TTU undergraduate researcher Azuráe Johnson seizes opportunity, wins national fellowship

Your image of a university researcher will never be the same after meeting Azuráe Johnson.

Only the second Tennessee Tech University student ever chosen for a competitive undergraduate research fellowship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington D.C., Johnson, 19, can already catalogue her biomolecular chemical engineering research experiences at the university.

Less than a year since graduating from Cookeville High School, she’s proving there’s no need to follow traditional timelines when you love what you are studying.

“In terms of research, I’m just a tiny sprout in a magnificent rainforest, surrounded by mentors, advisors, and graduate students who are paving the way,” Johnson said.

In turn, Johnson is carving a path for young people who want to delve into research as undergraduates and showing them that Tennessee Tech is one place where their interests are matched with opportunities.

Johnson credits her transition from high schooler to freshman researcher to extensive training in nanocomposite research studies under her advisor, Holly Stretz, and Pedro Arce, who together lead TTU’s Chemical Engineering Nanocomposite Research Team.

Stretz says the department’s philosophy is to expose and invite students early in their careers to be involved with research and real-world problem solving, and that across-the-curriculum philosophy has been a crucial element in Azuráe’s success.

“Azuráe has an excellent academic foundation, and she demonstrates many important scholarly attributes allowing her to contribute early to a research environment,” Stretz said. “One element was that she took full advantage of the opportunity to explore advanced coursework at TTU while she was still in high school.”

She met TTU faculty members as a result of winning the grand prize the annual TTU Science and Engineering Fair, which allowed her to compete at the INTEL International Science and Engineering fair in Indianapolis. Then, as a high school senior, Johnson took several college classes and expressed her interest in research.

“I started my research with a literature review and kept asking ‘What’s next,’” said Johnson.
Stretz assigned her to assist doctoral student Jeffrey Thompson with work on his patent for novel thermo-sensitive gels that promises to purify drugs faster and more efficiently.

“The project’s goal is to develop a gel that yields a more efficient way of separating complex mixtures of drugs by changing the gel’s morphology on the nanoscale level simply by altering the temperature,” Johnson explained.

While working with these novel gels, Johnson has already begun a second independent project. That project involves studying the hot coagulation of novel carbon nanotubes in efforts to make materials stronger.

“I’m testing the characteristics of novel carbon nanotubes formed by a Tulane University researcher,” said Johnson. “This is a rare opportunity because a pound of the carbon nanotubes cost about half a million dollars; however, these were donated for my work.”

At NIST, a federal technology agency that advances the US in innovation and industrial competitiveness, she’ll continue her nanotechnology research in Washington D.C., for the summer.

“Tech's chemical engineering department prepared me for this award by giving underclassmen the opportunity to do research,” Johnson said.

“It is because I was encouraged by the Chemical Engineering Female Mentoring Group and faculty members who teach the chemical engineering ‘Intro to Research’ course, that I felt comfortable and excited about doing my own research projects,” said Johnson.

In addition to the fellowship, Johnson presented at the 2008 American Institute of Chemical Engineering National Meeting in Philadelphia and earned the Eastman Chemical Company Merit Award. She also was one of 40 undergraduate researchers throughout the state who presented research at "Posters at the Capitol 2009,” an event attended by TTU President Bob Bell, who thanked her for representing the university so well.

Johnson says before she makes a career choice she is looking forward to her cooperative work assignment with Eastman in 2010 because she has yet to work in the industry side of her field.

Until then, she’ll make the most of the opportunities the chemical engineering department offers, such as the Fast-track Master of Science and Distinction in the Major programs.

“Few universities give undergraduates the chance to begin research so early,” she said. “I encourage every student to pursue these opportunities.”