Alex Ashley ’22, chemical and biomolecular engineering; mathematics Twitter
By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis
When Alex Ashley ’22 was accepted into the College as its fifth-ever Lafayette-Jamaica Scholar, he was elated to receive the prestigious award. “I am grateful to Lafayette,” he says, “and because they gave me this rare opportunity, I was determined to gain the necessary skills in order to provide a return on their investment.”
Ashley’s first year as an undergraduate also happened to be associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Ryan Van Horn ’04’s first year teaching at Lafayette—and when Ashley participated in Van Horn’s “A Plastic World” First-Year Seminar, he proactively sought a student research position to assist the professor in his work with polymers.
“Prof. Van Horn and I met weekly to discuss scientific articles and my inquiries concerning them,” Ashley says. “Finally, the spring semester arrived, and he accepted me as his research student. After two years as a research assistant, I continue to refine my experiential skills and conduct research with Prof. Van Horn.”
The one-on-one research Ashley currently conducts with Van Horn is centered around studying the structure and macroscopic properties of polycaprolactone and polyethylene—two highly accessible types of FDA-approved plastics—and analyzing how these properties can be manipulated to enhance how they are used in biomedical items such as pill capsules and polymer films. Ashley and Van Horn are also writing a scientific paper together, titled “Enhancing Minority Block Crystallization in Asymmetric PEO-b-PCL Copolymers,” which they plan to publish by spring 2021.
“Graduate schools want students who have research experience,” says Ashley, who hopes to eventually pursue a doctoral degree at either Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or University of California, Berkeley, and a career as a professor. “Not only will my years of research experience strengthen my application when applying to graduate programs, but this planned publication will also signal my critical thinking and analytical skills.”
While Ashley finds his current studies fulfilling, he plans to use his knowledge and technical skills to conduct additional research on renewable energy as a graduate student.
“Solar panels are great, but because people aren’t home during the day, the energy they generate in the daytime dissipates. Then, when people are home at night and actually want to use the energy, they don’t have access to it,” Ashley explains. “I want to help find a way to store that energy and make it accessible throughout the day, and thereby bring the world closer to a more sustainable future.”