How does a student from East Chicago Central High School pursue his doctorate in physical chemistry while also enjoying the rare opportunity to experiment with high explosives and, with permission, even occasionally blow things up?
Well, for 2000 E.C. graduate Aaron Lozano, the journey that led him to a Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he does research on rapidly detonating explosives, began in a chemistry classroom at Indiana University Northwest. There, Lozano discovered his fascination with chemistry and abandoned his pre-med track to focus on exploring the mysteries of the physical world. He graduated from IU Northwest with a B.S. in chemistry in 2005.
“This is fun,” Lozano, 26, told an audience of IU Northwest and high school science students during a presentation at the university’s Undergraduate Research Conference in Science, Medicine and Health Professions on April 17. “I took these classes for fun. Every single chemistry class I ever took, I had fun in it.”
Lozano was a guest speaker for the first annual science research conference, which also featured presentations by current IU Northwest students on a variety of research projects they had carried out during the academic year. Topics included water-analysis projects at local beaches, human cornea research, and even the hunt for a mushroom delicacy in Northwest Indiana.
Lozano told his audience that much of his work involves examining properties of the highly explosive surfaces of unstable crystals, such as those found in gunpowder.
“You get to play around and be your own experimenter,” said Lozano, whose six-year doctoral program at Illinois allowed him to bypass the master’s degree and immediately begin work on his Ph.D. Lozano said he’d been interested in things that go “boom” since childhood, when his uncles would break out the fireworks around the Fourth of July and use rockets or M-80s to blast garbage cans onto the roof.
But it’s the science behind the carnage that really fascinates him, Lozano said.
“It’s not just blowing things up. That’s just the pretty stuff,” he said after his presentation. “But it’s seeing how things work.
“It’s the learning, the fact that someone has come up with such great ideas, and that they work. That right there drew me in,” Lozano continued. “I couldn’t believe some of the physics, some of the chemistry, and some of the math that people had come up with just through their own genius. That inspired me.”
Lozano credited IU Northwest and the Department of Chemistry/Physics/Astronomy with providing him the tools, the support and the research opportunities that allowed him to strike a path toward a fascinating career. As an undergraduate chemistry major, Lozano was able to conduct meaningful work on research projects in organic chemistry with IU Northwest Associate Professor of Chemistry Julie Peller, Ph.D.; as an avid math student, he was able to assist others by working in the Math Lab.
“I got to do math for fun,” he said. “I got to show people that it is fun. I got to teach labs and do tutoring. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun.”
Lozano said he chose IU Northwest initially because Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair Atilla Tuncay, Ph.D., explained to him that the university’s small classes, taught mostly by Ph.D. faculty, are especially suited to committed students who want to learn directly from instructors who are expert in their disciplines and who are actively engaged in relevant research.
“You have more personal time with your professors (at IU Northwest),” Lozano said. “That’s pretty much what drew me in.
“I was excited when Dr. Peller called me (about the research conference), because this was my chance to say ‘thank you’ for putting me on the path that I’m on,” he added. “I wanted to show students that there are opportunities out there for people.”
Lozano emphasized that his work at Illinois is highly technical and requires caution, good judgment, and years of learning and preparation. All of the science and math classes he took at IU Northwest and then at Illinois, and the countless hours of lab work and research, are what led him to the work he is doing now.
“You have to be very careful,” Lozano said. “You have to know what you’re getting yourself into before you start playing around with it. I had to work under a couple of (postdoctoral researchers) before they let me start doing things with these explosive surfaces.”
Lozano said he hopes to work at a national laboratory after he completes his doctorate in two years. The reason? The government has the best toys, he said.
“You get to do more direct application of your research,” Lozano explained. “One place I’m looking at is Los Alamos. It’s in New Mexico, and they do more direct detonations. You get to see how things actually happen. It’s just a playground.
“I’ll get to blow things up.”