The CBEE student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) sent a delegation of 19 students to the 2018 AIChE Pacific Northwest Student Regional Conference, held April 13 and 14 at Montana State University, in Bozeman.
Traveling by car made for a long weekend, with the students spending about 27 hours at the conference and an equivalent amount of time driving there and back. Nevertheless, the Oregon State contingent was by far the largest group among the schools in attendance, said faculty advisor Skip Rochefort, who accompanied the student group.
“Everyone was great and represented OSU admirably,” Rochefort said. “Our student chapter co-presidents Stephanie Wright, Lauren Tetzloff, and Zia Klocke deserve special thanks for organizing all of the logistics. We would also like to thank the School of CBEE and the College of Engineering for their continued financial support of the CBEE Student Club, which enabled us to send such a formidable group to the conference.”
Bioengineering student Jonathan Su took first place in the poster competition, and pre-bioengineering student Mikayla Heston received an honorable mention.
The CBEE ChemE Car team scored a second-place finish, earning the team its second consecutive trip to the national ChemE Car Competition, to be held in in November in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The team was led by co-captains Gillian Williams and Parker Busch. Additional team members were Grant Kresge, Lauren Lippman, and Logan Slayter. Trevor Carlisle is the team’s faculty mentor.
Joseph Danko (M.S. ChemE, 1985) has more than 30 years of experience in consulting, engineering, design, construction management, and operations. He is currently the managing director of city solutions for CH2M (now Jacobs). In this role, he leads development and implementation of projects and programs in resilience, urban development, smart cities, and mobility for cities and communities around the world. In 2007, he was inducted into the Oregon State University College of Engineering’s Academy of Distinguished Engineers.
Question: What are you most proud of in your career as an engineer?
Answer: Making the world a better place through the projects and programs that I have been able to participate in (hazardous waste cleanup, industrial wastewater treatment systems, major site regeneration projects, and large events like Qatar World 2022 World Cup where we developed breakthrough worker welfare standards). Leading the integration of sustainability in planning, engineering and constructing projects.
Q: What do you love best about what you do?
A: Working on projects that make people’s lives better: “Engineering and Meaningfulness.” Trying to integrate social values into all of our infrastructure projects. For example, workforce development to employ the currently underemployed, or unemployed, community members in the communities where we are implementing projects and programs.
Q: What do you most look forward to?
A: From a professional perspective, continuing to develop and implement projects focused on equity, sustainability, and resiliency. We are now integrating real-time data analysis and the IoT with our water and transportation infrastructure to improve safety, reduce non-revenue water losses, break the digital divide, reduce congestion, and increase workforce development. There is no limit to the potential positive impacts engineers can have on improving the environment and enhancing the lives of all people.
Q: Looking back on your time here at Oregon State, what did you do here that has best served you in your professional life?
A: The combined chemical engineering and environmental engineering M.S. degree was a game-changer. It provided such a strong foundation/platform for the engineering work at CH2M Hill. I also connected with colleagues from CH2M Hill during my graduate program. The networking was a key door-opener for me.
Q: What is the best advice you could give to a student just starting out with an engineering degree from Oregon State?
A: Enjoy every phase of your career. It is critical in the early years to immerse yourself in “Technical Implementation in the Real World.” Embrace learning how to plan, design, build, and operate systems. This will provide the foundation for you to become a future technical leader, project manager or business manager.
Cory Simon, assistant professor of chemical engineering, says his approach to teaching is informed by his belief that even the simplest of things can be interesting once you understand them.
“I would much rather think about rubber bands than watch sports,” Simon said.“Richard Feynman described rubber as molecular spaghetti. With this molecular picture, you can show through statistical thermodynamics why the tension increases when you heat a rubber band. It’s fascinating.”
Like Feynman, the Nobel physicist and consummate professor, Simon is possessed with a vibrant curiosity. Simon says he hopes to instill that same enthusiasm and excitement in his students.
“I want to convey that, in contrast to stereotypes, engineering isn’t a dry or boring subject.” he said.“In addition to intellectual entertainment, chemical engineering isan incredibly useful way of thinking that can be used to dramatically improve human welfare.”
Simon is particularly interested in how mathematical abstractions at molecular scales can reveal insights into the behavior of materials. His doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, involved mathematical and computational modeling of metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, a novel class ofsolid materials with some very useful properties.
