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Meet student researchers addressing sustainability and social challenges

by | Apr 17, 2023 | Features, Students

Arizona State University chemical engineering major Kelly Nguyen studies how microplastics in combination with pesticides affect soil contamination as part of a research project with the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative. Nguyen is one of many student researchers in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU helping to solve real-world problems through hands-on research. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

This article is the second part of a two-part series highlighting student researchers and faculty mentors presenting at the Spring 2023 FURI Symposium on April 21. Read part one. Learn more about the symposium.

Turning mine waste into concrete, studying the effects of microplastics and pesticides on soil, investigating the impact of teaching techniques on mental well-being and analyzing supply chains to predict disruptive events are just some of the ways Arizona State University students are solving real-world problems through hands-on research.

Students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU can apply their classroom knowledge in a range of research pursuits. Their work delivers innovation that matters for challenges in data science, education, energy, health, security, semiconductor manufacturing and sustainability.

The Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, or FURI, and the Master’s Opportunity for Research in Engineering, or MORE, programs give students valuable experiences in which they spend a semester conceptualizing an idea, developing a plan and investigating their research question with a faculty mentor.

Students in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, or GCSP, have the option to conduct research as part of the program’s rigorous competency requirements that prepare them to solve complex global societal challenges.

These three programs enhance students’ ability to innovate, think independently and solve problems in their communities. They also benefit from the technical and soft skills they gain, which prepare them for their careers and pursuit of advanced degrees.

Twice per year, students who participate in FURI, MORE and GCSP are invited to present their research findings at the FURI Symposium. Learn about four Fulton Schools students participating in the Spring 2023 FURI Symposium. Meet them and more than 100 other student investigators at the event, which is open to the public, on Friday, April 21, 1–3 p.m. at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex on the ASU Tempe campus.

ASU civil engineering student Lana Banzon works with Professor Narayanan Neithalath and a graduate student in the lab as part of a FURI research project.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Lana Banzon

Lana Banzon, a civil engineering junior, is exploring how to turn mine tailings — the byproducts or waste from the mining process — into valuable silicon salts in a FURI project with faculty mentor Narayanan Neithalath, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. Practices for mining uranium and other resources are often highly toxic, however, a process called alkali activation can help silicates in mine tailings be used as an eco-friendly binder for concrete or grout and can play a significant role in creating a circular economy.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI and the project you’re working on?

I wanted to get involved with FURI as a way to learn more about research at a higher level. Getting involved allowed me to broaden my perspective on my field. I chose the project I’m working on because it aligns with my interest in sustainable engineering practices.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

As waste byproducts of mining practices, mine tailings pose a huge risk to the environment due to their toxic heavy metals and milling chemicals. With alkali-activation technology, these mine tailings can be converted to a concrete blend that can be used for grout applications. Repurposing this waste can maintain the health, safety and welfare of the public.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

There definitely have been surprises in my research such as noticing how a lot of my academic knowledge truly applies to the field. It made me happy to know that my knowledge is becoming useful in the research lab. I was also surprised by all the precautions taken with not only the safety of the researchers but the integrity of the study as well.

What has been your most memorable experience as a student researcher?

My most memorable experience by far was in post-processing the data and seeing the results of the experiments, noticing the trends and patterns.

How do you see this experience helping with your career goals?

This experience broadened my perspective on career paths in civil engineering. Before this, I was not really aware that research was something that could be on my plate. It exposed me to the world of research at the professional level, which I find useful in weighing my options for the future.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

The best advice I’ve gotten from my faculty mentor is to choose something I’m passionate about. Research is a field where the amount of work you put in affects the results, and who wants to put work into something they don’t enjoy? I’ve definitely seen how this can affect the quality of work produced.

Why should other students get involved in FURI?

I would suggest that other students involve themselves in this program so they can gain a more learned sense of what the research field is like. I feel like it is a good way for them to be introduced to the practices in research and help them figure out if this is an option for them in the future.

Learn more about Lana Banzon’s Spring 2023 FURI project.

ASU chemical engineering student Kelly Nguyen works in the lab as part of a FURI research project.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Kelly Nguyen

Kelly Nguyen is a chemical engineering junior researching how microplastics in combination with pesticides affect soil contamination. This FURI project under the mentorship of Shuguang Deng, a professor of chemical engineering, provides new information about the environmental impact of microplastics and how humanity can more sustainably interact with the environment in the future.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI and why did you choose the project you’re working on?

I was first introduced to the FURI program in my freshman year and it always stuck in the back of my head. When my mentor, Dr. Deng, offered the class I was taking the opportunity to do the FURI program with his research group, I jumped on the opportunity.

I choose to do my project on the interaction of microplastic and pesticides in soil because of my interest in sustainable polymers, also known as plastics. Microplastics are a big issue in the world of sustainability and understanding the effects that they have in interacting with the environment will only further innovation in developing polymers that are better in the long run.

How will your research project impact the world?

With the increasing concern about microplastics in soil, there is a need for more in-depth research to fully understand the relationship between pollutants and microplastics in a terrestrial environment. The results that come from this research will only further our understanding of the interactions between microplastics and soil contamination.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

The biggest surprise in my research was the shift from my original experimental plan to my current one. I shifted to doing hydrothermal liquefaction of soil, pesticide and microplastics instead of measuring the amount of pesticide that the soil adsorbed over a period of time.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

One of my career goals is to run a lab researching more sustainable, highly accessible polymers. The experience of working in a lab setting allows me to learn the intricacies of being in a lab and how it can run so smoothly with many different working parts.

Why should other students get involved in this program?

