Grad Student Spotlight: Nicholas Tito

On May 8, 2012 by Grad Forum

Originally from Kennebunkport, Maine, Nicholas Tito is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Chemistry. Nick’s graduate research examines the thermodynamics of polymers and focuses on when these materials are in their “glass” form. Through his involvement with the Gordon Research Seminar in Polymer Physics—a student-run conference that is held every two years—and the German JCF-Frühjahrssymposium, Nick has worked to bring graduate students together to learn about one another’s research.

“Currently, I’m serving as the Associate Chair for this year’s Polymer Physics Gordon Research Seminar, which is being held at Mount Holyoke College. The Gordon Seminars are entirely student run, and feature student talks and poster sessions along with a keynote speaker—usually a professor—whose research aligns with the conference topic,” explains Nick. “The Chair is a graduate student at Penn State, and I’ve communicated regularly with her while planning this year’s Gordon Seminar.”

In March, Nick joined a group of chemistry students from New Hampshire and Massachusetts to attend the Frühjahrssymposium, organized by Germany’s JungChemikerForum at the University of Rostock in Rostock, Germany. Like the Gordon Seminar, the Frühjahrssymposium is a student-run conference featuring student talks and posters in chemistry.

“I went to Rostock this year not only to learn about the current research being conducted in Europe, but also because I’m interested in bridging the international gap in the field of Chemistry,” says Nick. “This conference is part of a ‘chemistry exchange’ program that the Northeast Section Younger Chemists Committee (NSYCC) has been involved with for the past ten years. American students like those in our group first travel to Germany for the Frühjahrssymposium, and then students from Germany travel to the United States to attend in an American Chemical Society (ACS) Conference. I think it is an excellent way to share science, form new collaborations, and experience other cultures. I’m really looking forward to showing the German exchange students around Boston when they arrive next year.”

At the upcoming Gordon Conference in Polymer Physics, Nick is presenting his research on the glass transition of polymers. A member of Professor Jane Lipson’s group, Nick creates theoretical models that examine both the glass and liquid transition in these materials. Nick’s research focuses primarily on how molecules act right before the glass transition, and examines how the presence of free volume—“empty space”—affects the transition of these substances.

“It’s easy to understand the glass transition by imagining that you’re in a room filled with people—the annual Graduate Poster Session, for example. Suppose you wish to see a poster on the other side of the Top of the HOP. The people around you make it difficult to move, and it takes a while to make your way across the room,” explains Nick. “There’s going to be some pushing and prodding involved, and this requires energy. But suppose you haven’t slept much over the past few days and don’t have the energy to move through the crowd. When molecules are cooled very quickly, this is exactly what happens: when energy is taken from them, they loose their mobility and are left stuck between other molecules in a fluid. It is this transition from ‘mobile’ to ‘immobile’ that my research examines.”

Used to create synthetic materials including chemical sensors, Styrofoam, and Plexiglas, the polymers that Nick examines are long, string-like molecules that, when cooled, form strong glasses. A number of the polymers researched by the Lipson Group are used to make components for devices that operate in demanding conditions—space ships, for example—so it is important that both the structural properties and transition temperatures of these materials are researched.

“When you think about this geometrically, it makes a lot of sense. The structure of a glass made of chain-like molecules which resemble pearl necklaces, tangled together like spaghetti, will be stronger than a glass made of singular molecules which resemble marbles,” explains Nick. “From a practical standpoint, it is important for scientists to understand the properties of these materials so that when a polymer—like polycarbonate, for instance—is used to build bullet-proof walls, the material remains stable.”

In addition to conducting doctoral research at Dartmouth, Nick also plays the piano, serves as a Departmental Representative on the Graduate Student Council (GSC), and is trying to get a book published that he has been drafting for the past eight years.

“While I’ve studied chemistry throughout my academic career, I’ve always been a big reader. In high school, I started writing a ‘whodunit’ mystery novel, titled View From A Pendulum, which is heavily influenced by the writings of Agatha Christie. The plot focuses on a weekend party that takes place in a mansion perched on a cliff. On the first evening, one of the party guests disappears, and the remainder of the work explores the aftermath. I guess in a lot of ways the plot is like the board game Clue.”

In the future, Nick intends to do a research post doc in Europe and to pursue a career that allows him to continue his research in chemistry.

And yes, Nick also hopes to one day publish his novel.

by Wesley Whitaker
photo by Wesley Whitaker

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