Proving Ground

Neil Baugh leaning over his lab bench, smiling at the camera.

In a world crowded with problems, Neil Baugh sees a lot of
potential in solutions.

“I’d like to get into high-tech entrepreneurship, to take
uncapitalized academic research and push it into the real world,” he explains.
“There’s a lot of really interesting stuff that just sits on the shelf.”

As an undergraduate in materials science and engineering
at NC State, Baugh has helped advance some of the university’s most innovative
research, working on projects in soft robotics and stretchable electronics. And
he’s in the process of forming a startup company with fellow students to create
and commercialize a nanomaterial additive to strengthen common materials.

Baugh’s ambitious plans for the future got a boost in
April when he earned a Goldwater Scholarship, one of the top awards for
promising young STEM researchers. The scholarship will pay for his senior year
at NC State, allowing him to spend more time in the lab.

He plans to cap off his academic credentials with a Ph.D.,
honing both his research and business skills to help close what he sees as “the
big gap between academics and industry.” It could be a fertile field. NC State
alone has more than 200 innovations available for commercialization, from a
remote-control robotic catheter that could improve the safety of minimally
invasive surgery to a molecule that could combat chronic pain without the
addictive properties of opioids.

Exploring Possibilities

Baugh’s academic path has taken a few twists and turns
since he enrolled at NC State in 2016. The Charlotte native initially planned
to major in biomedical engineering, driven to the field after watching members
of his extended family confront various health issues, including hearing loss,
Alzheimer’s and scoliosis.

During his sophomore year, Baugh began looking at other
disciplines with health care applications. When it came time to declare a
major, he chose materials science and engineering, drawn to its nearly
limitless range of possibilities. “It’s super broad so you can do everything
from semiconductors to biomaterials,” he says. “You can work on implants in a
lab or metal processes in a steel mill.”

Even then, he wasn’t afraid to cross academic boundaries. A web search led Baugh to apply to professor Michael Dickey’s lab in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. There, he had the opportunity to work on leading-edge projects in soft robotics, a field that encompasses several disciplines with the goal of developing machines made of compliant materials with human properties.

“When you think about humans, we’re kind of like big soft
robots,” he says. “And soft robots, like humans, can grip things and conform
their hands to the surface of the things without breaking them.”

Industrial plants have used robots with handlike grippers
for years to perform simple tasks such as tightening screws or holding
components on an assembly line. Soft robotics promises to bring more humanlike
dexterity to these devices, allowing them work alongside people in fields as
diverse as agriculture and medicine.

Baugh seen from the side, working at his lab bench.
Baugh finds his lab experiments don’t always succeed. “I have had to learn patience and creativity,” he says.

In Dickey’s lab, Baugh worked with graduate students and postdocs on a project to design and test an innovative soft gripper that can alternately flex and straighten its digits thanks to movable components filled with liquid metal. When the metal is cool, the robotic hand has the strength to grip a fairly heavy load. But when a low voltage is applied to the metal, it stretches, causing the digits to straighten and release their grip.

Covering New Ground

In the summer of 2018, Baugh scored an internship through
a program funded by the National Science Foundation and found himself at the
University of Colorado Boulder researching a photocurable thermoplastic polymer
system — an innovative material for 3-D printing.

It was a chance to add to his
research skills, and he relished the opportunity. “I explored everything from
the mechanical properties to the polymerization kinetics and 3-D printing
potential,” he says. “If I’d had more time, I would have explored the
material’s potential as a structural material and as a coating in optical
fibers.”

But Baugh’s journey as a young researcher hasn’t been
without a few stumbles. In a candid essay accompanying his Goldwater
application, he admitted his first independent research project was difficult.

“I went through many different ideas and approaches
without success,” he wrote. “I have had to learn patience and creativity to
address technical challenges. This project has made it apparent to me that ideas
do not always lead to successful research, and if they do, they take time to
fully realize.”

Still, Baugh says he’s gained skills — and wisdom — that
only come through trial and error.

“These research experiences have taught me to think
creatively, to operate many instruments and analyze their results, to work as
part of a team and to actively build my scientific knowledge to be the best
scientist possible,” he says. “I have been able to glimpse the life of a STEM researcher
and have confirmed that it is the path I want to take in my career.”

He’ll take another detour and take advantage of another
opportunity this summer when he heads to Boston to intern in the Mitragotri
Laboratory for Drug Delivery at Harvard.

This post was originally published in NC State News.

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