Houghton Held Chemistry for Undergraduate Interns from Thailand

Tapee Saowalakkul (left) and Nattasak Sukkasam, undergraduates from Kasetsart University in Bangiok, Thailand, spent two months as chemical engineering interns at Michigan Tech.
Tapee Saowalakkul (left) and Nattasak Sukkasam, undergraduates from Kasetsart University in Bangiok, Thailand, spent two months as chemical engineering interns at Michigan Tech.

Nattasak Sukkasam and Tapee Saowalakkul left hot, humid Bangkok, Thailand, in March for a two-month internship at Michigan Tech. They landed in Houghton in a snowstorm. 

But their mentor, Parinya “Prince” Chakartnarodom, had prepared them, with snow survival tips—and coats and boots.  Prince is a Michigan Tech alumnus and the Thai undergraduates’ materials engineering professor at Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

The interns were invited to Tech by Komar Kawatra, chair of chemical engineering. The idea for the exchange program arose when Jennifer Donovan, director of news & media relations at Michigan Tech, spent a month at Kasetsart University on a Fulbright specialist grant last November. She returned to Michigan Tech determined to help develop some exchanges between the Michigan and Thai universities. This was the first of what she hopes will be ongoing student and faculty exchanges. 

During their internships, Sukkasam and Saowalakkul worked with chemical engineering faculty members Timothy Eisele and Caryn Heldt.  One of Eisele’s research interests is bioleaching of metals, which involves using a sulfate solution and electric current to extract metals like iron from ore without the heat and toxic emissions of a blast furnace. Sukkasam worked with Eisele on that, essentially electroplating the iron

“Our goal was to create a metal with high purity, high current efficiency and low voltage,” the Thai student explained.

“He was very successful,” Eisele said.  “There are probably 20 people in the world who have electroplated iron, and Nattasuk is one of them.” 

While Sukkasam was teasing iron out of ore, Saowalakkul was helping Heldt change the structure of the insulin protein so that it would bind with graphene—a 1-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms—to make a special paper to use in biosensors. Their goal: to develop a more flexible paper than the cellulose-based kind Heldt had been using.

Did the Thai student manage to make the paper more flexible?  “Not yet,” he said with an embarrassed grin. 

Heldt begs to differ.  “He definitely got the project off the ground,” she said. “He was great. He worked hard, got us a lot of data, even researched the topic on his own and sent me articles he found.  He gave us a lot of ideas to work with.” 

Kawatra was impressed with the Thai students. “We enjoyed having Tapee and Nattasak in our department.,” he said. “They both did very well, as good as any other student from the department. They both passed the safety examinations with out any difficulty.

Kawatra invited the international visitors to his home, along with other students from chemical engineering.  “They cooked very delicious Thai food,” he said. “They played ping pong and mixed very well with other American students.”

Back at Kasetsart University, Saowalakkul is working on a nickel-based super alloy for high temperature applications.  Sukkasam’s project back home involves solar cells.

“What I did here definitely will help me in my work,” he said. He hopes to run his own business one day but plans to work in industry first, focusing on metals or materials for new types of solar cells. 

Both young men are 21 and will graduate from Kasetsart University next year.  Saowalakkul hails from Nang Khai in northeast Thailand. Sukkasam is from Suratthani in the south of the country. Why did they want to travel more than halfway around the world to do an internship at Michigan Tech? 

“All of my life is in my country,” said Saowalakkul. “I have to open my world.” 

Sukkasam agreed. “I wanted to experience another culture and improve my English,” he said.

Life in Houghton bore little resemblance to life in Bangkok. “The food is so high-calorie,” said Saowalakkul.  ‘You put cheese on everything.”

At the mention of cheese, Sukkasam’s eyes lit up.  “I liked pizza best,” he confided.

They were also surprised at how safe living in Houghton seemed to be.  “In Thailand, you have to lock your doors,” Saowalakkul pointed out.

While they were at Michigan Tech, political unrest that began last fall escalated in Thailand, ending in a coup that removed the government and imposed martial law.

That didn’t seem to concern the Thai university students. “”Everybody is living the way they always do,” said Saowalakkul.  “This has happened many times before,” Sukkasam pointed out.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.