Student Science Leads to Accidental Innovation

posted on August 21, 2013

When Red Cloud Junior Myriam Rama ‘15 learned about the Research Apprentice Program, or R.A.P., at the University of South Dakota, she knew it would give her exactly what she wanted: the opportunity to work with a professional chemist in a university lab.  She spent this summer in the lab of Dr. Kadal Marriappan, focusing on metal ions and how to increase the efficiency of metal detectors.

What she didn’t expect was that a small mistake in her research would lead to an innovative breakthrough—and put her name in print alongside seasoned scientists.

Myriam remembers the exact moment in the lab when her minor error became a major breakthrough.

“I had two chemical solutions that I needed to work with that day. I was given very explicit instructions to evaporate one of the solutions and to filter the other when I got into the lab. Once I was ready to perform the task, I found what I thought was the solution and set it up to be evaporated. What I didn’t know was that my lab partner had already taken the first solution and that I had just mistakenly evaporated the second” Myriam recalls. “When I took the dried product to show Dr. Marriappan, he asked ‘What did you do?’”

Initially disappointed, her mentors knew they would need to redo a sequence of procedures to correct the mistake. They began to backtrack, testing along the way to ensure that more of their experiment would not be compromised. What they found in those tests was surprising.

“The next day my mentors told me that while trying correct the mistake, they were actually able to obtain specific results more easily because of the evaporation ‘mistake.’ They were able to further the research beyond what they were expecting, because of what I did.”

What Myriam had done was inadvertently set a chain of events in motion that would alter the course of the experiment. The resulting breakthrough earned her a spot in the published findings of her mentors, Dr. Marriappan and Dr. Andrew Sykes.

The experience was something Myriam won’t soon forget. And while she’s not sure that being a ‘metal ion and luminescence sensors’ chemist is in her future, she knows that her time in the lab this summer have shaped her future career choices.

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