Student-Veteran’s Research Impresses at International Conference, Recognized in Congress

Feb 19, 2019 12:55 PM

By Robert Spahr '13

The fall semester was an exciting and positive time for U.S. Army veteran Sgt. Brent Patterson, a senior materials engineering student at Frostburg, but it was serious challenges and sacrifice that led him to those peaks.

It started when Patterson presented his capstone research project, “Organic Bullet Resistance: Pushing the Capabilities of Nanocellulose,” at the Materials Science & Technology Conference in Ohio last fall. At a conference where even getting accepted is an accomplishment, his presentation drew multiple questions when all the preceding undergraduate presentations generated none.

“I literally drew a crowd," said Patterson. That crowd – and their questions – were understandable. The research that Patterson and his fellow team members – Reagan Joy, Brian Leech and Robert Wetherbee – are working toward is a sustainable, next-generation bullet-resistant material using nanocellulose. Having been wounded in action three times, Patterson had a more than casual motivation for his project to succeed.

“This is a highly competitive community,” said Dr. Zhen Liu, assistant professor of engineering and Patterson’s capstone advisor. “Along with Frostburg State, we presented in the same forum with the University of California, Case Western University, Ohio State and other high-reputation international institutes. Our students showed a good quality of research and high confidence as senior undergraduates – especially Brent."

“Seeing how important it was for me to represent Frostburg and that I have a really interesting project, it makes me feel good about myself, like I’m accomplishing something with my degree,” Patterson said.

First identified around 1980, nanocellulose has remarkable properties. An ultra-fine, nano-structured form of cellulose, which is a material found in every plant cell, nanocellulose can be isolated from nearly any plant matter – even sawdust. Organic, biodegradable, renewable and non-toxic, nanocellulose promises an environmentally sustainable replacement for many resource-intensive synthetic materials in popular use. Processed correctly, it is stronger than steel or Kevlar.

“This was a really cool project because it was theoretically possible, but nobody had actually demonstrated it,” Patterson said.

For decades, nanocellulose has been hailed as a material of the future, with almost limitless theoretical applications ranging from the mundane to the fantastic. Yet commercial nanocellulose only became available in 2010, so many of those theories are now being tested.

One of the most promising uses is in next-generation, ultralight bullet-resistant materials. Patterson knew firsthand how important that would be for American service members.

A Loving Ambush

Presenting important research at a national conference as an undergraduate would be enough to make anyone’s semester, but a surprise at the SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society induction ceremony put the capstone on his capstone semester.

Patterson donned his “dress blues” for the ceremony, having rehearsed his part as vice president of Frostburg’s chapter of the Student Veterans of America. He was suspicious when he spotted his mother and his fiancée in the crowd, but he assumed they had shown up to see him in his Class A uniform, which he hadn’t worn since leaving the Army.

"I paid all this money to get it back right and get it cleaned, and I figured that was what they came up for,” Patterson said. “There was definitely a better surprise coming!”

Weeks earlier, Danielle Dabrowski, Frostburg’s director of Veteran Services, learned from SVA President and fellow student-veteran Kodi Bowers that Patterson had never received the Purple Heart medal due to him. Bowers explained the extent of Patterson’s heroics in uniform, which involved caring for injured squad members while he was injured himself.

That didn’t sit right with anyone, so Dabrowski and Bowers secretly began conspiring with Patterson’s mother, his fiancée and Maryland’s U.S. Senators to surprise Patterson with a special honor.

During the ceremony, Bowers introduced Robin Summerfield and Julianna Albowicz, representatives for Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, respectively. They presented Senatorial citations to the SALUTE inductees, and then, veering from the script, Summerfield announced “a pretty special presentation” for one individual in the room.

Summerfield began to read Cardin’s words of tribute, which the senator had read into the Congressional Record on Nov. 13, 2018:

“Mr. President, today I wish to recognize Sgt. Brent Patterson of Frostburg, Md., for his outstanding service to our Nation. As a U.S. Army infantryman, Sgt. Patterson distinguished himself for his personal valor during the global war on terror. … During his final deployment in Afghanistan’s Charkh district, Sgt. Patterson was wounded on three separate occasions and was subsequently awarded three Purple Hearts,” Summerfield read.

That’s when Patterson knew.

"When he started talking, yeah, I kind of caught on to it,” said Patterson. “I was definitely really surprised. It’s nice being recognized.”

The Senatorial tribute continued, detailing Patterson’s heroism on all three occasions, where each time he rendered first aid to his injured squad members while ignoring his own significant injuries.

Beyond his heroism in uniform, Cardin praised Patterson’s efforts at FSU, introducing his capstone research project into the Congressional Record.

Cardin’s tribute concluded by expressing the Senate’s “… sincere appreciation to Sgt. Brent Patterson for his distinguished service to our nation, our congratulations on his academic achievement and our best wishes for his continued success.”

Albowicz then presented Patterson with his Purple Heart award with two Oak Leaf Clusters, each cluster representing a subsequent injury/award. While the Army had technically awarded Patterson’s Purple Heart, he had never gotten the actual medal. When Van Hollen first learned of the discrepancy, he asked the Army to grant Patterson his physical award.

Albowicz also presented Patterson with a Senatorial citation in recognition of his “distinguished and heroic service to the United States Army with deepest gratitude for (his) courage and sacrifice on behalf of our nation,” signed by Van Hollen.

With his mother and fiancée, Kathryn Storm, who is finishing up veterinary school in St. Kitts, in the audience, the moment was even more special. “It was just magical, the way it worked out, especially that my mom was also there. I had no idea!”

Keeping the Research Going

“The goal of our capstone is picking a fundamental problem and solving it efficiently. We are shooting for the bulletproof vest, but in order to do that, we break down the big picture project into very specific mini goals,” said Liu. “One of the many goals here was the design and completion of this porous disc.”

Patterson’s team worked to solve the problem of isolating the nanocellulose from the liquid it comes suspended in. After several unsuccessful attempts, they consulted with the Chemistry Department and FSU’s Additive Manufacturing Lab's student engineers and lab coordinator Duane Miller.

You can view a video about Patterson’s research.

Jacob Williams, who graduated from FSU last year and is now employed as a mechanical engineer at Northrop Grumman, helped Patterson’s team devise the solution: a unique, 3D-printed, heat- and chemical-resistant porous compressor cap that enabled them to reliably dehydrate and form nanocellulose “biscuits” in a vacuum oven.

Those nanocellulose biscuits, which were subjected to tensile strength and impact tests to gauge their material properties, looked superficially familiar.

“We were essentially making paper – highly dense paper,” Patterson explained. “The material is extremely, extremely light.”

Unlike paper, Patterson’s resulting material had serious strength to it – though not enough to stop a bullet … yet.

"There is a lot of room for improvement, honestly,” Patterson said. “This was literally just a stepping stone.”

Patterson is due to graduate in May, but the next cohort of engineering students is already looking to take the organic bullet resistance project to the next level. As an alumnus, Patterson will be welcomed back to help them advance his important research.

The FSU Foundation played an important role in Patterson’s capstone semester. Opportunity Grants funded in part his research, his conference presentation and the SALUTE Induction Ceremony, along with other Foundation Funds. To support the FSU Foundation, visit the FSU Foundation web site or call 301-687-4068.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit the Frostburg State web site or the FSU Facebook page. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.