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Research: Nanomaterials

News Story

Dyson Assistant Professor Elmer-Rico Mojica discusses his work with Pace’s undergraduate students and the tiny particles that can have a huge impact.

So, what do nanomaterials have to do with a goopy, white nose? A lot. Think back to days spent at the beach or pool—the thick, white zinc oxide-based sunscreen you slathered on your face protected you from a sunburn, but it made you look pretty silly. In the years since, newer ways of manufacturing sunscreen have made the iconic goopy, white nose pretty much a thing of the past.

This is due, in part, to the application of nanomaterials, materials of which a single unit is sized (in at least one dimension) between 1 and 1000 nanometers (10−9 meter). That’s small. Really small. The nanomaterials used today to make sunscreen allow for far less tint to products containing zinc oxide—smaller particles mean less goopy sunscreen.

Recently, nanomaterials have become a trending topic in the scientific community, their application has changed the way we utilize and convert energy, manufacture products, and develop drugs and cancer-fighting therapies.

For Elmer-Rico Mojica, PhD, an assistant professor of chemistry and physical sciences at Dyson College, it’s the long-term effects of these relatively new materials that pique his interest.

“Sometimes, when we develop materials, we only look at the short-term applications, but the long-term effect is where the problem comes in,” he says. “Like the insecticide DDT, at first it was a miracle formula. It took care of the problems caused by mosquitoes and other insects, but it became problematic—in the long-term—for the environment, for wildlife, and even human health.”

At Pace, Mojica works with undergraduate students to unravel the mysteries of nanomaterials—one project among many that he is currently working on with Pace students. In the lab, students collect and analyze data that helps assess the potential toxicity of nanomaterials. The smaller particles mean that the absorption rates of the materials are sped up, possibly increasing the danger of the materials.

“Some of these products that use nanomaterials have been found to be carcinogenic,” Mojica explains. “In the lab, we do analysis of how different proteins respond to nanomaterials. We use albumins (human serum albumin and bovine serum albumin) because they are the most abundant proteins and hemoglobin. We also mix the nanomaterials with the enzyme catalase—which converts the hydrogen peroxide in our bodies to the much safer water and oxygen.”

So far, his results show that some nanomaterials do have an interaction with the proteins—specifically with aluminum oxide. His work with the undergraduate students in his lab, he believes, will be the foundation they need for graduate-level work or work in a professional lab. While he himself was an undergraduate student, he had the opportunity to work in a lab; that experience led Mojica to choose to teach at an institution that allowed undergraduates to have the same research opportunities.

“I’ve worked so far with 28 students (25 undergraduates) at Pace since 2012. For me, at the undergraduate level, this is the time educators have to make an impact on the student,” he says. “I believe you can learn more if you do research outside the traditional classroom. I’m trying to build a scientific culture at Pace and make sure students have the opportunity to do undergraduate research.”