MOFs combine metal ions or clusters with organic linking molecules to form thin-walled molecular lattices with nano-sized pores. Their structure creates a huge surface area enfolded into a tiny volume, enabling MOFs to adsorb large quantities of gas. This property lends MOFs applications for gas storage and separations. Simon has studied MOFs for their ability to store natural gas onboard vehicles for fuel and capture radioactive gases from used nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities.
“An especially exciting feature of MOFs is their modular chemistry,” Simon said.“As designer materials, we can judiciously change the molecular building blocks to synthesize a predetermined MOF structure and target a specific gas molecule. There are millions of different possibilities.” In his research, Simon employs molecular models and simulations to sift through the many possible MOFs and predict which are best for adsorbing different gases.
MOFs get even more interesting when you throw dynamic parts, such as rotating ligands and flexible lattices, into the mix. Part of Simon’s work is in developing simplified models to describe the statistical thermodynamics of how these flexible and dynamic parts interact with gas molecules.
His enthusiasm for MOFs notwithstanding, Simon’s expertise and skills as a theoretician have broad applicability throughout the field of chemical engineering. So he doesn’t feel bound by any particular area of inquiry as he develops his own research program at Oregon State, at least not at this stage in his career.
“I’ve spent stints working in polymers, mathematical biology, computational neuroscience, materials science, and genomics,” Simon said.“I even spent a term working as a data scientist at Stitch Fix, a clothing company in San Francisco. As long as mathematics and computer programming are involved, I’m happy.”
His current projects provide a glimpse into the eclectic nature of his interests.
First, he’s working on a physics-based model to explain the formation and persistence of fairy circles, the mysterious, round patches of barren earth sprinkled throughout the grasslands of Australia and Africa. The circles form a regular pattern, and they shrink and expand depending on how much it rains. Various causes have been suggested for their appearance, including termites and plant toxins. But the problem is still shrouded in uncertainty.
Second, he’s working in collaboration with the Altius Institute of Biomedical Sciences, where he was a fellow in 2017, on developing machine-learning models to make sense of high-throughput genomic assays.
“With such models, we can extract biological insights from large and noisy genomics data sets,” Simon said.“A fundamental understanding of gene regulation will lead to cures for developmental disorders, treatments for cancer, and increases in longevity.”
With such a diverse assortment of intellectual appetites, Simon says he has to be careful to pace himself. He offers the following quote from Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR pioneer and professor of chemistry at Berkeley, describing two different types of scientist:
“One is the type who dives very deeply into one topic for their whole career and they know it better than anybody else in the world. Then there’s the other… where it’s like you’re at a buffet table and you see an interesting thing here and do it for a while, and that connects you to another interesting thing and you take a bit of that.”
In that context, Simon says, he sees himself at a buffet.
Elain Fu says her passion for research is fueled by a desire to create devices that can have a real impact on global health care delivery.
“I’m very motivated by applications,” said Fu, assistant professor of bioengineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University. “I love to do quantitative science, and to design devices. But the main satisfaction I get from my work is that it’s driven by biomedically relevant problems.”
With a background in physics and bioengineering and expertise in building microfluidic sensors, Fu’s current research focus is on creating inexpensive, paper-based tools for diagnosing and monitoring a variety of different health conditions. Such devices are a natural fit for what are known as “low-resource environments” – rural communities in the developing world, battlefields, and other remote locations where medical facilities and personnel aren’t always available. But the devices have the potential for a variety of applications in a wide range of environments.
“The area where I have the most experience is human disease diagnosis,” Fu said. “But there are a lot of different application domains – such as veterinary medicine, environmental monitoring, and military situations – where you might need a sensor that you can use in a setting that doesn’t have trained operators, laboratory facilities, or even electricity. By building the capability of these devices within a more general platform, the hope is that the devices will be useful for many different applications.”
One popular format for a paper-based microfluidic device is the lateral-flow test, its best-known implementation being the home pregnancy test that has been in use for decades. This type of device uses capillary action to move a liquid sample through a strip of porous medium, where it can react with certain chemicals, fixed into designated zones along the strip, to display a visible result.
“The format has many strengths for low-resource settings, so it is used around the world for diagnosing infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever,” Fu said. “The problem is that this type of test is not always sensitive enough or precise enough for a given application. So a lot of work is being done in the paper microfluidics community to take the best aspects of the lateral-flow test and make even better tests.”
