New Kensington freshman researching soybean-based polymers

Many college freshmen spend the first semester getting acclimated to the academic life by scheduling 15 credits of electives and holding off on declaring a major. Penn State New Kensington freshman engineering student Mike Cavazza spent his initial semester in the chemistry lab researching alternatives to petroleum-based polyesters using soybean oil.

Cavazza, who is majoring in petroleum and natural gas engineering, was selected for a Chancellor Fellowship, a program that allows students to collaborate with faculty on specific projects. In the fall, Cavazza worked with Robert Mathers, associate professor of chemistry, analyzing the kinetics of a soybean-based polymer that could be an alternative to petroleum-based polyesters. This semester, Cavazza is continuing the research as a part of the Undergraduate Research Stipend program. He is working more on his own than side-by-side with his faculty mentor.

“Dr. Mathers gives me a general direction and goals for my research projects but leaves most of the details up to me,” said Cavazza, a resident of Indiana, Pa. “I have learned so much more this way because I am forced to learn from my own mistakes.”

The Research Stipend program supports student research by encouraging faculty members to design undergraduate research projects. The projects are often an extension of the faculty member’s interests. Students receive academic credit as well as a $500 stipend.

“Mike is investigating methods to convert plant oils to plastics,” said Mathers, who holds a doctorate in polymer science from the University of Akron. “It’s part of the research theme in my lab -- using renewable resources to create sustainable materials.”

“I am learning everything from laboratory techniques to how to use the equipment, from chemical principles and data analysis to trouble shooting and problem solving," said Cavazza, a graduate of Marion Center High School.

Cavazza applied for the stipend with the short-term goal of maintaining the research from his fellowship and earning additional financial assistance. As a bonus, the project has sharpened his analytical skills that will serve him well in the long term.

“In any career you are going to run into problems and be forced to overcome them,” said Cavazza, a member of the Penn State Schreyer Honors Program. “In doing this research, my ability to troubleshoot and find different ways to solve problems will help me in the future when I run into these situations.”

When not in class or doing his research, Cavazza can be found, well, in the chemistry lab, doing what else? Research. As a chemistry lab technician for the campus, he does different types of research, such as the mechanical analysis of various polymers used for medical applications, which are unrelated to the fellowship and stipend, but equally rewarding.

“My favorite aspect of research has to be those rare times when your ideas and procedures actually work,” said Cavazza, who will earn his bachelor’s degree in 2016. “I have learned that when it comes to research, the probability of success is very low, so it is very rewarding when your results match what you set out to achieve.”

Research runs through the Cavazza family. Matt Cavazza, Mike’s older brother, blazed the fellowship trail in 2009 as he was awarded the first Chancellor Fellowship at the campus. A senior in the petroleum and natural gas engineering program at Penn State University Park, Matt also studied under Mathers. Their father, Eric Cavazza, attended Penn State DuBois before finishing his bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering at University Park.

While fuel additives and petroleum-based polyesters consume a majority of Cavazza’s time, research is just a part of Cavazza’s collegiate odyssey that will eventually land him at University Park, like his father and brother before him. His extracurricular activities include the campus THON committee and lifting in the campus Fitness Center.

“I commute everyday, so I don’t spend as much time on campus as others,” Cavaza said. “My experience at the campus has been good, and the teachers have been great.”


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Last Updated February 07, 2013