Checking in: Graduate updates
Norwich on his scientific research © June 14, 2013, Norwich University Office of Communications
Cabot 085 is a space every Norwich University undergrad comes to know well. A series of row-like desks that descend to a single laboratory table, the room is the largest teaching theater on campus, seating 164, and the best place to stage science and math demonstrations, lectures and large introductory classes.
Jeff DeFelice, a 2011 graduate, never stood at the center of Cabot 085 when he was at Norwich. As a Dartmouth graduate student, however, he returned to the Northfield, Vt., campus to speak about his research and opportunities available through further education. It was a very different experience to see Cabot 085 from this perspective, he said.
“I felt like I should be in class,” said DeFelice, who double-majored in chemistry and mathematics as an undergraduate.
Working with Prof. Frisbie over the summers got me interested in that; learning about one thing in depth.
Class of 2011
The lecture went well, however. DeFelice studies the properties of polymers, large molecules composed from multiple repeating units that occur in synthetic compounds, such as silicone and nylon, as well as natural examples like human DNA. The large size of the molecules make them useful for synthesizing materials, often through a mixture that includes at least one natural or synthetic polymer and other materials. DeFelice spends a lot of time studying these chemical bonds and how they can be manipulated to improve miscibility.
“That’s what’s really interesting to us; understanding the properties under which two (substances) can mix,” said DeFelice to an audience of chemistry students and faculty. “...when they’re going to mix and when they’re going to demix.”
Illustrating his ideas with slides and graphics, DeFelice gave an overview of polymer science and how it can support manufacturing, as well as his experience as a graduate-level researcher. Much of the work is done on a computer rather than in a chemical laboratory, he said. While he works with a team of five people—undergraduates to professors—a lot of the learning happens in solitude. You’re expected to find your own motivation, he said.
Afterwards, DeFelice was satisfied with his presentation and seemed a little bit relieved.
“Trying to put a [science] talk together that most people can understand is hard, for sure,” he said, relaxing in the library after a walk around campus. He has returned a few times to drop off his brother, Chris, a geology student, but DeFelice hasn’t spent any significant time at Norwich since graduating in May 2011.
Both his undergraduate degrees are useful to what he does, but it may have been his experience as an undergraduate researcher that set him on the present course. At Norwich, he was awarded fellowships that paid him to spend two summers working with Prof. Seth Frisbie on an ongoing project to detect more minute levels of arsenic in drinking water. He continued to study the process while classes were in session, and became intimately involved with it.
“Working with Prof. Frisbie over the summers got me interested in that; learning about one thing in depth,” he said. “It took me some time to understand how research works. It’s a different experience.”
At Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, dozens of students earn the opportunity each summer to pursue a single research idea mentored by a faculty member. For DeFelice, the process was useful in teaching him how to ride out the ups and downs that happen with intensive study.
“Sometimes, things just don’t work out and you’ve got to figure out how to get out of it,” he said, “and no one can help you.”
Frisbie, a chemistry professor, said that fully 135 students have helped him work on the arsenic-testing project, but DeFelice probably played the largest role. The two met when DeFelice, a civil engineering major at the time, took a freshman chemistry course and very quickly decided to change his academic future.
“I felt an obligation to him because he made such an important career decision based on one class,” said Frisbie, adding he invested a lot of time in DeFelice because of his interest, integrity and intelligence.
DeFelice is now in a five-year PhD program where he works with a small, tight-knit group that often reminds him of the environment at Norwich, even though it also frequently feels more like a job than school. He recently presented his work with polymers at a conference of the American Physical Society in Baltimore, and plans to begin working on his thesis soon, which will take three years. The focus will continue to be polymers.
Frisbie was was considering ways to get young chemistry students thinking about opportunities available to graduate students. DeFelice’s path, he said, really brought that home, so Frisbie invited him to campus.
“I kind of put one and one together and came up with Jeff DeFelice,” he said.