What constitutes a “better” test varies, depending on the application. For example, in diagnosing malaria, a better test translates to a test with a lower limit of detection. So engineers can manipulate the fluids on the device, or the signaling molecules within them, to create a higher signal-to-noise ratio and improve performance.
Fu’s previous projects have included tests to detect influenza and malaria. One of her current projects, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Washington, aims to develop an early-detection HIV diagnostic for infants. Testing for HIV in newborns presents special challenges, Fu says, because maternal antibodies inherited in the womb can create interference.
“Those maternal antibodies are good for the infant whose immune system is still developing,” Fu said. “But they can create false positives. The test we’re developing has to have an extra component on the front end to pull out the maternal antibodies, so we have to do a little more work. We’re also pushing for higher sensitivity, because with a lower detection limit, you can hopefully diagnose and begin treatment earlier.”
Another application where paper-based microfluidics shows great promise is in-home monitoring of chronic health conditions. One example is phenylketonuria, or PKU, a genetic disorder in which the body is not able to properly metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine.
“The idea is that people with PKU need to monitor their phenylalanine levels just like people with diabetes need to monitor their glucose levels,” Fu said. “But in the absence of any sort of easy test, they have to go to a clinic to get their blood drawn. Then maybe a week or two later, they get the results. That’s informative on some level, but it doesn’t provide the real-time feedback patients need to effectively change their therapy.”
So, a few years back, Fu embarked on a project to develop a test for phenylalanine monitoring in the home. With support from the National PKU Alliance, she and her students created a working prototype that performed well under lab conditions. But it’s a much higher bar to build something that can perform robustly in somebody’s home, with the patient operating it. Last September, the National Institutes of Health awarded funding to Fu and collaborators at the University of Pittsburgh and Oasis Diagnostics to try to move that device to the next level.
“What we’re trying to do is create a device for people with PKU, so they can take a drop of blood from a finger prick, put it in the device, and then within 10 minutes get their phenylalanine level.” Fu said. “This is where it gets exciting for me, moving from something where you can demonstrate that it works in the lab, to something that people can actually use in their own home.”
The drive to create a home-based phenylalanine test is just one example of a growing trend toward more personalized health care. Fu says this trend has the potential to empower individuals with a variety of different conditions, by providing them with tools for home-based testing and monitoring.
“Technology is moving out of centralized labs and hospitals and becoming more accessible to people for use at the point of care,” Fu said. “This trend can enable the practice of precision health in which differences between individuals can be taken into account in their healthcare. Having one number that you’ve averaged over the population to say what’s normal or not normal – that’s not really meaningful. But if patients could simply test themselves at appropriate times at home or wherever they happen to be, they would be able to map out exactly what is and is not normal for them.”
Fu says she’d ultimately like to see her devices progress far enough to where she can transfer her technology to an industry partner to produce the technology for use by the people who need it.
“What’s meaningful to me, and what drives my research, is the potential for helping people,” she said.
Created at the initiative of chemical engineering alumnus Peter Johnson ’55 and his wife, Rosalie, the program was endowed with a $2.4 million gift in 2008. Each spring, about 25 qualified first-year students are matched with research labs on campus, or with one of Oregon State’s academic partners.
In addition to a good, paid summer job and valuable training on laboratory equipment, Johnson Interns gain confidence and new perspectives from their research experience.
The Johnson program is special, says Professor Skip Rochefort, who administers the program, because there are very few comparable, intensive research opportunities available for students with only one year of schooling under their belts. The experience that Johnson Interns acquire in their first summer can be instrumental in assuring their future success.
“Our students compete nationally for internships and undergraduate research experience programs,” said Rochefort. “To be competitive for these positions, they need to have demonstrated mastery of skills not widely taught or practiced at other schools. This is what the Johnson Internship provides them in the summer following their first year.”
Bleeding for science
Nicole Laschober, a bioengineering junior, has spent the past two summers working at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in the lab of Owen McCarty, examining the clotting mechanisms at work in blood platelets. From the beginning, she says, it was a hands-on learning experience.
“I was in the lab every day, working with fresh blood,” she said. “Going in, I didn’t realize at all what the job was going to be like. So in retrospect, I guess it’s a good thing I’m not squeamish. The blood I worked with was often my own, so I got to learn a lot about my own platelet count.”
