Alexander Hong

Alexander Hong, smiling.
Through this experience, I learned the importance of leveraging diverse expertise within a team and how effective communication is crucial for successful collaboration.  


Computer Science ’24

Project Team

I have always been deeply passionate about environmental conservation, especially marine ecosystems. When I joined Bass Connections, I not only wanted an interdisciplinary experience but to study something that is critically important and affects all of us – like the effects of plastic pollution and how to mitigate them. In my second year at Duke, the Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Biodiversity team was the perfect fit.

Joining this project provided me with an opportunity to apply my academic knowledge to real-world problems and make a tangible impact. While a traditional class in a STEM field may have half a lecture during the whole semester dedicated to the ethical implications in the real world, we are posed with the “why” of how our work matters at the start of each week’s discussion on my Bass Connections team.

Hong (top left) and members of the 2023-2024 Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Biodiversity team

This project’s ultimate goal is to produce a complete plastic recycling process. Currently, most plastics are simply discarded, but a small percentage are incinerated, chemically disposed or remanufactured. While current solutions to plastic pollution are environmentally helpful in some ways, they contribute to a lot of energy use (mainly from non-renewable sources) and chemical waste.

The goal of bioremediation is to utilize nature to directly break down plastic. Instead of using energy from a power plant, we use organisms like bacteria. They consume the carbon sources in plastic and can produce subproducts that could be reused one day in the manufacturing process.

One thing I deeply value about our team is the culture of open communication and collaboration. The style is very hands-on: each week we engage in deep discussion and brainstorming, sharing findings and providing constructive critiques of each other’s work. We have also collaborated with experts from a range of fields such as microbiology, environmental chemistry and environmental science/policy, which has broadened my understanding of our project’s problem and provided insights into various approaches to address it. Through this experience, I learned the importance of leveraging diverse expertise within a team and how effective communication is crucial for successful collaboration.

I have also appreciated the small size of our team, which has never been more than ten people. While the classes in my major could have between 50 to 300 students, this Bass Connections project provided an environment where my work mattered and my diligence was crucial to the success of the team. Our team leader, Jason Somarelli is always a phone call or message away. I’ve never had a mentor that I’ve worked with for so long and so consistently – not even in high school!

Team members with their research poster.
Hong (left) with teammates Sage Hirschfeld (center) and Jenny Yoon (right) at the Bass Connections showcase in April 2023

The sustained effort on one research problem has also taught me the value of persistence. One of the significant challenges our team faced was optimizing a plate production experiment for efficient plastic degradation. For my entire sophomore year, my part of the project failed and I got no results. However, Dr. Somarelli encouraged me to keep going. After a year of failed experiments, I decided to investigate different parameters and methodologies, and I immediately started getting better results. This experience taught me the importance of resilience and adaptability in research. I had gone from wanting to quit just a semester before to finding the breakthrough our team needed.

Unsatisfied with my previous experiment, I circled back and attempted it once again. I realized I had made a crucial miscalculation. The amount of solute (plastic) I had added to my solvent (acetone) was around ten times what it should have been, which resulted in the plastic failing to melt properly and stalling my project. I learned I had not double-checked the existing protocol. After deeply studying and critiquing both my protocol and that of my previous lab assistant, I was successfully able to complete the old experiment that was roadblocked. Now I knew how to melt both liquid and solid plastics, meaning I could apply this methodology to nearly any plastic out there and also teach it to the junior members on the team.

From this experience of failure, I learned to always validate ideas and not just take them at face value, and that background research is incredibly important before beginning a project. I also learned the value of patience after trying to succeed in a project for the whole year. I grew as a researcher and person by being persistent, not giving up and accepting challenges because of how important it was to the success of our team.

Ella Gunady and Alexander Hong in a lab setting.
Hong (right) with teammate Ella Gunady

While our project did not involve fieldwork, our team is deeply tied to the Duke Marine Lab, and I have had many opportunities to go and experience the North Carolina coast. I’m also in the Scholars in Marine Medicine program, and through these collaborations, I have been immersed in my marine science and medicine research. Without Bass Connections, I would not have known about these other opportunities, which have led to some of my most memorable experiences at Duke, including visiting the Oyster Farm, boating with Professor Thomas Shultz, and trying oysters for the first time.

The greatest benefit of being on a Bass Connections team for multiple years is that I have experienced a great amount of personal development. I entered without much knowledge, but I have learned so much with the support of older students and mentors. Seeing students who are in a similar position as I was three years ago allows me to empathize greatly and help them grow, avoid the pitfalls I went through and develop the next generation of leaders on the team.

April 2024