Researching Sustainable Dyes for College Credit at NC State

Nearly every human-made product we come into contact with on a daily basis uses some sort of dye, from makeup and clothing to paint and plastic products. That makes the negative environmental impacts of dyes an especially important problem to solve.

Madigan Petri spent her time at the Wilson College of Textiles making progress towards a solution with the Sustainable Dye Chemistry Lab during her independent research course: PCC 490. 

“We’re working on finding ways to optimize natural dye processes to make them more available to the industry,” Petri ’24 says.  

Group photo of members of the Sustainable Dye Chemistry lab, all wearing black shirts and jeans, in front of the Wilson College of Textiles fountain.
Petri (front center) with the other members of her lab and principal investigator Tova Williams (front right).

The elective class pairs students majoring in polymer and color chemistry with a faculty member to work on a related semester-long research project, wrapping with an academic paper and presentation about their results. Students can take the course as many times as they want. 

“It’s really nice way to be able to graduate on time but still continue doing the research that I wanted to do, so I didn’t have to sacrifice research for some other elective that I didn’t really want to take as much,” she says.

The course provided a great extension to her previous undergraduate research experience with this lab and others in the Wilson College, she says, because it shaped her into a more self-sufficient researcher.

Madi Petri takes a selfie with her right hand in front of the lab hood. She wears a white lab coat and protective goggles.
Petri pauses for a selfie while working solo in the lab.

“It is very up to you to be able to organize yourself, your research, perform the reactions and make it matter,” she says. “You’re learning how to research, how to make people care about your research and what to do about it.”

Petri will return to the Sustainable Dye Chemistry Lab in the fall to continue her research as a master’s student. Read more about her time in PCC 490 below. 

What does your research focus on specifically?

I’m working on taking a natural dye substance called weld. It’s a grassy substance, and it has a lot of compounds in it. Some of them are water soluble and some are not, which is tricky since we usually dye things in water. 

So I’m trying to change the dye structure of weld to have one solubility so that we can use it a lot more effectively. There are lots of different ways you can do that. It’s been proven to be effective using acids and bases, but those are pretty bad for the water supply and aquatic environments.

So we’re working on transitioning enzymes into this weld, which is difficult because enzymes are very, very picky and they will only catalyze certain reactions. So we’re working on understanding which enzymes are capable of performing these reactions, optimizing those reaction conditions, and really working on obtaining pure dye products for use. 

What was it like being advised by Assistant Professor Tova Williams for the course?

I love Dr. Williams. She is one of the most amazing people in the college. She is an extremely valuable leader to the lab. She’s very organized. She’s also very knowledgeable, and so every time I have a lab question, she’ll come in and help me sort it out, usually within just a couple minutes. 

It’s really amazing being able to work with her directly and have that connection with a lab mentor, because in a lot of labs I’ve found there’s really not very much of a social aspect. The people in it aren’t very much friends, but in this lab, she encourages us to all work together, people from a variety of backgrounds. It’s a fantastic lab to be in as a woman in STEM.

Tova Williams (far left) and Madi Petri (second from left) pose with two other group members sitting at a table.
Williams (far left) and Petri with other members of the lab group at lunch.

What do you think you’ve learned from your independent research experience?

I really gained a scientific understanding. But I’ve also gained kind of a lot of fortitude.

Research is challenging. You’re going to constantly have failures. Things are not going to happen the way you want them to or expect them to. Being able to overcome that and continue trying has been probably the biggest thing. 

What’s up next for you after graduation? 

I’m interning at Mohawk Industries over the summer as a colorist intern. Mohawk is the number one flooring producer in the world. It’s a Fortune 500. 

I’m also planning on going into the accelerated bachelor’s master’s program next year. I would love to transition that into potentially an industry career.

This post was originally published in Wilson College of Textiles News.