Painesville teen finds niche at LCI

Jeremy Nobile

High school student studies, works with Kent State professor

At an early age, Kenneth Fechter’s parents knew they had a gifted son.

“When he was 1, he went to class with his mother. He would sit there through the lecture with her and listen,” chuckled Kenneth’s father, Doug Fechter, an independent firefighter from Painesville. “Can you imagine an 11-month-old sitting still for anything? We knew right then and there we were in trouble.”

Kenneth Fechter, a T.W. Harvey High School sophomore, became involved with Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute in September. At only 16 years old, Kenneth is getting involved with advanced liquid crystal research.

A self-proclaimed science and engineering enthusiast, Kenneth, with help from his father, commutes approximately 60 miles from Painesville to Kent State every Tuesday and Thursday. He does about four hours of LCI lab work each day with assistant professor Qi-Huo Wei.

“It’s exciting,” Kenneth said. “It feels very good to be here.”

His father, who played a major role in getting his son involved with the program, said he doesn’t mind making the trips to Kent several times a week and enjoys the time he gets to spend with Kenneth on the rides.

“There isn’t anything on the face of the Earth I wouldn’t do for him,” Doug said. “But none of this would have happened if he didn’t do what he does. He put in the time and effort and enthusiasm.”

This is a new experience for Wei as well, who has never worked with such a young student before.

Wei explained that typically when students come to the LCI they already have a background in physics and liquid crystals. For Kenneth, who has no prior experience with liquid crystals, research begins with learning the basics and working from the ground up.

“It (working with a young student) can be very challenging,” Wei said. “You have to make the project step-by-step.”

Wei said Kenneth will eventually be working on a new project with biaxial nematic liquid crystals. The goal of the project is to study molecular properties through research of polymer-based particles that behave like molecules but can be studied at a physically larger scale.

Kenneth, however, has only been with the institute for a month, and his work currently lies with familiarizing himself with the fundamentals of ray optics. His study of ray optics involves an understanding of how light can be refracted and diffracted in various directions.

Kenneth is using the knowledge he acquires to design a Web site for the LCI at Both Kenneth and Wei hope to have the site up by the end of October.

Kenneth earned this opportunity through the Postsecondary Enrollment Options Program, which allows students to earn college credit through university classes they take in addition to their general high school curriculum.

“I originally looked here (Kent State) for a language class they didn’t offer, so I took the psych class,” said Kenneth, who also commutes to Kent State every Saturday to take general psychology.

But that’s not all. He found the foreign language class he sought, German I, at Lake Erie College. He is taking that course in order to graduate high school with an honors diploma.

While visiting Kent State for a university orientation for post-secondary students, Kenneth got the notion of working with the LCI from a presentation made by Robin Selinger, professor of chemical physics and graduate coordinator for the LCI.

Selinger strives to bring enthusiastic students interested in liquid crystal research to Kent State. She connects them with professors in her department to create research and internship opportunities.

Selinger said the best way the LCI knows to recruit and retain promising students is to attract them at a young age. She is also quite adamant about getting students involved early on because her first internship, at 17, was wonderful, she said.

“One reason I’m so driven to help these kids is because my first internship was a life-changing experience,” Selinger said. Kenneth’s father is very pleased about the program and the education his son is receiving. He also enjoys having Kenneth go to Kent State because he feels it has an atmosphere where “people truly care.”

“This opportunity is a singular honor,” Doug said. “I know (professors) will take care of him, and even the grad students have accepted them as one of their own. So many people have helped him along the way. It’s mind-boggling.”

Contact sciences reporter Jeremy Nobile at [email protected].