FURI is an amazing program that allows undergraduates to experience doing research on a topic that they are interested in, under the guidance of a mentor. It helps you build a rapport with a faculty member and graduate students working in the lab, which is vital for those letters of recommendation. Additionally, it’s rare to be responsible for flushing out a research idea with the safety blanket of graduate students and faculty mentors to fall back on.

Learn more about Kelly Nguyen’s Spring 2023 FURI project.

ASU biomedical engineering graduate student Daniella Pautz (center) with undergraduate students Maxwell Johnson and Ruhi Dharan.

Daniella Pautz (center) with Maxwell Johnson (left) and Ruhi Dharan (right). Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Daniella Pautz

Biomedical engineering graduate student Daniella Pautz is exploring how engineering professors can use persuasion methods to help students succeed in class and improve their mental well-being. Her MORE research with faculty mentor Claire Honeycutt, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, seeks to address the high rates of depression and anxiety among engineering students and help them succeed in this difficult field of study.

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What made you want to get involved in MORE and why did you choose the project you’re working on?

I have always had a passion for engineering, but I’ve also always had a passion for teaching and learning. I was talking with my faculty mentor about what I wanted to do for my thesis and mentioned that one day I wanted to teach. She suggested studying teaching methods in engineering education in order to combine my interests. So, we brainstormed and came up with the idea of studying persuasion techniques and how they are used in the classroom. 

How will your research project impact the world?

I believe my research can change the way teachers and professors interact with their students across all disciplines. Having a positive relationship with students can enhance their learning and help improve their mental health. With the mental health crisis growing across the world, interventions are necessary, and this can start in the classroom.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

I was surprised to see that teachers who are strict and use rules and punishments in their classes actually have a negative impact on student academic outcomes as well as student mental health. Many strict professors believe that it is their job to teach students how to be obedient (especially at younger ages) and that if they don’t force students to participate, they won’t. It turns out this belief harms students’ outcomes, decreases their engagement, and increases their stress. 

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

You have to be very clear about why you are doing your research, what your data actually says and what the implications of your research are. It’s easy to get caught up in your research and analyze everything you can, but at the end of the day you need to have a clear hypothesis and conclusion.

Why should other students get involved in MORE?

This program is an excellent way to gain support for your research. It helps keep your research focused and on track by setting goals and deadlines. It also offers great funding for you and your project so that you can realistically achieve your goals. 

Learn more about Daniella Pautz’s Spring 2023 MORE project.

ASU computer science student Rohan Nair points at a projection screen displaying shipping routes.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Rohan Nair

As part of the GCSP program, computer science sophomore Rohan Nair is investigating how global supply chain data can predict future legal, environmental, economic or political events that are disruptive to commerce and society. Nair is working with faculty mentor Paulo Shakarian, an associate professor of computer science and engineering, to use the vast amount of location and trade data from ocean-based shipping to help address the grand challenge of security.

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What made you want to get involved in GCSP and the project you’re working on?

I wanted to get involved in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program because of the appeal behind being involved in macroscopic issues outside of the classroom. I have always been interested in using my skills to develop projects that would end up being useful to a certain industry or society in some way, and GCSP offered an opportunity for me to do just that with service learning and learning about globalized efforts for innovation to solve large-scale problems. Even further, there is an emphasis on diversifying the academic experience at ASU, and by working in groups with different majors to develop a project, I am able to be a much more well-rounded student and work more efficiently in groups.

I chose this project because it allows me to develop skills for both my computer science major and economics minor, as it works with the supply chains of global industries through maritime data analysis.

What has been the most memorable experience as a student researcher?

My most memorable experience was the process of developing and completing the code necessary for one of the lab’s earlier tasks. My responsibility was to develop code with Python that would gather as much information as possible from a REST API by using EC2, a cloud computing service from Amazon. I did not have any experience using EC2, but after taking the time to learn and reach out for help, I learned so much about the overall scope of how raw data can be turned into visualizations that can indicate truly meaningful patterns and results.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

The main surprise in my research has been discovering the immense amount of data that exists for maritime activity. Different data vendors gather shipping and location data of vessels from different sources and countries, and then compile what they receive into their personal database. With the number of vessels, ports, companies and countries, as well as the frequency at which location is tracked as a record, the data reaches terabytes of storage, a far larger scope than I had imagined before.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

This experience will help both my career and advanced degree goals as it allows me to input knowledge I’ve learned from past classes and use it in a real-world context. In the classroom, it is quite difficult to learn how to apply the knowledge we learn outside of homework assignments. This is oftentimes because it is also difficult to retain information due to the numerous classes and concepts being instructed at once. This research experience allowed me to apply my computer science knowledge by practicing with databases, visualizations and cloud computing. Through the personal development required for the project, I was also able to further my skills using tools such as Python and REST APIs, which overall drastically improved my strengths in data engineering, a field that I plan on pursuing.

Why should other students get involved in GCSP?

It is a unique opportunity to work on a project that applies skills relevant to your major outside of classes while also under the supervision of a professor. Oftentimes, it is difficult for students to get real-world experience for various reasons, making it harder to stand out in competitive markets. This program offers a unique way of standing out, as not only do you actively apply the skills you learn in classes, but you also have the opportunity of working with a professor who has intense academic or industry experience, and they can advise you along the way and even after the project.

Learn more about Rohan Nair’s Spring 2023 GCSP project.

About The Author

Monique Clement

Monique Clement is a lead communications specialist for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She earned her BA in journalism from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. For seven years before joining the Fulton Schools communications team, she worked as an editor and journalist in engineering trade media covering the embedded systems industry. Media contact: [email protected] | 480-727-1958 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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