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Summer research sizzles at ASU

<h2><center><em><strong>Students gain valuable skills in the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program</h2></em></strong></center>

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, or REU, program. The program 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 these 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.


  • looking into microscope
    “As a participant of the QESST REU program, I can demonstrate my capacity to teach other engineers about the importance of photovoltaic solar energy,” said Juan Asencio, a mechanical engineering major with a minor in mathematics at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón campus. “I selected this field of study because my country, Puerto Rico, needs a new innovation or project to improve the electrical services since Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico does not have the necessary resources to perform the electrical services and that’s the reason I’m here.” Photographer: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU
NSF Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics — CBBG

Creating sustainable solutions for civil infrastructure and resource development challenges

The REU program in the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics prepares future scientists and engineers to develop sustainable solutions that make geotechnical infrastructure systems safer, less intrusive and more resilient. The program invited 20 students to spend 10 weeks at one of four partner research universities, including ASU, the Georgia Institute of Technology, New Mexico State University and the University of California, Davis. Six of the students were at ASU.

All of the center’s research projects seek inspiration from nature to create low-impact solutions for natural disaster mitigation, environmental protection and restoration, geotechnical infrastructure construction and resource development that work in harmony with natural ecosystems.

four students standing

Students from this summer’s National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics REU program at Arizona State University. From left to right: Jeremy Nez, Lydia Kelley, Leslie Bautista and Colleen Adams. Photographer: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

“The summer REU program is one of the great features of the NSF’s Engineering Research Center program,” said Edward Kavazanjian, the director of CBBG and Regents’ Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the Fulton Schools. “Every year, we’ve had a diverse group of outstanding undergraduates from around the country work with us in our laboratories, many of whom are now pursuing, or plan to pursue, biogeotechnics-related graduate studies.”

This summer, the six students CBBG hosted at ASU had majors ranging from biology and chemistry to civil engineering and environmental science. Students worked with graduate mentors and faculty in microbiology and civil engineering on projects such as enhancing methane production in municipal solid waste, conformance testing and experimentation with a rainfall-runoff-erosion simulator, microbial metabolic exploration, bioremediation of chlorinated solvents, fugitive dust mitigation and control of clay swelling via a plant-extracted salt solution.

“The specific research topics offered at ASU made me choose to complete the CBBG REU program here,” said Lydia Kelley, a civil engineering student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who traveled more than 2,000 miles for the program. “The bio-inspired fugitive dust mitigation project appealed to me because it’s a sustainable, cost-effective solution that will improve public health and use less of a valuable resource: water.”

In the southwestern U.S., fugitive dust is a significant health hazard. When wind-blown soil particles are inhaled, it can cause respiratory problems, increase susceptibility to respiratory infections and aggravate existing respiratory diseases.

Maricopa County, for instance, is designated as an air quality non-attainment zone by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because its fugitive dust levels exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for harmful pollutants.

Current methods for fugitive dust control include using water trucks to keep the soil wet and applying a salt solution or synthetic polymers. These methods use large quantities of water, negatively affect surface and groundwater quality, and can be expensive.

Kelley worked on the fugitive dust project with Kavazanjian and graduate mentor Miriam Woolley, a doctoral student in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering. The team explored enzyme-induced carbonate precipitation as a “one-and-done” solution for fugitive dust control through the ASU/NASA Planetary Wind Tunnel and a device that accelerates the aging of materials with ultra-violet radiation.

“Basically, this method involves accelerating chemical reactions that naturally occur to ensure another dust bowl doesn’t happen,” said Kelley. “With this method, we’re able to create an artificial calcium carbonate crust on the soil, within the time frame of a week, to keep dust particles from detaching and causing visibility or respiratory issues.”

This was Kelley’s first experience with college-level research. She learned a lot, both inside and outside of the lab, from completing research tasks in a timely and safe manner to being independent and figuring out the Phoenix metropolitan area’s public transportation system.

“Overall, this research experience will enhance my abilities to adapt to different environments, manage time efficiently and formulate sustainable solutions,” said Kelley.

