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Rebecca Agapov

Postdoctoral research associate investigates nanostructures to help advance forensic, other fields

Rebecca Agapov—who holds a doctorate in polymer science from The University of Akron—knows that nanotechnology is a modern springboard for innovation, enabling scientists and engineers to develop and enhance products like makeup, sunscreen and cell phones. Although the technology has been around for decades, it has only recently seen a boost in research and development to improve various fields like medicine, energy, and forensics. The broad application of nanotechnology means Agapov’s nanostructure research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) could impact all of these fields, and more.

“The purpose of our work is to investigate the basic science behind light confinement in nanostructures. This enabling technology can then be used to develop large-scale chemical sensors based on nanopillar arrays,” explained Agapov, who is a participant in the ORNL Postdoctoral Research Associates Program administered by ORAU through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.

Rebecca Agapov

Postdoctoral Research Associate Rebecca Agapov studies nanostructures at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to improve the technique of chemical detection using Raman spectroscopy (pictured above). Agapov must wear protective gear at all times in the “clean room” to avoid molecular contamination of her experiments. Photo credit: Lynn Freeny, DOE

“These arrays can be read with Raman spectroscopy to identify chemicals, even at very low concentrations. Advanced sensors like this could make a big difference in the world of analytical chemistry, forensics, public safety, and energy harvesting.”

Raman spectroscopy is a laser-based technique that uses molecular vibrations within a material to identify its composition. This makes it useful for detecting minute traces of elements within a material, including substances that could be hazardous.

“The average American is very aware of the possibility of chemical, biological, or explosive threats,” said Agapov. “In our research, we discover new fundamental principles that have many practical possible implications, including improved chemical and biological sensors capable of identifying any possible threat and with faster response time.”

Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy improves the original technique through its usage of manmade nanostructures, like nanopillars, that provide a resonant platform for photon scattering to occur. Agapov’s research intends to make surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy even better by developing arrays of nanopillars that, when metallized, confine light and enhance scattering to identify molecular composition.

She spends her days in the Nanofabrication Research Group under the direction of staff scientist Nickolay Lavrik at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Science (CNMS) one of five DOE nanoscience research centers around the nation.

“CNMS is a user facility and therefore is a very collaborative environment,” she said. “Working here allows you to significantly increase your professional network, exposing you to a plethora of individuals with expertise in very different fields, all providing different perspectives on research.”

Her experiments in the “clean room” require her to suit up in protective wear, including specialized shoes, gloves and safety glasses to minimize human contamination of the environment. By gathering baseline knowledge of nanostructures, she is helping not just the applied world but the theoretical one, as well.

“The basic science we are performing today will find its way into classrooms in the very near future. This knowledge lays the groundwork to inspire and motivate future generations of scientists and engineers, therefore ensuring strength in innovation for our future,” she said.

Agapov’s appointment began in January 2013 and will last at least through 2014, when she plans on leveraging her nanofabrication, polymer science, and spectroscopy skills to find an industrial position in materials science.

“The staff at CNMS is very open and knowledgeable. There are many opportunities for one to work side by side with leading experts in the field while growing personally and advancing the field of science,” she said. “This is the perfect environment to cultivate scientific curiosity, explore cutting edge science, develop meaningful results, and have a lot of fun doing it.”

To learn more about the Science Education Programs available at ORNL, please visit www.orau.org/ornl.