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Dr. Miguel Castro

Research opportunity puts chemistry professor on the FaST track

Dr. Miguel Castro

Miguel Castro, from the University of Puerto Rico, spent part of the summer conducting research on surface tension in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Faculty Student Team Research program. Click image to enlarge.

Many people believe that to get to the heart of a matter one has to delve below the surface.

For chemistry professor Miguel Castro, Ph.D., of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, the surface is at the heart of his research.

Castro spent three months this summer in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Faculty Student Team Research, also known as the FaST, program. The program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education, provides hands-on research opportunities in Department of Energy national laboratories during the summer. Castro became aware of FaST when he visited ORNL in the summer 2009 to give a brief talk on his work at UPR.

During the program, Castro, along with research team members Wilnia Sepulveda and Marianna Carbo, used atomic force microscopy to measure adhesion and tension forces exerted by nitroexplosives on surfaces. The adhesion measurements can provide quantitative information on the strength of explosives on different surfaces, which can be used in the development and improvement of methods for explosive detection. The work can enhance the ability of airport and transportation security and police department bomb squads to find explosive traces. His mentor for the program was Dr. Thomas Thundat.

The summer stint at ORNL reignited Castro’s passion for research, which had dimmed following an illness five years ago that resulted in three months of hospitalization.

“The timing for that [illness] was terrible. I was publishing and was well funded. After my hospital stay, I saw life differently and reduced the amount of time I spent in my research laboratory. This experience renewed my enthusiasm for research, in part because we addressed some long open questions; and because of the interaction with an excellent research group.”

That interaction was a FaST highlight for Castro. “I think the opportunity to interact with scientists and engineers of different fields was one of my favorite parts of the program,” he said.

Castro noted that Larry Senesac, a University of Tennessee assistant research professor and visiting ORNL scientist, gave excellent explanations on optics, while Dr. Thundat always has “force” on his mind. “They have a burning desire to excel in science and engineering and have the ability to pass that enthusiasm to the people around them,” he said.

Castro enjoyed his stay at ORNL and would recommend the program to others.

“It is an experience to interact with scientists and engineers of diverse backgrounds and ...specializations,” he said, “to meet people that think or see problems differently from you and to see how other people articulate science. It was very good.”

The veteran researcher plans to submit a paper or two about his findings and possibly write a research proposal. Also, Castro hopes seek funding in his area and motivate a new group of undergraduate and graduate students to pursue research.