Mikayla Moody never envisioned herself becoming a scientist—that is, until she met Mrs. Chih.
Jessica Chih, Moody’s fifth-grade science teacher, brought enthusiasm to her class that left an indelible mark on the young Moody.
“Her deep love for science inspired me to investigate the world’s mysterious phenomena,” Moody recalled. “She made science feel like something more than just a class subject.”
In high school, as her focus narrowed to engineering, Moody interned for six weeks at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia. For Moody, it was a turning point.
“I witnessed people from all walks of life working together to unlock the incredible potential of collaboration, perseverance and the kindred desire to discover,” she said. “I entered my senior year of high school feeling empowered enough to apply for engineering programs at various universities across the country.”
Moody went on to attend North Carolina State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering. Two summers after her graduation, Moody had the opportunity to participate in a 10-week internship at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) through the GEM Fellowship Program. Moody was drawn to ORNL for its wide range of materials science research.
Moody participated under the guidance of Amit Naskar, Ph.D., leader of the Carbon and Composites Group within ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division, and Christopher Bowland, Ph.D., a Eugene P. Wigner Fellow. She collaborated with fellow intern Susan Rankin on the development of carbon fiber composites.
“Carbon fiber is like yarn, but instead of being made of silk, wool or cotton, the fiber is made of carbon atoms,” Moody explained. “Carbon fiber is being heavily researched right now because it is strong, lightweight and electrically conductive. It could potentially replace materials commonly used in high-stress situations, such as materials used on the exteriors of planes and cars.”
As part of her research project, Moody coated the surface of the carbon fibers with titanium dioxide nanoparticles in an effort to increase the strength of the final fiber-reinforced composites and enhance their sensing capabilities. When the fibers are placed under stress, the electrical resistance of the nanoparticles changes, meaning the carbon fiber composites can be used to monitor their structural health while in use.
“These composites could make airplanes, cars and bridges safer because they provide real-time analysis of damage and fatigue,” Moody said. “This analysis should theoretically pinpoint when a part needs to be replaced before it breaks, or, if something unexpected happens, such as a collision, it could determine the location and extent of the damage.”
To examine the composites’ strength, Moody used a three-point bend test and calculated the amount of nanoparticles on the fibers using thermogravimetric analysis.
“Every day is different for me, but I typically have on a white lab coat with many stains, blue gloves and safety glasses because I spend a lot of time in the lab,” Moody said. “The tasks I do in and outside the lab vary greatly. Some days I am coating carbon fibers or bending composites until they break. Other days I am analyzing data. And others I am reading up on literature. It’s nice because I never get bored.”
For Moody, the connections she formed at ORNL made the internship especially rewarding.
“Even though I have only been here for a short time, I feel like I have developed a community,” Moody said. “It’s been great to hear about other people’s projects as well as gain friendships from these connections.”
After her internship at ORNL, Moody will attend the University of Connecticut to pursue a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering.
“My time at ORNL has been an amazing experience,” Moody said. “I’ve gotten to meet so many people, conduct research on a new subject matter and explore many parts of East Tennessee.”
The GEM Fellowship Program is a partnership between the National GEM Consortium and ORNL. The National GEM Consortium is a network of leading corporations, research institutions and universities that enables qualified students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate education in STEM fields. The program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.