Doctoral Student Studies Silicon Carbides in Japan

By Sandy Hicks

UTEP News Service

Investigating different molecular precursors that can be transformed into silicon carbides was not the only fun thing doctoral student Robinson Roacho found to do while studying in Japan earlier this year.

Roacho, pursuing his Ph.D. in chemistry, spent three months in Nagaoka, Niigata, Japan as part of a student-sharing effort created by a consortium of academic institutions including The University of Texas at El Paso, Universidad Autónoma de Guanajuato in Mexico and Nagaoka University of Technology.UTEP doctoral student Robinson Roacho visits Tokyo after conducting chemistry research at a University in Japan for three months. Photo courtesy of Robinson Roacho.UTEP doctoral student Robinson Roacho visits Tokyo after conducting chemistry research at a University in Japan for three months. Photo courtesy of Robinson Roacho.

Nagaoka is nestled in a mountainous region that experiences heavy snowfall and brutal cold. Roacho said campus life was a little lacking as everyone lives in ‘hotel style’ buildings with not much to do in the harsh Japanese winters.

In addition to his research on silicon carbide thin films, Roacho made new friends, learned to snowboard (his new passion) and tried his hand at “snow-jumping” – off of a second story balcony, that is.

“The snow was so deep in some places that jumping from the balcony was not that far – but a lot of fun,” Roacho said.

Keith Pannell, Ph.D., UTEP professor of chemistry and the University’s connection for the consortium, is also Roacho’s doctoral research director. Both men laughed when recalling how Roacho was chosen for the research assignment.

“Everyone else took a step back and he was the lucky one,” Pannell said with his typical sense of humor.

“It looks good on my CV, but the best part is now I have the experience to do further research,” Roacho said. He admitted going abroad to conduct research opened his eyes to other cultures.

“At some point, people from other countries will be my future colleagues – so it was a great experience in more ways than I realized it would be,” he said.

Last year, Japanese student Rie Gappa spent a semester in Pannell’s laboratory developing new organometallic reactions. Her visit to UTEP is part of what prompted a reciprocal research stint for Roacho.

“We specialize in making organosilicon materials,” Pannell said. “They [Nagaoka] have the facilities to transform them into thin silicon-carbide films, so it’s a good partnership.”

Silicon carbide thin films are super-hard materials used in things such as brake pads, bulletproof vests and even the “skin” of stealth fighter jets.

Pannell believes the research abroad experience is more than just “fun” for UTEP students – he believes it is necessary.

“UTEP students need this – they often do not understand their place in the world,” Pannell said. “This sort of travel experience shows them they are competitive in the global arena of science, academics and research.”

Roacho recalled that prior to his study abroad, the only thing he knew about Japan was its high-tech reputation in the world, so that’s what he expected. He was shocked to find no heat in the labs and hot water for showers available only two hours each day.

“It is high tech in Tokyo, but outside Tokyo, it can seem like a throwback to the 1950’s,” Roacho said. However, he discovered that the lack of heat and hot water was a nationwide response to reduce electricity usage after the country suffered through the devastating tsunami of 2011.

Pannell’s Japanese counterpart, Ito Haruhiko, professor of materials science at the Nagaoka University of Technology, directed Roacho’s research in the university labs.

Roacho made an impression on professors and fellow researchers alike.

“They gave me a set of ochoko – sake glasses – as my going-away gift,” Roacho recalled fondly.

Pannell and Roacho both are hoping for publishable results, international grants and an ongoing research program to be developed as a result of students sharing their knowledge and facilities with other universities within the consortium.