Laschober says her platelet count wasn’t the only thing she learned about herself during her time at OHSU.
“I also figured out that I really enjoy doing research,” she said. “And I like being at a lab bench. That has helped me to focus. I’m thinking I might want to go to graduate school, and I’m looking around at different labs.”
The work Laschober was involved in during her first summer led to publication in a peer-reviewed journal, where she was the third-listed author. And last fall, she presented a research poster at the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society in Phoenix, Arizona.
Kendra Jones, a bioengineering sophomore, joined Laschober last summer in McCarty’s lab, where she worked on a research project examining the unique properties of platelets in newborn babies. And, just like her fellow student, Jones had the opportunity to shed a little blood for her research. But for her, that wasn’t the scary part, she says.
“I was very nervous going in, just because it was OHSU, and it’s kind of a big deal,” she said. “But there’s really no reason to be nervous. You just need to slow down, and know that you know things. I think my biggest problem was that I was just a first-year student and I felt like I didn’t have enough background in engineering or biology. But you learn on the spot.”
Jones says the experience was a transformative moment in her educational career.
“Looking back, I gained so much confidence in myself,” she said. “I can see how my education lines up with a future career. It was hard to see that before.”
Getting a close-up view of the field
Joe Hebert, now a sophomore in chemical engineering, spent his summer on campus in the lab of Professor Greg Herman. There, he worked alongside another intern, using atomic force microscopy to examine the orientation of a certain type of chemical structure, called beta-Keggin clusters, on a graphite surface. The research has implications for the development of new materials for microprocessors.
Hebert says he had looked at a few scientific papers detailing the standard operating procedures for the instrument, but even just assimilating the required technical vocabulary presented a big challenge up front.
“It was very intimidating — until that first day,” Hebert said. “My partner and I were immediately introduced to the graduate students who took us under their wing. They showed us how to use the equipment and what to watch out for.”
Hebert says he had always envisioned himself focusing on the pharmaceutical side of chemical engineering because of his personal interests and family background. However, his experience with the Johnson program has expanded his horizons.
“It kind of opened my eyes to how broad chemical engineering can be,” he said. “There are so many other fields that are extremely interesting. The doors are wide open.”
Bioengineering with beads
Kelly Hollenbeck, also a sophomore in chemical engineering, worked with bioengineering Assistant Professor Kate Schilke on a project to engineer tiny beads made of bionanoparticles. These beads are coated with various proteins that give rise to different surface properties, making them useful in a host of potential bioengineering and biomedical applications.
The beads Hollenbeck worked with are grown in a type of cell that typically is fed with glucose. Hollenbeck’s project involved growing the cells on an alternative substrate, 1-4, butanediol. Growing the beads was a long process that involved learning a lot of different microbiology techniques, including the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Getting time on that equipment is a rare experience for an undergraduate, Hollenbeck said, let alone a first-year student.
“I got so many things out of the experience,” Hollenbeck said. “I learned how to work in a lab environment, individually, with peers, and in groups. I learned how to present my findings, both written and orally. That was a big part of our group, actually. We really had to communicate a lot, because there were so many projects going on at once.”
Hollenbeck says the knowledge she gained over the summer helped to consolidate what she had learned in class during her first year. But more than that, she says, she felt the work she was doing had value beyond what it could do for her.
“I could definitely see how the stuff I was learning in the classroom applied to real-world applications,” she said. “But knowing that I was working on something that was real, and that has the potential to help people — that was a really a cool experience.”
Career Expo week brings many companies to campus to recruit students for internships and entry-level positions, but smaller events held around campus at this time allow students and industry representatives to connect on a more personal basis. On Feb. 20, the evening before the Career Expo, more than 100 students, 15 industry representatives (including many Oregon State alumni), and CBEE faculty participated in the third annual 2018 CBEE Winter Career Reception at the Memorial Union.
Students attended their choice of three “Career Insights” informational sessions, hosted by industry partners Cascade Pacific Pulp, E. & J. Gallo Winery, Enzymatic Deinking Technologies, Lonza’s Bend Research HQ, Micron Technology, and SLR International. Also participating was Oregon State’s Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and the Arts office, providing information to students about getting started in undergraduate research on campus. This format provides a recruiting and marketing opportunity to companies, while helping students appreciate the myriad career opportunities and diverse industries available to them as new engineers.
