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Meet student researchers advancing energy and sustainability solutions

Henry Nakaana, a civil engineering major in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, works with samples of soil and fungus to create a solution for soils affected by wildfire as a participant in the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative program to create a solution for soils affected by wildfires. Nakaana is one of many student researchers helping to solve real-world problems with hands-on research. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

This article is part one of a two-part series highlighting student researchers presenting at the Spring 2024 Fulton Forge Student Research Expo on Friday, April 19. Read part two. Learn more about the expo.

Developing sustainable and efficient solar energy solutions, exploring the effects of temperature on battery capacity and using fungi to support soils affected by wildfire are just some of the ways Arizona State University students are addressing real-world challenges through hands-on research.

At the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, undergraduate and graduate students have several opportunities to conduct use-inspired research in which they can apply their classroom knowledge and build new skills. Through individual projects mentored by Fulton Schools faculty members, students deliver innovation that matters in the research themes of 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 participants valuable experiences in which they conceptualize ideas, develop plans and investigate their research questions over a semester.

Students participating in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, or GCSP, can apply for additional funding to conduct research through the GCSP research stipend program. Conducting research is part of a GCSP student’s rigorous competency requirements designed to 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 the pursuit of advanced degrees.

Each semester, students who participate in FURI, MORE and the GCSP research stipend program are invited to present their findings at a poster session. The Fulton Forge Student Research Expo is the culmination of the students’ hard work to forge meaningful research paths and connections to make an impact.

Learn about four students who are participating in the Spring 2024 Fulton Forge Student Research Expo. Meet them and more than 100 other student investigators at the event, which is open to the public, on Friday, April 19, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Student Pavilion on the ASU Tempe campus.

FURI researcher Clara Chaves Azevedo works in a lab.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Clara Chaves Azevedo

Clara Chaves Azevedo has always wanted to be a civil engineer. She spent much of her childhood creating mockups and building houses in video games. Now at ASU, she is conducting research to reduce the toxicity of promising perovskite materials to implement solar energy generation on windows. The second-semester first-year civil engineering student — the earliest a Fulton Schools student can participate in FURI — is working with faculty mentor Nick Rolston, an assistant professor of electrical engineering. 

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What made you want to get involved in FURI?

I have always dreamed of being able to have an impact, and this program provides me with the perfect opportunities to do so.

Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

I first found out about the research through a GCSP Slack chat. As soon as I read what the research was about, I immediately knew that I wanted to be a part of their team. Not only is the project extremely interesting, but it also poses an incredible solution and alternative to ease the gathering of solar energy.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

The project as a whole is a new opportunity to collect more solar energy and make it more accessible. Solar energy is clean and cheap; therefore, it will positively impact how society gathers energy and reduces the use of sources that harm the environment. My specific research is to find an even more sustainable solution. Instead of using lead to produce the panels, I propose using tin, making it a less toxic option.

What has been your most memorable experience as a student researcher in this program? Did you have a particular “aha!” moment during your project?

My most memorable experience was being able to see what my samples actually looked like under a microscope. It was fascinating to see how something that looks so simple to the naked eye can appear so complex and beautiful under a microscope.

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

As a civil engineer with a focus on sustainability, my ambition is to harmoniously integrate the principles of environmental consciousness and engineering expertise to construct homes that minimize adverse impacts on our planet.

In addition to the intrinsic value of engaging in research, I find that the experience enriches my skill set by fostering creativity, honing research capabilities and refining my communication aptitude, among other things.

Furthermore, I am particularly enthralled by the prospect of incorporating solar panel windows into residential construction, as it represents a tangible manifestation of my commitment to sustainable innovation and architectural excellence.

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

The best advice I received from my faculty mentor was the encouragement to cease dependence on external sources and cultivate self-reliance in the pursuit of research. This guidance served as stimulation for self-reflection, prompting a realization of the necessity to bolster my confidence and assume greater autonomy in academic pursuits. Consequently, I have come to appreciate the imperative of taking decisive action and assuming ownership of my research.

Why should other students get involved in FURI?

I believe that every student should engage in research because it serves as a departure from the confines of familiarity. In the realm of research, individuals are not merely recipients of knowledge; rather, they are tasked with the pursuit of discovery. This program in particular holds significant intrigue by offering an opportunity to immerse yourself in practical applications, as opposed to purely theoretical pursuits.

