Summer research sizzles at ASU

By

Amanda Stoneman

This summer, more than 50 undergraduate students from across the nation studied in labs at Arizona State University to develop solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. 

The students are part of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program that provides valuable educational experiences for college students through active participation in science, engineering and education research at ultramodern facilities. REU projects offer universities a chance to tap a diverse talent pool and broaden student participation in use-inspired research initiatives with meaningful impact.

By integrating research and education, REU aims to attract students to science and engineering programs, retain them and prepare them for careers in those fields.

NSF is interested in increasing the number of women, minorities and people with disabilities who participate in research, and particular attention is paid to recruiting students from underrepresented groups. REU sites across the country are also encouraged to involve students from communities and academic institutions where research programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are limited, including two-year colleges.

REU students participated in integrative, hands-on research with a focus on bio-geotechnical engineering, drinking water and industrial wastewater treatment, sensor device design and algorithm development, solar energy and photovoltaics. Participants helped develop solutions for a broad scope of challenges, from facilitating access to clean water to restoring degraded landscapes and revolutionizing electricity generation.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering hosted REU programs this summer at sites in the NSF Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics, the NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment, the Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center and the NSF Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center.

REU provides the building blocks to succeed

Jeremy Nez, a civil engineering major at Scottsdale Community College, has been interested in creating sustainable, resilient and environmentally compatible solutions for geotechnical infrastructure since he took a tour of the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics with the Phoenix Indian Center as a high school student.

Last year, he participated in the center’s Young Scholars program for his first exposure to research. This summer, he returned to the center to complete the REU program.

Nez worked on a bio-inspired process to stabilize and control clay swelling, teaming with Associate Professor Claudia Zapata, postdoctoral research associate Hamed Khodadadi Tirkolaei and graduate mentor Hani Alharbi, a doctoral student in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering.

Many types of infrastructure are built with a clay foundation beneath them. When some clay foundation soils come in contact with water, they expand dramatically. Clay swelling is problematic because it contributes to cracked foundations, walls, driveways, swimming pools and roads — costing millions of dollars each year.

Nez helped establish protocols for conducting efficient and economically competitive stabilization of problematic clay soils by comparing compaction characteristics of clay-treated soil with plant-based silica extracted from rice husk. Results of this research will help prevent and mitigate damage caused by clay swelling.

“I liked how the REU program was interdisciplinary,” Nez said. “You have biologists and geologists as well as civil, geotechnical and mechanical engineers working together to improve civilizations. There’s not just one major in this program, it’s very diverse.”

Nez’s two summers of research at the center have inspired him to transfer to ASU. He’ll start an undergraduate program in civil engineering this fall. Nez is one of four students participating in the REU program this summer who plan to transfer to the university.

six students standing
Six students from Glendale Community College, Phoenix College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Scottsdale Community College and the University of New Haven participated in the summer Research experience in the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at Arizona State University. From left to right: Ibrahim Ibrahim, Lydia Kelley, Leslie Bautista, Colleen Adams, RJ Mabry and Jeremy Nez. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Interdisciplinary experience drives plan for the future  

Jacquelyn Schmidt, a major in engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, also wanted to study at ASU based on the interdisciplinary component of the Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center REU program.

“I have a lot of interests: data science, internet of things, machine learning and electrical engineering,” Schmidt said. “The SenSIP REU was one of the only summer programs I came across that touched on all of those areas.”

Schmidt’s research project focused on reducing turtle bycatch, which happens when turtles drown from being caught in fishing nets. Schmidt said marine biology research suggests the number of sea turtles accidentally caught can be dramatically reduced with the use of light-emitting diode, or LED, lights.

“Several research groups are continuing this research today, but a clear problem has emerged,” she said. “The LED lights are battery powered. When the batteries run out, they’re just thrown into the ocean.”

Schmidt’s team included Associate Professor Blain Christen, postdoctoral fellows Mark Bailly and Martyn Fisher, Associate Professor Michael Goryll and Assistant Research Professor Jesse Senko. They sought to find a more sustainable solution to this problem by using renewable energy to power LEDs on fishing nets.

For this project, Schmidt studied different types of renewable energy sources to determine which would be ideal for potential designs. Given that the nets are submerged in water but dried in the sun, Schmidt considered tidal and wave energy as options as well as solar charging.

“Turtle bycatch is a huge global issue and is impacting communities in Mexico, North Carolina, Hawaii and Indonesia, just to name a few,” Schmidt said. “In the future, we’re hoping to see our prototypes mass produced and used in fishing enterprises around the world.”

Schmidt said the research experience gave her valuable skills in developing a real-world product. She’s more confident in her abilities to take an idea through the product development process, from the original concept to a physical device.

Going into the SenSIP REU program, Schmidt wanted to determine whether engineering graduate school would be on her horizon.

“So far, the answer seems to be yes,” she said.

Changing the world one research experience at a time

These research centers in the Fulton Schools represent four of about 600 different REU sites across the U.S. For more than 30 years, the NSF has funded nearly 9,000 undergraduate students each year in the REU program. REU participants gain in-depth scientific research experience under the guidance of faculty members and research mentors to learn how to develop solutions.

Read more about all the REU programs hosted in the Fulton Schools this summer.