A Day in the Life of a Co-op

Co-op students at airport

In honor of Drexel University’s celebration of International Education Week, we feature an international co-op in this month’s “Day in the Life” column. Four undergraduates in the College of Engineering—three in materials science and one in chemical and biological engineering—traveled to South Korea last summer for work through the Korea Co-op NNFC-Drexel Nano2 Co-op Center, a collaboration between the College of Engineering’s A. J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute and two Korean universities.

The experiences of two of those undergraduates—Riki McDaniel and Jeremy Pitock—are spotlighted here.

Name: Riki McDaniel
Class: Class of 2020, Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Co-op: Korean Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), Seoul, South Korea
Work Performed: Researching a new path to making polymer-MXene composites for electromagnetic shielding
When: May 2018 through September 2018

7:00 a.m. Wake up in dorm on grounds of KIST; visit gym on campus, lift. The campus was generally quiet in the morning. Skip breakfast, walk to work.
10 a.m. Lab work starts with planning for the day, and with 90-minute group meetings with peer presentations in Korean. Take note of figures and stats on PowerPoint presentations to discern what presenters are saying; each co-worker presents once a month. “If I was lucky, I understood about half of it.”
11:30 a.m. Lunch. Using a messaging app on the subject of where to eat, students choose a location for the day, often opting for kimchi jjigae – a hot kimchi soup served family style, with one big pot in the middle of the table.
1 p.m. Literature review; read publications related to research; order chemicals (such as surfactants) needed over the next series of experiments. “MXene and polymer often don’t mix very well, so I would try to find something that would encourage that.”
2:30 p.m. Afternoons generally spent in the lab spray coating solutions onto substrates to make polymer-MXene composites. Experiments would consume two to three hours of concentrated work.
5:30 p.m. Characterizing composites already made using infrared spectroscopy or scanning electron microscopy.
6:30 p.m. Clean spray coater; wrap up and summarize data at end of the day through a PowerPoint sent to advisor.
7 p.m. Leave work. Meet friends for a one-hour trip to salsa studio in Gangnam; practice salsa dancing two times a week.

McDaniel’s Takeaway Message: “I think the research I was doing was pretty important. But what I personally got out of this co-op was working in a different country and the difference in work culture between the US and Korea. It was really cool to see. It gave me a reference point to compare to, in order to find the kind of work environment that works for me. Everyone gets this out of co-op – we all get these reference points. But going to Korea was different than anything I’d ever done. What was the biggest difference? I got the sense that everybody takes care of one another, whether it was in a coffee shop where we might all take turns getting each other coffee, or with equipment time in the labs. I could go up to one of my co-workers and ask if they could help me and they either would or they would refer me to the next-best person. I think that was a consequence of their working such long hours: they give each other the time of day when they need help. I really got a leg-up from my co-workers.”

Name: Jeremy Pitock
Class: Class of 2019, Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Co-op: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Daejeon, South Korea
Work Performed: Making transition metal oxide and MXene structures with the goal of stacking as many single-layer flakes as possible.
When: May 2018 through September 2018

8:30 a.m. Live in a dorm a 20-minute walk away from work; campus has a forest at its core: “I honestly miss living in a place that beautiful.”  Generally skipped breakfast, but if faced with a long day, would make rice in a rice cooker to eat quickly before leaving for work.
9 a.m. Day begins with administrative work – organizing lab notes, writing reports for advisor back at CoE, scheduling machines that need to be reserved for future use (generally transmission electron microscopes, X-ray diffractometers, or occasionally scanning electro-microscopes or atomic force microscopes).
10 a.m. Start etching (or, selectively reacting) the vanadium oxide; stir it in weak acid to destroy bonds to get the vanadium to delaminate. “You want only some of it to react in order to produce individual flakes.” Remove the sheets that develop. Process usually takes about 30 minutes of active time, but 48 hours to react.
10:30 a.m. Review what had been pre-etched from previous experiments, then consider different treatment options as necessary, either sonication or solvent treatment; work with new samples to etch. “If the etching isn’t enough – if it wants to settle again – I put the material in a stronger, more direct way of disturbing the dispersion to get the flakes to the most separated state.”
12 noon Lunch in the lab cafeteria; grad students with grad students, post-docs with post-docs, etc.; typically ate with either the co-op students or with other friends made at university; occasionally the lab would go out for lunch together.
1 p.m.  The probe sonicator usually had a couple more hours to run; use this time for literature review, scan for new ideas for research; spend between one and two hours per day reading papers. “Some of my experiments, there’s nothing I could do except wait. I was limited by the precursor material amount. So, I read papers while I was waiting for experiments.”
2 p.m. Talk to mentor about samples and take them to technicians for characterization.
3 p.m. Remove samples from probe sonicators and take them to a centrifuge, which removes any agglomerated flakes. Depending on the experiments, do a solvent exchange to filter the material or drop-cast the materials in a fume hood. While the centrifuge is running, go down to the microscopy lab to look at samples under the SEM.
4 p.m. Organize and label samples and put them away, determining if any have completely settled and keeping only those that did not. Process data.
5 p.m. Make sure everything is cleaned up; glassware is washed; depending on amount of cleanup, either read papers until end of day or continue to process data; answer emails, complete “desk” work.
6 p.m. Leave office, go to kickboxing gym at neighboring university for 90 minutes of sparring every day. Meet friends for dinner or cook in dorm.

Pitock’s Takeaway Message: ““The work culture is pretty interesting. They work lots of hours but the day is less packed. For example, sleeping at work is much more acceptable. I didn’t do this since I’m an American. But people fell asleep at their desks or would go out for two-hour coffee breaks.

“Each person’s project was so different. I had a real throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks research job. It taught me how to be independent. Because not only was I alone in a foreign country – well, not alone but we were each doing our own things – but I was there working on my own and had to figure things out. The technicians for most characterization machines didn’t speak a lot of English. With other co-op jobs, I’d always had some form of point person. With this project, I just had to really take my best idea and pursue it confidently. I was doing my own research. I had to be the expert, so there was no one at KAIST who I could ask general questions about my project. And that was advantageous in terms of personal growth. Also, my research is being continued. Someone else is going to be taking up that mantle, so I’m pretty happy with that result.”

Drexel students at co-op in Korea
From left, Drexel co-op students Riki McDaniel, Jeremy Pitock, Pavel Lelyukh and Kateryna Shevchuk with a faculty member from KAIST.