Thus far, my engagement in research has proven to be the most gratifying experience during my time at ASU. It instills in me a sense of motivation and purpose, driving me toward continued exploration and advancement in my academic journey.

Learn more about Clara Chaves Azevedo’s spring 2024 FURI project.

FURI student researcher Patrick Shea Jr. works in the lab.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Patrick Shea Jr.

Electrical engineering senior Patrick Shea Jr. started his engineering journey with ASU Online while on active duty in the U.S. Air Force as an electrical and environmental systems aircraft specialist. Now finishing his bachelor’s degree on the ASU Tempe campus, he is researching how to increase solar power output for solar modules in space and on Earth. His FURI project with faculty mentor Jennifer Kitchen, an associate professor of electrical engineering, is creating reconfigurable solar arrays that help both in shady conditions and as the solar cells age and degrade.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI?

I signed up for FURI because I was curious about pursuing a career as a researcher. I saw the program as a way to get a jump-start on research to prepare me for a master’s degree program.

Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

I chose my project because I enjoy working with renewable energy, system design and improving the efficiency of integrated circuit concepts. In addition, I get to keep improving on skills needed to be a successful engineer in my field of study.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

My research will help the world increase energy extracted from solar modules by up to 30% during shading conditions. This work can also help to improve energy efficiency in modules with broken or damaged cells. In addition, other research has shown that it may be possible to alter the array configuration to maximize the power extracted from the module. Lastly, it can provide agency to transform or adjust parameters like voltage and current in a discrete manner for use in different applications.

Did you have a particular “aha!” moment during your project?

In my experience with FURI, the “aha!” moments just keep coming. Every time I put effort into my project, I learn something and find new and exciting topics to explore. Most of my “aha!” moments have been rewards for diligent work and opportunities to expand the project.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

I had the opportunity to present my research to U.S. Senator Mark Kelly in support of ASU’s Southwest Advanced Prototyping Hub work. Other awesome surprises can happen when your research results lead to opportunities to publish papers on the work.

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

My FURI experience has been an awesome opportunity for me to help jump-start my career toward my research goals. I am learning how to turn my work into research papers that I can submit to journals as an undergraduate. These papers will aid me on my journey to become a researcher. Lastly, I now have a plan and a project to continue my work as I pursue my dream of completing master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering.

Why should other students get involved in this program?

The FURI program is a great way to experiment with a career choice you might not have considered or are reluctant to try. It’s a safe space to see if research is a good fit for your future career. In addition, it’s an opportunity to work on your own project and earn some money. Lastly, if you want to seek a career in which you have the agency to choose your own projects, you can start to work on things you enjoy studying. Research is the path I suggest students look at to grow the skills needed to be successful.

Learn more about Patrick Shea Jr.’s spring 2024 FURI project.

FURI researcher Byung Gik Park examines a sample with faculty mentor Yoon Hwa

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Byung Gik Park

Byung Gik Park (left), an electrical engineering senior, enjoys taking apart electronics to see how they work. As a student in the FURI program, Park is working with Yoon Hwa (right), an assistant professor of electrical engineering, to explore how temperature affects battery capacity to help others better understand how to manage these power sources. Park’s research was also sponsored by materials science company W. L. Gore & Associates, which provided him with extra funding to pursue his research.

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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 first learned about FURI when my mentor, Dr. Yoon Hwa, announced that he was recruiting a FURI researcher in class, and I applied for it. Unfortunately, due to the amount of competitive students who applied for the Hwa Research Group, I was not selected as a researcher the first time. However, I was able to work with my mentor as a FURI researcher the following semester.

The project I am currently working on is related to battery life when a battery is exposed to the outdoors for an extended period of time. I chose this project because I was interested in the long-term life of batteries that are or may potentially be exposed to the outdoor climate, especially due to the weather conditions when living in a desert climate like Arizona, and fulfill the increasing demand for electric vehicles.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

With a climate that gets hotter every year and the growing demand for electric vehicles, many people may wonder if climate has a significant impact on battery life. Although the research did not experiment with batteries used in actual electric vehicles, the results of the project can be referenced as an indicator of the minimum correlation between batteries and climate.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

As in many studies, I was surprised by the theoretical and actual experimental results proving to be different. It made me think back to the beginning and revisit every moment of the experiment, leaving me to question whether it was an error in my experimental procedure, an error in making assumptions or an error in data processing.

