By Curt Yeomans
Jonesboro resident, Lionel Cross, Jr., said his interest in science began when he was a student at Brown Elementary School. He said he was fascinated with the way science is in a state of constant change.
Later, as a student at Mundy's Mill High School, Cross was always asking his teachers questions about why things happened. He said that if he wasn't the first person to volunteer for science experiments in high school, he was at least one of the first students to raise his hand.
"If there was an actual experiment taking place, I wanted to be a part of it," Cross said.
That mentality, of jumping at the opportunity to participate in scientific experiments, hasn't left the 21-year-old Cross, who is entering his senior year as a chemistry student at Savannah State University. He recently completed a six-week study-abroad opportunity where he got to participate in a research project involving nanofibers in Cape Town, South Africa.
The research was being conducted by Clark Atlanta University doctoral student, Laurisa London, and took place in South Africa as part of Clark Atlanta's Nanoscholars program. Cross said the program is designed to build ties between local universities and African nations through scientific research projects.
Undergraduate students from Savannah State, Clark Atlanta, Emory University and Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina participated in the summer program, Cross said.
"We were working in a national lab, so there were students from all over Africa there," Cross said. "I got to see other educational systems, and how they work. We also got more views that can help you in the lab, because we got to learn other processes that we may have not learned otherwise."
The research conducted in South Africa involved finding ways to make nanofiber particles more conducive to the spinning process, where actual fiber is made from the particles.
Nanofibers are tiny fibers which Cross said can only be seen using high-powered microscopes that have been "zoomed way in." One use for the tiny fibers is in building biosensors that can be used for detecting diseases in a person's body, Cross said.
The "spinning" process, Cross said, involves using a DC battery with two wires - one positive, and one grounded - attached to it. The positive wire is attached to a narrow piece of metal, similar to what is used to make wire hangers, which is inserted in a pipette filled with a solution that contains nanofiber particles. The grounded wire is attached to a target.
"Once you turn it [the battery] on, it starts pulling the solution into fibers," Cross said. "You will start to have fibers within the first few minutes, but depending on how much you are trying to collect, it could take a long time to complete the process."
Cross signed up for the program midway through the spring 2009 semester, after his academic advisor, Olarongbe Olubajo, also the chemistry program chairman at Savannah State, suggested it would be a good opportunity for the budding scientist. Olubajo said Cross still asks questions all the time.
"I've known Lionel for quite a while now, having taught him in several classes," Olubajo said. "He's a hard-working student who wants to do well, and that's why I recommended him for this program."
Cross said he was willing to participate in the program because of "the actual opportunity to study overseas, as well as do something I enjoy."
Cross said he stayed in the "Strand" area just outside of Cape Town, in a flat with two other participants in the Nanoscholars program. He said the area is more developed than he expected, and that it sometimes felt like a modest-sized U.S. city.
"It's more urbanized, but their poverty is way worse than our poverty is," Cross said. "There is a very big gap [between the wealthy and the poor]. I always expected a lot more animals everywhere."
Cross said he wants to continue pursuing his science education after he graduates from Savannah State in May 2010, with his ultimate goal being to earn a doctoral degree in chemistry. He said has not decided where he will pursue his post-graduate education. Beyond continuing to pursue higher education, he said he wants to work for the federal government on ways to fight potential chemical attacks.
But he said he hasn't ruled out a life outside of the U.S., either. Cross said he would be open to the possibility of spending the rest of his life as a scientist in South Africa.
"I could see myself working in South Africa," he said. "It's a developing country that's on its way to great things, and it's something I would like to participate in."