Jeremy Nez, a civil engineering major at Scottsdale Community College, has been interested in the CBBG’s mission to create sustainable, resilient and environmentally compatible solutions for geotechnical infrastructure since he took a tour of the center’s facilities 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 CBBG 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 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,” said Nez. “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 CBBG have inspired him to transfer to ASU. He’ll start an undergraduate program in civil engineering this fall. Nez is one of four students in the REU program who plan to transfer to the university.

NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment — NEWT

Developing transformative, off-grid water treatment systems 

The REU program in the NSF-funded Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment offers a 10-week summer internship for community college students. The program is specifically designed to give hands-on research experience to community college students in nanotechnology-enabled water treatment research laboratories at ASU, Rice University and the University of Texas at El Paso.

REU students participated in research with an overarching theme of solving the grand challenges associated with clean water. In general, the projects aimed to improve the technologies used for purifying drinking water and industrial water, such as removing contaminants and using nanomaterials to prevent the formation of bacterial films on the membranes used for water treatment.

“These projects will advance our understanding of how to use nanomaterials to improve water treatment by making it more selective and less energy intensive,” said Jorge Loyo, the associate director of education at the NEWT facility based at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “In the long term, better and cheaper treatment will contribute to improved access to safe drinking water and more effective treatment of industrial wastewater.”

Additionally, REU students received training on how to read scientific articles, write research abstracts and present posters at scientific symposiums. They also expanded their professional network by meeting graduate students, postdocs and researchers at three different universities.

Carlos Ortiz Beltranena, an industrial engineering student at Scottsdale Community College, participated in the REU program in the NEWT-affiliated lab directed by ASU Regents’ Professor Paul Westerhoff. Beltranena conducted multiple experiments to prove silver ions can be used to remove bromide from drinking water by recycling the same silver nanoparticles repeatedly.

This research has the potential to provide an affordable way to remove bromide from drinking water, which can react with disinfectants such as chlorine to produce toxic disinfection by-products. Low levels of naturally occurring bromide pose a low risk to humans. However, the toxic by-products may result in negative endocrine, reproductive and carcinogenic outcomes.

“Carlos is helping address a really important drinking water issue,” said Westerhoff, deputy director of NEWT and vice dean for research and innovation in the Fulton Schools. “The issue bromide causes is one of the top 10 violations in drinking water systems across the U.S.”

Beltranena said the REU program has helped him both academically and professionally. He learned about certain concepts of industrial engineering, which will pertain to classes required for his degree. Additionally, the skills gained from he gained from participating in lab research, learning how to make PowerPoint presentations and figuring out how to communicate research findings will be beneficial for obtaining a doctoral degree and pursuing a career in research.

Janice Baab, a chemical engineering student from Glendale Community College, conducted research in Associate Professor Candace Chan’s NEWT-affiliated lab at ASU. Baab wanted to gain experience in nanoengineering and decide whether it is a field she’d like to pursue.

Baab studied the use of layered double hydroxides, or LDHs, as a method for removing selenium from water. LDHs have been used successfully to remove oxyanions from solutions. More specifically, she wanted to determine whether there was one type of LDH that is more effective for selenium removal.

“This project will contribute to a more mobile, off-grid water treatment plant that will be cost-effective and available for both humanitarian aid and industrial use,” said Baab. “This will help with getting a water treatment system set up in disaster-stricken areas, or in poorer regions that are not as easily accessible. It can also be used for improving industrial wastewater reuse, and help make it more financially feasible to be ecologically friendly.”

This fall, Beltranena and Baab will both transfer to ASU. Beltranena will pursue a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. Baab will pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and continue studies in nanoengineering.

Center for Sensor Signal and Information Processing — SenSIP

Producing signal and information processing applications for health and sustainability

This summer, the REU program in the Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center recruited and trained nine undergraduate students out of nearly 100 candidates. The goal of the program was to engage students in research endeavors on the design of sensors through technologies that emphasize low-power circuits, flexible electronics, microelectromechanical systems and embedded systems. Moreover, students learned to extract and interpret data by studying and programming appropriate machine learning algorithms.

