Cooperative Agreement.