The winner of the 2018 Three Minute Thesis competition had a pretty full plate as a graduate student in textiles, a DJ for the campus radio station, Makerspace employee and an indie musician. This summer, she took second place in the first all ACC 3MT competition. Now, she’s in a doctoral program at Texas A&M.
As a textiles master’s student at NC State, Ciera Cipriani explained her busy life this way – working in the lab, DJ-ing at NC State’s campus radio station WKNC, playing drums in local band Soccer Tees, working in the NC State Libraries Makerspace – when she paused briefly.
“So I work in the Makerspace too – I do too many things…” she said.
But doing too much didn’t slow Cipriani down. In October 2018, she was chosen as the winner of the Graduate School’s 4th annual Three Minute Thesis. She was one of two master’s students named finalists in the competition where graduate students share their research projects in just three minutes.
In July, she was runner-up in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s first-ever 3MT competition, held in Washington, DC. She also represented NC State in a regional 3MT competition at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools meeting in Knoxville back in February. She is now a doctoral student at Texas A&M University.
Fellow textiles graduate student Ashish Kapoor, the 2017 3MT People’s Choice winner, encouraged Cipriani to apply for the Three Minute Thesis. As a master’s student, she considered waiting one more year to compete.
But when she participated in a 3MT preparation workshop offered by the Graduate School, she found that she was ready for the challenge. In the workshop students had two minutes to present their research with very limited preparation. Cipriani found that she was better prepared than she thought – she only needed to stretch her presentation from two to three minutes.
When the 10 finalists competed at Hunt Library last fall, Cipriani was cheered by fellow textiles students and a large contingent of family from nearby.
Cipriani came to NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles as an undergraduate, after getting a taste of the textiles programs through the college’s Polymer Day Camp program for high school students.
“They had so many professors who were willing to take the time to go to the day camp and talk to all of us. NC State was the place where I felt most like an individual and not like a number,” she said.
Cipriani’s research, simply stated, involved figuring out the chemical reactions that cause dyed fabrics to fade. But there’s a critical side to the research – as dye molecules in fabrics break down, they produce toxins. So her research was applicable to finding ways to stabilize dye molecules to prevent them from becoming toxins.
Her master’s program lab work involved computational chemistry, which she describes as “sitting in front of a computer, building these dye molecule structures, using visualization software, optimizing their structures, which is a big, fancy word that people say in my line of work. It means finding the minimum energy that the molecule can have,” Cipriani said.
Her favorite part of the research wasn’t what she focused on in her Three Minute Thesis presentation. “The most interesting part to me is actually the photochemistry, so like the chemical reaction mechanisms that are happening, and how individual electrons are moving around in these molecular structures when the sun’s energy interacts with them,” Cipriani said.
NC State was the place where I felt most like an individual and not like a number.
She would send her molecules off to a high-performance computing cluster for analysis. “So it’s a lot of method development, trouble-shooting,” she said.
But lab work doesn’t exclusively define Cipriani. She became involved with WKNC, NC State’s student-run radio station, the first semester of her freshman year, and she stayed with it even as a master’s student. As a drummer for an indie rock band — which is WKNC’s traditional format — she fit right in as a DJ.
She had her own weekly radio show devoted to showcasing musicians of underrepresented genders, “No Dudes Pwr Hr” on Saturdays. Her taste in music also included hip hop and other genres.
Cipriani is also a drummer in the Raleigh band, Soccer Tees. Even though she is now in Texas, her involvement with the band continues – they are currently working on an album together.
When she was 8, Cipriani’s dad, who played the guitar, bought her an acoustic guitar that she never learned to play. But she took up the drums, which he encouraged, and continues to play today. And she recently picked up the electric guitar and is learning to play.
Soccer Tees was started by two friends who Cipriani met through the NC State Libraries’ Makerspace. The band performed regularly in Raleigh and Chapel Hill venues, but they also appeared at festivals as far away as Virginia and Georgia. She also performed with other bands at special events, like the “Great Coverup” in downtown Raleigh.
“Soccer Tees sounds like Socrates, but I didn’t get that joke for months,” Cipriani said, adding with a smile that the name also fits the indie rock theme of using sports themes in band names.
Winning the Three Minute Thesis may have changed Cipriani’s career goals. For two summers, she worked as an intern at Formlabs, a 3D industrial print shop near Boston, and was eager for a career working in industry.
Throughout her time in their labs, her advisors, Melissa Pasquinelli and Nelson Vinueza, recommended that she consider earning a Ph.D. But after she won the 3MT, another one of her professors encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. and something clicked. “She told me I would be leaving doors closed if I didn’t at least apply,” Cipriani said.
So after completing her master’s degree, she was off to College Station, TX, where she will pursue a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Texas A&M. And she’s already attended an interest meeting at the A&M student radio station.