High School Student a Rising Star in NYU-Poly Lab

Each summer Rich Gross, an NYU-Poly professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, hosts a select group of teens who come to the campus to work on independent lab projects and receive mentoring. Sunny Zheng, who attends Plainview Old Bethpage-John F Kennedy (POBJFK) High School, first participated during the summer of his sophomore year, working in Gross’s Center for BioCatalysis and BioProcessing on an environmental chemistry project with the weighty title Novel Bio-lubricant – Modification of Corresponding di-esters based on Oleic Diacid. That work won him a bronze medal at the international science competition I-SWEEEP (International Sustainable World Energy Engineering Environment Project) held annually in Houston Texas.

Gross, who hosts several students from POBJFK HS every year because of the exceptionally strong research program their school maintains, invited Zheng back for a second summer, this time to work with graduate student Stephen Spinella on a project dubbed Cellulose Nanowhiskers: Enymatic Hydrolysis and Incorporation in Epoxidized Polymers. He discovered over the course of his research that strong, rigid nanowhiskers could be produced and integrated into existing polymers through an environmentally friendly process—a finding that has important applications in material and environmental science.  “Anything you can think of that has to be both light and strong—airplanes, for example—use polymer composites,” Zheng explained. “So you can imagine what a great impact it would have to produce them in a sustainable way.”

Due to his work with nanowhiskers, Zheng reached the semifinals of the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search, one of the country’s foremost student science competitions. While it might not be as widely followed as "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars," for students aspiring to careers in the sciences, the Intel competition is every bit as exciting. The talent search, which encourages young people to explore ambitious scientific questions, attracts thousands of entrants every year, but Zheng’s accomplishment came as no surprise to anyone who has worked with him. “Sunny has an extremely strong work ethic and drive to excel, and he certainly did,” Rich Gross said. “Through his energy and creativity he has developed important new insights.”

Mary Lou O'Donnell, the research coordinator at Zheng’s school, agrees. “Sunny has one of the most inquisitive, thought-provoking minds that I have encountered in my 26 years of teaching experience,” she said.  “He has been an integral part of the POBJFK Independent Research program--a highly selective program devoted to independent research in math and science -- for the past four years, and in many respects, his willingness to assist younger researchers and teachers has seen him evolve from a student to a well-respected colleague.” She concluded, “He is a very non-traditional Plainview Old Bethpage student in that he is not particularly grade hungry, but thirsts for knowledge and understanding.”

Zheng—whose other accomplishments include working as the New York Regional Expert Reviewer for Google Map Maker, serving as lead programmer for his school’s robotics team, speaking fluent French and Chinese, and playing the cello—will be attending Carnegie Mellon University in the fall. There he plans to major in computer science. “I learned in Professor Gross’s lab that experimentation requires a lot of trial and error,” he said. “I think we can reduce the time and cost required with computer modeling, so that’s what I want to work on.”

While Zheng may be moving on, Gross and O’Donnell expect to be nurturing many other talented young scientists in the future. “My group has developed a strong relationship with the Plainview Old Bethpage High School research program, and we have had wonderful students who have gained valuable experience and skills while working with us at NYU-POLY,” Gross said. “I believe providing summer opportunities for high school students is extremely valuable since it helps these students gain a perspective on potential career opportunities in science and engineering."

O’Donnell is in complete agreement. “Together with NYU-Poly and Professor Gross, I believe that we are truly evolving an invaluable research experience for students of all levels,” she said. “Our outward successes at events like the I-SWEEEP competition and the Intel Science Talent Search are rewarding, but they are not as significant as the skills and lab experience our students receive.”