The distance between Puerto Rico and ND doesn’t stop learning or research

Erick Mendez

The decision to conduct research over the summer for many undergraduate students presented new challenges and considerations relative to remote learning.

Students understood that projects performed off campus, without the convenience of being in a research laboratory, would require additional stamina and perseverance, while exercising flexibility and creativity to meet their research goals.

They also understood the importance of coordinating regular meetings with their faculty advisors and mentors for the success of their projects and, more importantly, to gain a deeper, more profound understanding of their research.

Despite these challenges and the need for additional attention to details, Erick Mendez, senior at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez (UPRM) and participant in this year’s NDnano Undergraduate Research Fellowship (NURF) program, was thrilled to return remotely to Notre Dame for a consecutive summer of research.

“The online experience so far has been excellent,” said Mendez. “I meet weekly with my entire research group and regularly with my mentor. This has enabled me to maintain a consistent and flexible work schedule with established deadlines, which has also made it easier for me to disconnect at the end of the workday.”

Accomplishing similar research work as last year while on campus, Mendez has analyzed data, developed simulations, and documented results, all from his home office. He admitted, “I do miss having a desktop plus my laptop to work from, since it can take more time to do certain tasks with only one computer. There also have been a few minor power outages and some internet crashes. Yet overall, none of this has dampened my experience. I do miss the 15-minute walk from my dorm to the lab that I used to complain about sometimes last year.”

Mendez is collaborating, once again, with Edward Maginn, Keough-Hesburgh Chair of Engineering, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and an ND Energy faculty affiliate, and with Alexander Dowling, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a faculty affiliate of ND Energy and NDnano. Mendez’s project during both years has involved using computational tools and software to conduct molecular simulations.

“It’s been a pleasure collaborating with Erick over the past two summers on research in my lab,” said Maginn. “I and members of my group have enjoyed getting to know him and observing his growth in his research capabilities and confidence to learn and do more.”

2019 research project

During summer 2019, Mendez participated in the Vincent P. Slatt Fellowship for Undergraduate Research in Energy Systems and Processes, administered by ND Energy. He collaborated with Maginn on a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

In his project, Mendez used computational tools to predict the thermodynamic properties of deep eutectic solvents (DES) that when applied to flow batteries would contribute to more efficient energy storage. This can greatly lower the needs of power generation, lowering the impact in the environment and minimizing long-term costs, while favoring the use of environmentally friendly ways of generating the electricity such as windmills and solar panels.

He also studied the behavior of organic molecules that function as hydrogen bond donors when mixed with choline chloride producing deep eutectic solvents, a versatile and cost-effective class of ionic liquids. During the 10-week program, Mendez observed how these organic liquids behaved and verified his finding through multiple peer-reviewed journal articles.

2020 research project

This summer, Mendez is working on a similar project funded by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with the University of Kansas. His work involves the use of Cassandra, a software package, to conduct Monte Carlo simulations that are done through a series of moves, which are statistically defined. Mendez is studying ionic liquids as solvents for refrigerants, which are used to transfer heat from one place to another in systems such as refrigerators and heat pumps. Refrigerants consist of hydrofluorocarbon mixtures that contain both high and low global warming potentials (GWP). Through simulations and statistical modeling, Mendez is working to develop tools and processes that can be used to separate the low GWP compounds from the high GWP compounds, to allow the recovery and recycling of refrigerants that have low GWP.

Research experiences are key to success

According to Mendez, both research projects and summer experiences have contributed to his education and research interests, including his passion for thermodynamics and energy. He believes that by returning a second year, he has built upon his knowledge and developed a deeper understanding, which has allowed him to gain more exposure to new techniques.

“In my first summer, I conducted molecular dynamics simulations, where molecules move as a function of time and their behavior can be explained by Newtonian classical mechanics,” said Mendez.

“I also learned how to search and collect research papers to use as references for the simulations. This summer, I am using software to conduct Monte Carlo simulations. This research is more focused on statistical approaches, and since the literature search was completed prior to my arrival, I have been exposed to the process that helps determine which literature is used to decide steps and methods for research.”

Mendez also attributes his knowledge and success to having gained a broader insight into how concepts in chemical engineering courses are applied in relevant research, how research should be conducted, and how to ask the correct questions when dealing with a problem. He has acquired an interest in programming after being exposed to programing languages such as Python for data analysis. He says he has gained tremendous confidence in his skills and has confirmed just how much he enjoys thermodynamics and other energy-related topics.

People are most influential

Mendez believes that the people at Notre Dame have been most influential on his research and educational experiences. He said, “If it wasn’t for Prof. Yamil Colón going to UPRM to inform students about Notre Dame and the opportunities available to them, I would have never learned about the Slatt and NURF research opportunities.”

Colón is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a faculty affiliate of ND Energy and NDnano. He and his research group use and develop molecular modeling tools to study and design porous materials for targeted applications such as water farming, humidity control, ion transport, and gas adsorption and separations.

Maginn and his research group develop new technologies based on ionic liquids that can be used for applications related to energy and the environment. Maginn has over twenty years of experience working with ionic liquids, classifying him a leading expert in this area.

Dowling and his research group develop novel mathematical modeling and computational frameworks to optimize energy technologies across materials, devices, and systems, and infrastructure length and timescales. Dowling received a 2020 NSF Early Career Development Award, one of the highest honors given by the U.S. government to young faculty members in engineering and science.

What’s next for Mendez

Summer research will be ending soon for Mendez, as he prepares to present his work during the virtual Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium. Typically held in-person and on-campus, this year’s event will be held virtually on July 29 to accommodate remote researchers.

“It’s been helpful to also attend the virtual professional development programs leading up to the symposium,” said Mendez. “These programs have given me insight into other research areas, the importance of attending graduate school, and of most importance to preparing for the poster session, how to create an effective research poster and oral presentation.”

Mendez is on schedule to graduate with a bachelor of science in chemical engineering degree with a minor in project management by May 2022. He is still evaluating what career route to take after graduation, but he is convinced that both of his experiences at Notre Dame have prepared him for whatever challenge is ahead. He is completely sure that the distance between Notre Dame and Puerto Rico of 1,992 miles seems to bear little to no consequence on his success in remote learning and research.

— Barbara Villarosa, ND Energy