MSE Graduate Student Profile: Susan Buckhout-White

"The [Clark] school and university are quite large, which provides opportunities to work at high-class facilities and receive research funding. At the same time the department is small, which allows for personalized attention and a feeling of community."

-Materials Science and Engineering Graduate Student Susan Buckhout-White

Susan Buckhout-White
  • Hometown: Originally from Seattle, Wa., but attended middle and high school in Silver Spring, Md.
  • B.S., Materials Science and Engineering, University of Maryland
  • Advisor: Professor Gary Rubloff
  • Started Program: Fall 2004

We chatted with Susan to learn more about her experiences in the graduate program in materials science and engineering, and to find out why she chose the University of Maryland for her studies.

Who is your advisor, and in which lab do you work?

I began working with my advisor, Dr. [Gary] Rubloff, in my senior year as an undergraduate. After meeting with him for a mentoring session, he encouraged me to apply to graduate school. I ended up applying to the University of Maryland and decided to continue the research I had started with him as an undergraduate. I now work in the Nano-Bio Systems Laboratory.

Please tell us about your research.

While my research has spanned several areas, it has always involved harnessing the unique properties of the biopolymer chitosan. I work in a collaborative group that is trying to address how bacterial systems communicate and become pathogenic. In particular we're studying an enzymatic pathway we've recreated in microfluidics that produces a communication molecule. The ultimate goal would be to find an inhibitor to stop the production of that molecule—if the bacteria can't talk to each other, they can't become pathogenic. A chitosan-based, lab-on-a-chip device I'm working on could sense the intermediate molecules present during communication molecule production. If it does, we know the bacteria are still communicating. If it doesn't, our inhibitor is working.

We are now employing the use of Raman spectroscopy [a light scattering technique] to be able to detect the molecules produced by several bacteria species simultaneously. Raman spectroscopy is often not sensitive enough to look at the physiological qualities of biomolecules. To enhance its signal we are employing the use of Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), which utilizes metallic nanoparticles or structures to enhance the initial signal. The SERS site that we have developed combines chitosan with the metallic particles, allowing us to have a sensing site that can also behave as a binding site.

What is your highest hope for your research?  What would be the most rewarding outcome or result?

While materials science and engineering is just that—both basic science and applied engineering‚I find the application of technology much more rewarding. With that said, my highest hope for the sensor research I've been doing is to see it develop to the point that it could become a feasible technology, a product, or a commonly used technique. That would be the best reward I could imagine.

How did you become interested in materials science and engineering and/or the research you're doing now?

Since I was a small child I have always been interested in engineering and problem solving. I have a cousin who is also a materials scientist and after learning what he did, by the time I entered college I knew materials science was what I wanted to do too.  Specifically, I liked the flexibility that it offered. You work with the inherent chemical and physical properties that make a material what it is, but all industries use materials. The applications of the work can be far reaching.

I also feel that the work I do should have a beneficial impact, and that biomaterials have the greatest potential to improve the quality of life for individuals as well as society as a whole. The work I am currently doing bridges both biomaterials and electronics technology. While the application for this work is in laboratory test beds and not directly interfacing with the body, the work has potential to be an active diagnostic in addition to some of the developed technologies that have potential for human interface applications.

Why did you choose UMD? What appealed to you about the Clark School?

I chose the university because I was familiar with the campus and faculty from my undergraduate education, and I knew what research I was going to be working on during my graduate career. But I appreciate and promote the university, the Clark School and the department [to others who did not attend for undergraduate studies] for being highly diversified, committed to improvement, and nationally known as a leader. The university also enables unique research opportunities because of its proximity to the national labs. 

What is the best thing about your experience here so far?

The best part of graduate school so far was the turning point in my research where I went from performing experiments based on what my advisor and I thought were best to creating what I thought was the right direction for the research and developing my own research goals. This autonomy and ability to create a research direction is what grad school is about. 

What would you like to do after completing your studies here?

While I am not entirely decided at this point I do know that I want to be involved in active research. I had an internship in a small industrial company doing quality control, and learned from that the research aspect was what I really was interested in. The two primary career options I am looking into now are research in government labs or companies with a commitment to research, or a teaching position in a primarily undergraduate school that still has opportunities for research in materials science. 

What advice do you have for undergraduates considering graduate studies in MSE?

It doesn't really matter whether you come from materials science or another field, because graduate school is a different animal than undergraduate school. The work is harder and expected to be more independently driven. The research is better but requires more initiative and creativity on the part of the student. While the student is not expected to change overnight, there is a change that should take place in the course of a graduate education where the student will progress from doing research and doing class work to initiating discussions and directing and leading their own research ideas. 

Would you recommend the Clark School and its MSE program to other students, and if so, why?

I would recommend the Clark School and especially the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. The school and university are quite large, which provides opportunities to work at high-class facilities and receive research funding. At the same time the department is small, which allows for personalized attention and a feeling of community.

What do you like about living in the Washington, D.C. area?  What do you like to do when you're not in the lab? 

I enjoy the natural elements of the area. I like to rock climb, run, hike, bike, and camp, and this area has an abundance of places to enjoy nature. I also enjoy the proximity to both Baltimore and D.C. D.C. provides culture and nightlife, while Baltimore gives me more of a city feeling.  

Susan received her Ph.D. in 2010.