Brandi Ransom: RWTH Aachen Institute of Textile Technology
I applied for this funding opportunity because of my specific career goals and familial ties to Germany. A large portion of my family lives spread out across the southern part of Germany, and I grew up visiting them almost every summer. Because I am a German citizen, I always expected to spend some part of my career working in Germany, and this opportunity has allowed me to better prepare to that time. Also, my specific area of interest, fiber technology, is something that is not at all researched at Stanford, and I am very fortunate that a technical school in Germany excels in this field and would allow me to begin my research in this field.
Finding a Project
I had previously worked at RWTH Aachen – Textile Institute (ITA), a few years ago for an intership during my undergraduate. This experience is what led me to pursue fiber technology for my graduate studies, and I still remained in contact with my advisor from this internship. She was still very welcoming to the idea of having me at ITA again, and luckily it was very easy for me to secure a spot for an internship. Antonia Fore also secured other opportunities at other institutes across Germany, which was great! I had never heard of them and learned that they would also be open to working with students. However, in the end I decided to stay at ITA to continue building my relationship with the school. I then reached out to multiple researchers at ITA to see who was currently working on a project that I would be most interested in, and also that I could continue to work on after I returned to Stanford. I was fortunate to find a good match with Dr. Pavan Manvi, working on the biodegradation time of various fibers.
The project could be briefly described as an investigation into how spinning parameters affect biodegradation time of fibers. Research has been done on a few popular biodegradable polymers, and clothing has been woven from these fibers, but I believe there is still hesitation in industry to make products from these fibers because: the biodegradation needs to be specifically controlled so that it doesn’t occur until it needs to, and we have to show that they wouldn’t need to change their infrastructure to be able to make this change. This project hoes to add to data that will prove this point and be able to lead us eventually to a world of biodegradable clothing.
During this project I was able to acquire many new skills that I would never have learned at Stanford. As my main field is in computation, the opportunity to work as an experimentalist with the materials that I simulate was incredibly valuable. I spent the first half of the internship in machine training and spinning as many fibers as possible. Fiber spinning is an intensive and fickle process where we take polymer granulate and turn it into the fibers that would then be used for applications such as clothing. Spinning one material of fiber takes an entire work day, because the machine takes a very long time to turn on and clean and shut down. Because we only had the machine for a few days time, it was very important that we got as much done as possible when the machine was available. I spun about 10 different fibers each day when I had access to the machine. The fibers differed in the way that they were spun, we could change different parameters on the machine to spin fibers with different properties. In the end I had about 50 different fibers, which we would use for subsequent biodegradation tests. For a measure of biodegradation, we performed mechanical and chemical tests on all of the fibers before and after they degraded. The fibers were put into dirt for 1, 2, or 3 weeks, and allowed to biodegrade at a specific temperature and humidity that would accelerate the biodegradation process, since my internship did have an end date. These fibers were then removed and cleaned before being tested. In addition to these tests, I will also look up the intrinsic structural, chemical information of the 3 different materials that we used. Because of the finite time of my internship, we were only able to test 5 of the different fibers per material, and only up to 3 weeks of biodegradation. Luckily, a previous student had done a very similar project on another material, and a student after me will be doing the same, so there will be much more data for the total of this project. Also, due to time constraints, some tests are still being performed on my samples, and the data will be emailed to me when it is finished being collected.
I worked mostly with Dr. Pavan Manvi and Jonas Hunkemöller on this work. They were very helpful in booking the machines that I needed or organizing the project at the beginning of my time. I learned the most from the technicians that I worked with. They taught me how to use the machines and run different tests on the materials. I hope to stay in contact with them and get their opinion upon further analysis of the data.
Further work at Stanford
Because my expertise is in the computation of mateials, I hope to further my work in Germany in two ways. First, I will analyze the data that I generated and that also will come from the other two similar projects. From this data I hope to find patterns and relationships between intrinsic polymer properties, machine parameters, fiber properties, and the biodegradation time. Not much work has been done on biodegradation time, and this work has been done on a few under-investigated materials, so there is an opportunity here for novel work. And because I have now organized and have data for the time of biodegradation, I hope to build a simulation tool that we could use to test for biodegradation time of other polymer fibers. This simulator would also allow us to explore the chemical mechanisms of biodegradation.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak German through my entire internship, and I do feel that my German has improved from the experience. While I didn’t work with many other people, after work I would often meet with some friends and was able to experience Aachen from the perspective of someone who has lived in Germany for years. I also lived right above a bakery! So I enjoyed the baked German goods quite often. I have continued to keep in touch with them as I returned. I was able to find the LGBTQ Group for the University and made friends through this group, as well as through the international students group at the university. These groups hosted events such as guacamole nights, or trips to the opera, and it was nice to meet students in a casual setting. I enjoyed being able to see the similarities and differences between students from around the world.
Because Europe has such great public transportation, I was able to visit Paris and Amsterdam, each for a weekend. I had not been to either of these cities before, and it is very cool to learn about the history of these cities that changed the world and have existed for so long. German working culture is a bit different from what I have experienced at Stanford, and I enjoyed this opportunity to be fully immersed as an employee. It helps me how to approach intercultural situations and also has better prepared me if I ever decide to work in Germany. I was also able to visit my family for the last few days of my trip, which was incredible, because there are so few opportunities to see them. When I went to visit them it was about a 7 hour drive on the autobahn, where I got to see so much of the beautiful German countryside.
My dream job has been to be a materials developer at adidas, whose headquarters is about 40 minutes away from my family. Thanks to the efforts of Antonia Fore, I was able to visit adidas HQ for a day and present my ideas of research to them. This was invaluable and I hope to continue speaking with them about my work on fiber technology.