KINGSTON, R.I. – May 20, 2010 – When Brian Bonk was 15 years old, he remembers his uncle, a chemical engineer, describing some research he was conducting in the field of programmable matter.
“It’s a really esoteric field, but I thought it was awesome, and from that point on I began to seriously consider becoming a chemical engineer,” said Bonk, a junior at the University of Rhode Island.
The Westerly resident learned soon after that he wasn’t interested in programmable matter, but he stuck with chemical engineering and has been rewarded with a $7,500 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious national scholarship for students interested in science and engineering careers.
It’s quite the achievement, considering that he never graduated from high school.
“I missed a lot of my junior and senior years in high school for medical reasons, but URI still allowed me to enroll on a trial basis,” Bonk explained. “The Admission staff was very generous and forgiving, and so far so good.”
Bonk quickly showed that the URI Admission Office made an excellent decision, as he was recognized as a University College Scholar for his high academic achievement during his freshman year. He subsequently immersed himself in a number of complex research projects, which he credits with helping him win the Goldwater Scholarship.
His main focus has been on developing a thermodynamic model that is being used to study, among other things, deep-ocean carbon sequestration, a concept designed to alleviate global warming by pumping carbon dioxide thousands of meters below the surface of the ocean and trapping it within the seafloor sediments.
“It poses serious modeling difficulties because of the high pressures involved and because of the various molecular level interactions between the sea water and liquid CO2 involved,” he said. “The key issue is whether the CO2 will stay there in the long term. To figure that out we have to rely on simulations and models.”
Bonk said that his contribution to the project involved conducting a series of Monte Carlo simulations, a computational technique that uses random sampling to compute properties like potential energy.
“There are existing programs available to do it, but my advisor let me loose to write my own program, which took many months to fully test and debug,” he explained. “He let the learning opportunity trump the time constraints, and the experience ultimately inspired me to pursue a career in computational science.”
While Bonk still has one more year at URI to go before earning his bachelor’s degree, he is already looking forward to graduate school.
“As much as I enjoy working on this project, I want to switch focus to biological applications in grad school,” he said. “I’m interested in the intersection of computing and biology, in particular molecular simulation. It’s fun to put a bunch of virtual molecules in a box together and let your computer simulate what they do. You can do the same thing with biological systems.”
His aim is to earn a doctorate in computational biology or chemical engineering and work in the biotech industry.
“Protein engineering is an emerging field that relies a lot on simulation and computational techniques,” Bonk explained. “The idea is that you can design proteins from scratch to perform a specific biological function such as acting as a therapeutic drug. There is a lot of computation and simulation involved, and there is growing demand for it in the biotech industry. It’s definitely an exciting field.”