By Lee Anna Sherman
Undergrad Anna Putnam is squirming. The interviewer has touched a raw nerve in the chemical engineering major. “You’re digging deeply into my life,” she says, shifting in her chair. Her confession comes with reluctance: “My first term at OSU, I struggled in math.” Pressed, she admits the worst: “I got a C in vector calculus.”
For the University Honors College student who had breezed through Advanced Placement calculus and chemistry at Oregon’s Clackamas High School, a grade of “average” was a jarring wake-up call. “Before I got to the university,” the 2005 senior class valedictorian explains, “I never had to study very hard.”
In the three years since that rude awakening, nothing less than an A has darkened Putnam’s grade report. She has gone on to collect scholarships like most students collect songs on their iPods. The American Engineering Association Scholarship from Intel and OSU’s Presidential Scholarship are among them.
Now, Putnam has advanced from the front of the class to the front edge of innovation, where chemical engineering meets nanoscience and “drop-on-demand” printing technologies. As a research assistant for Professor Chih-hung “Alex” Chang, Putnam is fabricating a “nanostructured” electrode for a new generation of lithium ion battery. An initiative of ONAMI (Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute) in collaboration with Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL), the project’s ultimate goal is a revolutionary new battery: smaller, lighter, faster, tougher. The U.S. Army — eager to equip soldiers with more compact, lightweight, durable gear — is funding the research. And Hewlett-Packard, a leader in ink-jet design for novel applications in labs and factories, has donated a research-grade thermal printer to the effort.
The jumbled micro- and nano-materials lab in Graf Hall is Putnam’s base camp 20 hours a week. As comfortable with ultrasonicators (for breaking up particles) and vacuum furnaces (for superheating chemicals) as other people are with video players and microwave ovens, she has found a way to synthesize lithium iron phosphate, a compound with superior properties to the nickel cobalt or lithium cobalt used in most batteries today. Now, aided by the advanced electron microscopy capability at Portland State University (for viewing nanostructures) and the HP thermal printer (for creating imperceptibly thin layers of nano-materials called “thin films”), Putnam is taking the next step toward better batteries.
With financial backing from the OSU Research Office’s Undergraduate Research Innovation Scholarship Creativity grant, she will spend the summer of 2008 making nanoporous thin-film electrodes in various shapes and thicknesses on the HP printer.
Professor Chang describes Putnam as “devoted to the field of nanotechnology.” It was, in fact, one of Chang’s ONAMI colleagues, Jun Jiao of PSU, who serendipitously led Putnam to nanoscience. During Anna’s last summer in high school, she heard about Saturday Academy’s Apprenticeship in Science and Engineering from a friend. The Portland-based program aims to pull more girls and minorities into the sciences. Putnam didn’t know it then, but her career plans were about to morph. Her summer studying the conductivity of carbon nanotubes in Jiao’s lab “changed my life,” she reports. When the internship started, she wanted to be a K-12 teacher. When it ended, she was set on becoming an engineer.
Although prestigious private college Harvey Mudd dangled a hefty scholarship, the small California college’s status as one of the nation’s premier engineering schools couldn’t compete with the broad diversity of students and opportunities available through Oregon State. One of those opportunities came along the summer after her freshman year, when she studied nanotreatments for breast cancer in the lab of PSU chemist and ONAMI researcher Scott Reed.
“I designed my own experiments making porphyrins and gold nanoparticles and quenching them together,” she explains matter-of-factly.
A star in the College of Engineering’s K-12 outreach and mentoring program, Putnam wows high school girls with her “real and vibrant” personality, showing them that it’s “OK to love math and chemistry, and that it doesn’t make you a ‘geek’!” says her first-year adviser Professor Willie “Skip” Rochefort, who actively recruited Putnam to OSU.
As for that hated C in vector calculus, that intolerable stain on Putnam’s near-perfect GPA, soon it will be only a painful memory. She is retaking the class. When she applies for graduate work at MIT or Berkeley, she intends that nothing average will blot her resume, or her prospects.