MSE Undergraduate Seeks to Reduce COVID-19 Transmission through Research on Air Filtration Systems

By: Katie Nejati, Student Written Communications Assistant

Glass fibers suspended in an aqueous solution with various graphene concentrations

Glass fibers suspended in an aqueous solution with various graphene concentrations


Robert Williams is one of 17 students selected for the University Scholars Program (USP), a challenging and prestigious program for undergraduates at the University of Connecticut. Working in the Adamson Research Group under the supervision of professors Douglas Adamson (Chemistry) and Seok-Woo Lee (MSE), he has been conducting research over the past year on a project entitled “HEPA Filtration Through Graphene Addition”. 

Robert accompanied by his custom 3D printed Büchner funnel and two graphene-coated samples

Robert accompanied by his custom 3D printed Büchner funnel and two graphene-coated samples.

What started as an idea conceived during his application for admission to the scholars program has developed into promising research area with the potential to reduce the impacts of the ongoing pandemic. His research centers on improving high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems used to remove pollutants from heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Initially, Williams intended to focus his work on improving the efficiency of these filters at certain particle sizes. He later recognized, however, that his research might also have implications for reducing COVID-19 transmission. By combining HEPA filters with electrostatic precipitation technology, Williams seeks to develop a filtration system can capture small airborne virus-containing respiratory droplets. His work on this topic involves a collaboration with Johns Manville, a company based in Denver, Colorado that manufactures insulation, fibers, and other engineered materials, including the nonwoven products used in filters. 

Williams was initially a biology major, but soon realized that his career interests were better aligned with materials science and engineering. He is currently an MSE undergraduate honors student and is pursuing a concentration in biomaterials and a minor in molecular and cell biology. He believes his background in MSE will uniquely prepare him to attain his career goals. After graduation, he plans to attend medical school, and hopes to pursue research in biomaterials for applications in orthopedics. He also believes that graphene, one of the materials used in his USP filtration project, has the potential to pave the way for other advances in medicine. “To be on the forefront of research that I could potentially apply during medical school is really neat” he says. Apart from advancing his career aspirations, Williams says he chose to complete his undergraduate degree in MSE because the department provides a close-knit academic environment where he is able to get to know both his professors and his peers in many one-on-one interactions. 

Williams attributes his success in academics and admission to the USP to his research advisors and other members of the MSE faculty. In particular, he acknowledges Dr. Fiona Leek, Director of the MSE Undergraduate Laboratory, for providing him with valuable experience in a laboratory setting and instilling in him an appreciation for the skills needed in research. His advisors, Drs. Lee and Adamson, were his biggest motivators, giving him the reassurance he needed to realize his potential. Without them, he would not have had the confidence to apply for the scholars program, and so would not have acquired the skills and independence he presently enjoys.  

Williams now recognizes that nearly any idea can have unseen potential, and with proper guidance, may result in a new research direction. Thus, he encourages every student with an exciting idea, and the curiosity and drive to pursue it, to apply to the University Scholars Program.

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