Alex Litts ’24 has always had a love for science and a curiosity for how things work.
The chemistry major and Latin minor from Minnesota was eager to find an internship this summer that would bring his as much excitement as he got taking Associate Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair Laura Wysocki’s organic chemistry class.
He found that in paint, working as a chemistry intern in the powder coatings research and development department at Sherwin-Williams Company’s Minneapolis headquarters.
“I really enjoy being hands-on in the lab, and find learning the science behind the powder to be fascinating,” Litts said. “What I’ve been doing as an intern with powder coating feels like a direct application of what we learned in Dr. Wysocki’s lectures.
“Sometimes in class, you learn and memorize the materials but you don’t actually think about how it can be applied to real-world situations,” he said. “Now, I am doing that every day when I am mixing up different powders and testing new products. It’s really cool.”
Litts talks about what it’s been like working as an intern for the paint and coating manufacturing company, what Wabash lessons he leaned on to succeed in the laboratory, and where he hopes his chemistry degree will take him in the future.
Q: What do you do as a chemistry intern for Sherwin-Williams?
I am focusing on one project that analyzes different textures in powder coating. Powder coating is a method of painting that's mainly used for coating of metals and industrial equipment, and it’s different from traditional paint. It’s a free-flowing, dry powder that’s applied with a spray gun through an electrostatic process, then cured with heat. When it hardens, it looks like regular paint. It’s very strong and durable.
You can have different textures with powder coating. Some are smooth and some are bumpy. I am trying to create different types of textures by changing the ingredients in some of the formulations. I was assigned a mentor at the beginning of the internship, and he has shown me how to be effective in the lab and has guided me in determining the success of my experiments.
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve run into and had to overcome throughout this process?
Essentially, we are trying to create new product. A lot of the work is trial-and-error. We won’t know if something will work until we test and try it out. For each sample, I have to spray it onto a bunch of panels, and I can usually kind of tell with the first panel whether or not it worked. But you have to keep going and test everything out so that you can look back at the samples and have one for each variation. Most of the samples have failed, but we’re making edits and getting closer to perfecting one.
Q: What have you enjoyed the most about the internship?
I like seeing how the whole process works. Before, I never realized how much research went into creating a can of paint or bag of powder that we buy in stores and use every day. From starting with raw materials to testing and critiquing formulations, it is really interesting to watch the process and get closer to a finished product.
Q: What skills or experiences did you find yourself pulling from as a Wabash student during the internship?
Aside from the technical laboratory skills, like how to measure, weigh, and handle chemicals safely, I think communication is a big one. Through lab work in classes and my previous research internship with (Associate Professor of Chemistry) Paul Schmitt, I learned that you have to be able to communicate effectively with others. I have to be able to explain what I’m doing, why something does or doesn’t work, and share my ideas. Being brave enough to ask questions is also part of that communication and important to research success.
Q: What do you hope to get out of this internship?
There are so many different opportunities in chemistry, and I want to explore as much as I can before I graduate. There are two big possibilities: going directly into industry or going to graduate school. I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of career path I want to pursue.
Q: What are your goals for the future?
I really like understanding how and why things work. I want to challenge myself with more in-depth research that would lead to the discovery of something new.