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The Go-To Guy

April 8, 2012

Undergraduate researcher Ray Henson finds career direction while building unique research instrument.

By Sharon Pound

The problem wasn’t simple: Build a laser flash photolysis spectrophotometer (LFPS). Then use it effectively to help scientists explore carbon-neutral ways to create fuel.

Other lab assistants had given up. But Ray Henson took on the task. A senior in mechanical engineering with experience in three other laboratories, Henson was dogged in his pursuit. He actually signed a contract that said, “I will get it working.”

That drive and determination earned him the label “the go-to guy” from Paul Frymier, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, while Henson was working on summer research in Frymier’s lab.

Henson’s mechanical engineering background made him perfect for the challenge. He started by studying the remnants of previous attempts to build the instrument and deconstructing each component. He examined the laser, the detector, and the amplifier, eventually figuring out how to work the equipment. Throughout the process, he regularly discussed his ideas with his mentor.

“All of the parts were there,” Henson says. “It was just that no one could put it together to measure accurately. It needed tinkering.”

In chemistry, spectrophotometry measures materials’ reflection or transmission properties at different wavelengths of light. In this case, the LFPS will help optimize the production of hydrogen by enabling the lab to study each step of the hydrogen-producing reaction. The spectrophotometer uses a laser to flash the sample, and the materials in the sample absorb the light in a way that can be used to monitor the rate of the reaction.

One of the solutions Henson developed involved filtering the laser light to avoid interference with the sample. His low-tech experiment used a pinhole cut into a piece of cardboard. “The pinhole blocked out stray light so that the sensitive detector could better observe changes in the sample, and it worked surprisingly well,” Henson says.

Frymier compares the challenge Henson faced to building a Mercedes piece by piece from an auto parts store.

“Ray has gotten further than anyone else,” Frymier says. “He has the rare quality of always thinking. When he’s working on a problem, he goes home and comes back with a solution. It may be wacky, but he didn’t stop thinking. If you’re smart, with that kind of tenacity, you will solve the problem. Students like that push you as a mentor.”

In their work with the Tennessee Solar Conversion and Storage using Outreach, Research, and Education (TN-SCORE) program, Henson and Frymier are collaborating with other laboratories throughout the state that are also trying to find a sustainable way to make hydrogen as a potential fuel or chemical feedstock.

Barry Bruce, TN-SCORE’s Thrust One leader and a UT professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, says that Henson’s LFPS will be used by research partners at the University of Memphis.

“With this focus on collaboration and networking, we become relevant to each other, and Tennessee becomes stronger,” Bruce says.

Henson has several LFPS projects under way, including one that focuses on understanding the consumption rate of the electron donor. He explains that this hydrogen-evolving system requires electron donors, which act as a source of electrons for creating hydrogen. Understanding this process will allow engineers to optimize the amount of hydrogen produced.

“My research experiences have added a new dimension to what I’ve picked up in the classroom,” Henson says. “I’ve learned problem-solving methodologies and how to identify parts of the problem and find out more. For example, if I’m studying task X to produce more of Y, then what do I know about the entire process of task X?”

Henson began his first research experience as a freshman in summer 2008, working with Richard Komistek, professor of biomedical engineering and co-director of UT’s Center for Musculoskeletal Research. The project involved using fluoroscopy and X-ray video to compare the range of motion before and after knee replacement.

He then worked on an honors research project titled “Atomic Force Microscopy Characterization of Plant-based Nanoparticles” with Mingjun Zhang, associate professor of biomedical engineering. In summer 2010, he worked with Zhang on a project related to flagella motility, which won an award at UT’s Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement (EURēCA). His senior design project involved constructing an electric vehicle for the EPA P3 Competition.

Henson is relying on his experiences to help develop his career path. “I plan to pursue an advanced degree in chemical engineering,” he says, noting that he has also applied for several fellowships. “My goal is for a research faculty position or a research position at a company or national laboratory in the sustainable energy field. I’m also considering a PhD and then taking results of my research to the marketplace as an engineer.

“It has been great to work with the professors, grad students, and postdocs,” Henson says. “They’ve honed their problem-solving abilities, and their habits rub off on you. They have given me a new perspective on what life might be like as a researcher.”