Find Your Passion: A Football Field in a Teaspoon

Elizabeth Junkin
Junkin works in a UA laboratory.
 (Photo by Samantha Hernandez)

By Sarah Caroline Willcox

When most students at The University of Alabama think of a football field, they think of Bryant-Denny stadium, Nick Saban and a championship season by the beloved Crimson Tide. When Elizabeth Junkin, a junior majoring in chemical and biological engineering, thinks of a football field, she envisions fitting it in a teaspoon.

Junkin is collaborating with a team of UA researchers attempting to fit the area of a football field into the volume of a teaspoon. The goal of the project is to overcome today’s battery deficiencies by increasing the amount of energy they can store. To achieve this goal, the researchers will create a material that has a very high surface area with a very low volume.

“This technology can be used toward many areas, including fuel cells, batteries and information storage,” Junkin says. “My personal goal was to take hold of an opportunity, that I believe God gave me, and to learn as much as possible academically and socially, as well as gain valuable laboratory experience.”

Batteries’ energy-storage capacity is limited by how fast energy can be drawn from them, the researchers say. Through the use of nanotechnology, Junkin – working alongside UA scientists – hopes to develop supercapacitors which can provide a high surge of electricity quickly as the electrons they contain only have to flow minute distances.

By minute, Junkin is thinking in terms of nanometers – which are one billionth of a meter. Put another way, it would take a million nanometers to span a grain of sand.

Elizabeth Junkin
Maddox, right, a third-year chemistry doctoral student, observes Junkin. Maddox has mentored Junkin since the former served as a teaching assistant in the latter’s freshman lab.
 (Samantha Hernandez)

Key to nanomaterials’ role in capacitors, and in many other applications, is the increased surface area they provide, the researchers say. For example, picture a board game’s die, measuring 1 centimeter per side. Combining each of the die’s six sides gives 6 square centimeters of surface area. However, if that same sized die was actually filled with smaller dies, 1 millimeter on a side, it could hold 1,000 such cubes. The surface area of these 1,000 cubes, combined, provides 60 square centimeters of surface area, 10 times the amount of surface area the original 1 centimeter die contained. Apply this principle at the nanometer scale and the increased surface area is astonishing.

Junkin says her interest in science started in the 7th grade when she participated in an outreach program started by UA’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. The program, Lego League, involved a competition to build robots to certain standards. After a couple of competitions, and plenty of engineering exposure, Junkin decided to pursue science.

“[Lego League] has also been my reason for getting involved with SWE at UA,” Junkin says. “This year, I am vice president of outreach. My goal has been to give back to the organization that placed that initial interest of engineering in my mind, and, hopefully, I can help someone else find his or her passion in engineering.”

A Tuscaloosa native, Junkin says UA was not always her first choice for college. Although she had narrowed her choices to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and UA, she could not decide which school would be the best fit for her potential major—either biomedical engineering or chemical engineering. However, after attending University Day on UA’s campus, she says the choice was clear.

“An engineering recruiter told me about all the possible careers that a major in chemical engineering could prepare you for … this was what helped me decide to pursue it as a major,” Junkin says. “[Also], UA offered many other programs that sparked my interest, such as the University Honors Program, Computer-Based Honors Program and the Cooperative Education Program.”

Once at the University, Junkin’s proficiency and motivation in chemistry got her quickly noticed. After one semester at UA, her teaching assistant, Franchessa Maddox, requested her assistance in a research project. Junkin’s work in the lab was skillful and rare for a freshman, Maddox says, making her appealing for the project.

Elizabeth Junkin
Junkin's interest in science was piqued in 7th grade by a UA Society of Women Engineers' competition.
 (Samantha Hernandez)

Since that first fateful chemistry class together, Maddox has mentored Junkin. Maddox, a graduate student at UA, has been studying under chemistry and lead professor of the experiment, Dr. Martin Bakker, for the past 2 years. The team at UA is also collaborating with colleagues in Finland to complete the project.

“When my adviser, Dr. Bakker, asked if I knew any good undergraduates that would be interested in working with us, Elizabeth Junkin was the first person that came to my mind,” Maddox says. “Once experiments are designed, the chemical engineer in her takes over, and she takes the initiative to scale things up on her own.”

Over the course of the project, Junkin has participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates Program through the MINT REU—Materials for Information Technology—on campus at UA. Funding for Junkin’s involvement was provided by the National Science Foundation. It was an 11-week summer program, where five of the 11 weeks were spent with Maddox in Finland. After collaborating with some of the researchers in Finland at the Åbo Akademi University in Turku for four weeks, Junkin and Maddox were able to have a week of vacation to tour the rest of the country.

So, what is a budding chemical engineer with a wealth of experience to do with her future? There are three things she says she knows for sure—obtain an advanced degree, work in a medical-related field and work closely with people.

Junkin concludes, “What started out as a lab TA asking one of her students to help her with a research project for a semester turned into international travel, lasting friendships and the experience of a lifetime.”

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Sarah Caroline Willcox is a senior at The University of Alabama, majoring in public relations, with a minor in English. She is from Birmingham.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.