“The SenSIP REU program has a unique mission,” said Andreas Spanias, director of the center and professor of digital signal processing in the Fulton Schools. “We’re training undergraduate students in a hybrid area that addresses hardware and device design as well as algorithms and software. Both are needed to make a sensor system work properly.”

student holding a light illuminating object on table

“My favorite part of the REU experience has been working with my teammates and mentors. Getting the chance to collaborate with others, particularly people who specialize in a different subject or major, has taught me a lot,” said Jacquelyn Schmidt, a major in engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. “This research is very technical but also rooted in the physical world. An engineer alone could never solve this problem [of turtle bycatch]. We’re working closely with marine biologists, oceanographers, fishermen and many others.” Photographer: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

The SenSIP REU features multidisciplinary synergies across various ASU research labs that provide access to unique sensor hardware and algorithm technology. Students addressed problems associated with sensor systems that apply to the internet of things, health monitoring and security. In addition to hands-on research in the lab, students participated in structured training through video-streamed modules and software and algorithm training in classrooms and computer labs.

“We placed a significant emphasis on providing students with projects that impact the real world,” said Associate Professor Jennifer Blain Christen, co-principal investigator and co-director of the SenSIP REU program. “The variety of projects from our program have spanned health care technology, solar power, advanced projects in imaging and speaker recognition and even reducing the number of turtles that drown in fishing nets.”

The students’ research projects included analyzing parameters of a low-power circuit for a new buoy, developing form factors for rechargeable sea turtle securing buoys, energy-efficient image sampling for self-powered cameras, generating small-scale renewable energy on a smart fishing net, monitoring health with digital stethoscopes and machine learning, studying nanopore sensor devices and algorithms, and using machine learning for sea turtle image recognition.

“I wanted to study at ASU because of the really interdisciplinary research program offered,” said Jacquelyn Schmidt, a major in engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. “I have a lot of interests: data science, internet of things, machine learning and electrical engineering. 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 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,” said Schmidt. “In the future, we’re hoping to see our prototypes mass produced and used in fishing enterprises around the world.”

Divya Mohan, a major in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, worked with Assistant Professor Suren Jayasuriya, Professor Spanias, Associate Professor Pavan Turaga and graduate mentor Sameeksha Katoch on computational cameras.

The inspiration behind Mohan’s research project for the REU program is self-powered intelligent cameras. These cameras must use energy to capture every single pixel of an image. The research team is trying to determine how many regions/pixels can be removed from an image to improve energy efficiency while still maintaining the accuracy of a given computer vision task.

“I have fond memories of working with my professors. They’re super knowledgeable and seeing them discuss research and be so passionate about it is inspirational,” said Mohan. “Even as they’re wrapped in new possible ideas, they’re always super considerate and make sure to take the time to explain things to me. I have truly been blessed to work with not only passionate but also compassionate professors.”

Students in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College also took advantage of the SenSIP REU opportunity. Rebecca Martin, a computer systems engineering major, and Will Kendall, an electrical engineering major with a minor in business, worked on SenSIP projects for health-related applications that improve quality of life and welfare.

two people looking at monitor

Rebecca Martin (right), a computer systems engineering major at Arizona State University, works with Associate Professor Jennifer Blain Christen, the co-director of the Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center REU program, to detect normal and pathological health patterns using machine learning and data from digital stethoscope sensors. Photographer: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Martin worked with graduate mentor Uday Shankar Shanthamallu and faculty advisors Spanias and Blain Christen to estimate the pulse rate from electronic stethoscope sensors, utilize wireless connectivity to computers and smartphones and use machine learning to classify filtered signals as healthy or pathological data.

Kendall worked with Shankar Shanthamallu and faculty mentors Goryll, Spanias and Professor Trevor Thornton to develop nanopore sensors and relevant signal processing algorithms.