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

As an undergraduate student, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to plan and research my own project through FURI. The experience gained through FURI will be a great steppingstone for me when I attend graduate school and participate in future research projects. At that time, I will be able to confront problems in a more expert manner due to the experience I gained throughout FURI, allowing me the possibility to make projects of higher quality.

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

When I initially set up the purpose and method of research in detail, I was troubled between the ideal research method I wanted to do and the realistic research method that could be completed within one semester. At that time, my mentor advised me to pursue whatever research I saw as fitting, meaning a research topic that truly piqued my interest. Looking back, partaking in research I favored became a big driving force for me throughout the research process and enabled me to proceed with the project in a more enjoyable and productive manner.

Why should other students get involved in FURI?

FURI is a self-directed research program that provides a more autonomous experience than anything else the Fulton Schools offers to undergraduate students. Through this program, you can focus your research in areas that you are really interested in. It is also an opportunity to build relationships and connections with the Fulton Schools’ top professors involved in the field that will further highlight your research. I highly recommend taking the opportunity to enrich your experience and delve into the field you wish to pursue in your future career.

Learn more about Byung Gik Park’s spring 2024 FURI project.

ASU student Henry Nakaana works in a lab for his FURI research project.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Henry Nakaana

Civil engineering major Henry Nakaana was drawn to ASU because its focus on research and sustainability aligned with his interest in solving real-world problems with innovative, sustainable solutions that make a positive impact on the world. His FURI project with Emmanuel Salifu, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, involves engineering fungi that could help support areas affected by increasingly frequent wildfires and heavy rains that make soil vulnerable to erosion and landslides. Nakaana is a first-year student in his second semester — the earliest a Fulton Schools student can participate in FURI.

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

I joined FURI to gain experience in research, obtain knowledge that can help me improve my career and technical engineering skills, and also contribute valuable insights to the scientific community. My project explores the engineered growth of fungi as a novel method to improve stability and erosion resistance on post-wildfire soils. I chose this project because it aligns with my passion for using nature-based solutions to solve engineering problems.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

Today the occurrence of wildfires is expected to increase greatly in the northern parts of the U.S. and Canada, which will leave soil exposed to erosion and landslides. My research project offers an effective, budget-friendly and fast way to protect post-wildfire soils compared to other available solutions. My project also shows the additional advantages of using fungi on soil such as carbon sequestration, which helps reduce global climate change.

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

One of my most memorable moments was when I realized the initial fungi growth on the soil. It was so amazing how fungi can grow in as little as two days to cover the whole soil surface. It made me feel more like an explorer uncovering secrets in a scientific space whose potential has not been discovered.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

I’ve had a couple of surprises. The fungi grew much faster than I thought, and it turns out fungi don’t really like water. The speedy growth was unexpected, and finding out fungi is hydrophobic added an interesting twist. It has made me even more curious and excited about using fungi to mitigate soil erosion on post-wildfires soils. These surprises are pushing me to explore and improve my method for making soil stronger with fungi.

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

The unique combination of engineering and ecological considerations in this project aligns perfectly with my career aspirations to use sustainable technology. Furthermore, this experience not only adds depth to my academic qualifications but also establishes a valuable network within the scientific community on a research topic that is just growing globally.

Collaborating with experts in the field through my mentor has broadened my perspective and allowed me to contribute to cutting-edge research. These aspects, combined with the tangible outcomes of the project, will increase my credibility and open doors to opportunities for further education and advancement in my engineering career.

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

The best advice my mentor gave me is to work toward publishing my work. This means sharing what I’ve learned with other scientists and spreading the word about my work. This way, I’m not just helping myself, but also contributing to what scientists know. It’s a way of joining a bigger conversation in science. It makes me feel like I’m part of something important and can help others in the same field. This advice will help contribute to future studies and potentially be able to make a difference in the world.

Why should other students get involved in FURI?

I strongly recommend this program because it offers a chance to gain valuable skills like problem-solving, research and teamwork that prepare you for the dynamic nature of real-world projects.

Learn more about Henry Nakaana’s spring 2024 FURI 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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