UNI student slides into grease development research

Cassandra working with soy greaseAt the University of Northern Iowa's National Ag-Based Lubricants Center (NABL), Cassandra Boevers is advancing biotechnology research and her career prospects as an undergraduate student lab technician.

In the middle of her freshman year, Boevers, who will graduate from UNI in May 2012, started studying vegetable oils and their fatty-acid content at NABL. Those fatty acids are used to make bio-based greases at NABL, which has developed more than 30 viable soybean-based lubricant, grease and metalworking fluid formulations since it was established in 1991.

"Being involved in these cutting-edge research developments has taught me to think about industrial, practical applications to the tests and research I perform in the lab," Boevers said.

As a biology and biochemistry major, she has applied her biology and chemistry coursework in the lab, but has also learned things in the lab that a PowerPoint presentation can't fully describe.

"I'm taught the art of science at NABL. I'm gaining the ability to reach into a batch of fresh grease, feel the product, judge its quality and use instinct to decide what to change in the next batch," she said. "My understanding of grease-making and its many applications deepens every day. As a result, my work becomes more meaningful and practical. Also, with every realization comes new ideas to be pursued later.

"It's the accumulation of those many moments of discovery that that make research so rewarding. It didn't take very long after beginning research at NABL to decided I wanted to do scientific research as a career."

Lou Honary, director and founder of NABL, says that treating student employees as professionals is a key element to NABL's success and the students' success.

"We're careful to hire students for meaningful tasks," Honary said, adding that students have assisted in the construction of labs, building test stands and public relations in addition to biological and chemical research. "Cassandra has jumped in helping us with our second-general industrial grease research. The results of her work and the observations she documents are going to help NABL prepare the next generation of biobased greases."

As a student, Boevers recognizes the importance of direction combined with freedom.

"We are educated by the staff but are also expected to take initiative and educate ourselves. Both skills will be necessary in our own future scientific careers," she said. "We will use the procedures and methods throughout our lives."

NABL, a non-profit, university-based research and testing facility dedicated to the advancement of biobased lubricants, was established in 1991 through the collaborative efforts of UNI, the state of Iowa, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Iowa Soybean Association/Iowa Soybean Promotion Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The center's research has resulted in the development of more than 30 viable soybean-based lubricant, grease and metalworking fluid formulations including the high-performance multi-grade hydraulic fluid, brand named BioSOYTM, a patented electrical transformer fluid named BioTRANSTM, a chainsaw bar oil called SoyLINKTM, a rail curve lubricant called SoyTrakTM, and SoyTRUCKTM, a semi truck fifth-wheel grease.