Nanopore sensors have applications for DNA sequencing and characterization, biochemical agent detection and the observation and characterization of analytes at the single molecule level.

The signals generated from nanopores are inherently noisy due to the low amperage of the signals. For that reason, it was important for Kendall to use filtering techniques and classifiers to distinguish between the desired signal and the noise.

“Getting exposed to machine learning algorithms at this stage in my career is a huge benefit due to the prevalence of machine learning algorithms in many facets of business and engineering,” said Kendall. “Also, working closely with some of the engineering faculty at ASU is allowing me to develop professional relationships and connections, which will inevitably benefit me when I look for a job in industry post-graduation.”

REU students had the opportunity to present their research projects to industry experts at the SenSIP Industry-University Summer 2018 Meeting. The industry consortium meetings enable students to get feedback and gain experience discussing technical research with professionals using a one-minute elevator pitch and a research poster. Industry attendees included engineers and managers from General Dynamics, Intel, NXP, On Semiconductor, Raytheon, Sprint, PSG, Alphacore and World Ventures.

Students also develop or contribute to scientific research papers. These papers are in a two-column journal style and include properly cited and formatted reference sections. The graduate and faculty advisors provided feedback so students can improve their submissions.

As a result, Meilin Zhu, Farib Khondoker and Chad Synder, three students from last year’s REU program, have published their work on fluorescent-based point-of-care diagnostics for cervical cancer, optimization of exercise routine data through sensor fusion and human factors engineering for mobile health applications.

Meilin and Farib are continuing their work with Professors Blain Christen and Spanias respectively.

The SenSIP REU program was assessed by an independent evaluator and received comments emphasizing its exceptional work, especially in achieving technical goals while training a diverse group of students.

Learn more about the SenSIP REU program by visiting its Facebook page.

NSF Engineering Research Center for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies — QESST

Generating electricity with minimal impacts on the environment

The Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center, jointly funded by the NSF and the Department of Energy, hosted 13 community college and undergraduate students — selected from 136 applicants — for nine weeks of cutting-edge research on photovoltaic materials, devices and applications at ASU.

Students were immersed in the intellectual melting pot of ongoing solar research to tackle the terawatt challenge: the difficult task of sustainably meeting the world’s energy demand.

student in lab using equipment

Maisy Lam, an electrical engineering major at the University of Miami, wears acid protection gear as she submerges textured and phosphorus-diffused silicon wafers in a buffered oxide etch acid bath. This process removes any metal or particle contaminants residing on the silicon wafers prior to sputtering. Photographer: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

“We have one-of-a-kind facilities and expertise for solar cell research at ASU,” said Zachary Holman, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Fulton Schools, principal investigator on the QESST REU program and a former REU student himself. “The future success of solar energy in powering our world depends in part on how well we use this capability to train the next generation of photovoltaic engineers.”

Through work on an industrial-scale pilot line, students teamed up with graduate students and faculty to make solar cells and modules cheaper, longer lasting and more efficient. Research conducted in the REU program crossed traditional disciplinary boundaries by synergistically combining device physics, materials science, chemistry, electrical engineering and sustainability.

The research topics ranged from fundamental concepts to applied projects, such as studying the failure modes of electrically conductive adhesives in solar modules, characterizing the optics and carrier transport characteristics for tandem interlayers, quantifying a contact resistance measurement method, evaluating the properties of sprayed silicon dioxide layers and testing a method to better trap light in solar cells to boost their efficiencies.

“All of the projects students are working on have a direct path to lowering the so-called levelized cost of electricity, usually by increasing module efficiency, replacing expensive materials with more abundant counterparts or reducing the rate at which module power production degrades in the field,” said Holman. “Lower levelized cost of electricity means cheaper solar electricity for the world, which means more electricity from solar and less from gas and coal.”

Maisy Lam, an electrical engineering major at the University of Miami, participated in the REU program to take her learning beyond the classroom. She worked with graduate mentor Niranjana Mohan Kumar and Professor Richard King to determine the optimum interlayer materials and parameters to couple two existing types of solar cells — cadmium telluride and silicon — into a tandem device that has higher efficiency than either of its constituent cells.

“To produce a highly efficient tandem solar cell that generates power without resistive losses, we must explore the parameters that would yield an interlayer with the best properties to facilitate this,” said Lam, who wants to make energy consumption in Miami, Florida, more sustainable.

“Tandem solar cells offer the possibility of greater efficiency compared to single-junction cells and are on track to become competitive in their cost per watt,” she said. “Our project works toward facilitating greater solar power production from a more economically desired tandem cell system.”

This research experience exposed Lam to a whole realm of photovoltaics and material analysis. She learned how to set up and carry out specific procedures while honing her own laboratory, data compilation and analysis skills independently. Moreover, she learned about career networking, public presentation skills, community outreach and team building.

“This has been an incredible learning experience,” said Lam. “Working under the guidance of such a knowledgeable graduate student has been an amazing opportunity to learn concepts in a one-on-one setting where personal discussions and conversations about articles, data and research are possible.”

David Quispe, a double major in electrical engineering and math at Lamar University, participated in the 2017 QESST REU program. He was later awarded a 2018 David J. Beck Fellowship, which funded his journey back to ASU this summer.

Quispe has continued the research he began last summer on transparent conductive oxides, a type of semiconductor material used in silicon heterojunction solar cells, to help increase efficiency.

In June, he attended the 7th World Conference on Photovoltaic Energy Conversion in Waikoloa, Hawaii, to present a research poster about characterizing and optimizing the electrical and optical characteristics of indium zinc oxide, which is a type of transparent conductive oxide.

“I’m sincerely grateful to have been given the opportunity to experience research and develop my education and career,” said Quispe, who plans to pursue a doctoral degree in materials science. “The REU and fellowship experience have definitely helped me prepare for graduate school.”

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 to some of the world’s most vexing challenges.

Students in CBBG

Colleen Adams
Forensic science, biology and environmental science
University of New Haven 

Leslie Bautista
Civil engineering
Glendale Community College 

Ibrahim Ibrahim
Phoenix College 

Lydia Kelley
Civil engineering
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 

RJ Mabry
Phoenix College 

Jeremy Nez
Civil engineering
Scottsdale Community College

Students in NEWT

Janice Baab
Chemical engineering
Glendale Community College

Dianne Carrillo
Chemical engineering
Glendale Community College

Carlos Ortiz Beltranena
Industrial engineering
Scottsdale Community College

Students in QESST    

Juan Asencio
Mechanical engineering
The Inter-American University of Puerto Rico Bayamón Campus

Bryce Baker
Humboldt State University

Cyndee Christian
Chemical engineering
Hampton University

Mateo Estrada
Oregon State University

Jewel Haik
Moravian College

Richelle Javier
Cochise College

Hazam Kahoui
Electrical engineering
Old Dominion University

Maisy Lam
Electrical engineering
University of Miami

Nicole Lanham
Electrical engineering
Old Dominion University

David Quispe
Electrical engineering and mathematics
Lamar University

George Spruille
Mechanical engineering
Alabama A & M

Nicholas Tolbert
Electrical engineering
Cleveland State University

Xingzi (Scout) Zhou
University of California Berkeley

Students in SenSIP                  

Nina Clarke-Telfer 
Electrical engineering
Arizona State University

Enhong Deng
Electrical engineering
Arizona State University       

William Ross Kendall
Electrical engineering
Arizona State University                   

Jennifer Lopez          
Computer engineering
Brown University                  

Rebecca Clare Martin          
Computer systems engineering
Arizona State University                   

Divya Mohan
Electrical Engineering and computer science
University of California Berkeley   

Jorge Alfredo Oveido           
Software engineering
Cochise College / Arizona State University                

Zachary Emmet Rudebeck  
Chemical engineering
Arizona State University                   

Jacquelyn Quinn Schmidt  
Engineering and physics       
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

About The Author

Fulton Schools

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