A catered networking reception followed the presentations, giving the students, mostly juniors and seniors, more opportunities to connect with industry visitors, also including new CBEE Industry Advisory Board member and Oregon State alumnus Kyle Gee from ThermoFisher Scientific.
The CBEE Club, Oregon State’s AIChE Student Chapter, is instrumental in putting on this event, with the support of the participating companies and the CBEE Corporate Relations office. The work of the CBEE Club’s industry liaison officer, along with CBEE Club member volunteers and corporate event sponsorship, make the event possible.
CBEE-Industry connections are a two-way street that can enhance CBEE academic programs and also help meet industry needs related not only to staffing, but also technology and marketing. We welcome industry involvement with our program. Upcoming opportunities to connect with CBEE students include the May 18 Engineering Undergraduate Expo, which showcases our senior student projects. The next Career Reception will be held in the fall term, on Oct. 16.
Energy storage, clean water, and cryopreservation were the subjects of research posters selected as award recipients from the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering at the College of Engineering’s 2018 Graduate Research Showcase held Feb. 8.
A panel of the school’s faculty members selected the top three posters out of a field of more than 30 presentations representing a diverse cross-section of research interests from each of the school’s three main disciplines.
In addition to the recognition of their mentors and peers, winning presenters were invited to attend the 2018 Oregon Stater Awards ceremony on Feb. 22 in Portland, where they had the opportunity to present their research to the College of Engineering’s industry partners and distinguished alumni.
Improving batteries for a clean-energy future
Lynza Sprowl, a fifth-year chemical engineering student in the lab of Líney Árnadóttir, took top honors for her poster discussing how charge state impacts battery life in lithium-ion cells. Sprowl says improving upon this technology will be essential to making a global transition to clean and renewable energy.
“A lot of people are looking at solar panels and wind turbines, and there have been a lot of successes there,” Sprowl said. “But battery technology is the bottleneck. We need better energy storage to supply power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.”
When a lithium-ion battery is being charged, energized electrons at the surface of the anode cause the battery’s electrolyte to break down, consuming lithium ions and creating a chemical barrier that slows lithium ion diffusion to the anode.
“When lithium ions can’t reach the anode, you can’t charge the battery fully,” she said. “As the barrier gets thicker, fewer lithium ions remain and the lithium ion diffusion gets slower, until it reaches a point where it stops. At this point the battery lifetime is up.”
Sprowl uses mathematical modeling, specifically something called density functional theory (DFT), to look at the fundamental interactions of how electrolyte breaks down under different conditions.
“With computational studies, you can break down different electrolyte additives, see what products they make, and figure out how those additives match up experimentally with what you think is going to give the best results.”
One of Sprowl’s findings is that it is two times more favorable for the electrolyte to break down when the battery is at a high charge state. And this has immediate, practical implications that anyone can use.
“Basically, if you leave your phone plugged in overnight and it’s at 100 percent charge state for several hours, you’re shortening your battery life,” she said. “So, once it hits 100, take it off the charger.”
Using bacteria to clean up toxic waste
Riley Murnane, a second-year environmental engineering master’s student working in the lab of Lewis Semprini, took second place for his poster discussing substrate selection for a type of microorganism that shows promise in cleaning up toxic waste spills.
Rhodococcus rhodochrous is a species of soil bacteria that produces enzymes capable of degrading dioxane, a persistent groundwater contaminant, through a process called aerobic co-metabolism.
“The co-metabolism requires a certain substrate to be present,” Murnane said. “And I’m looking at which food-grade, economically viable, and readily available substrates work best in our context for this specific microbe’s enzyme.”
Murnane’s research focuses on a group of aromatic, sweet-smelling compounds called esters as potential substrates.
“The ones we’re looking at are all FDA-approved as food additives,” Murnane said. “For example, we’re working with things like sec-butyl acetate and benzyl acetate, which are used in fruit flavorings because they smell like banana or green apple.”
These esters hydrolyze, or degrade in water, over time to form an alcohol and an organic acid. It’s these end products that are taken up by the microbes, which in turn produce the enzyme that enables co-metabolism to happen.
“The idea is to encapsulate the microorganisms and their food supply into little gel beads that can be pumped into the upper sandy layer of the aquifer to work over time,” Murnane said. “We want the ester to hydrolyze slowly to the substrate that the bugs will use, so that they will continue to metabolize pollutants as they diffuse from the denser, clay layer. So the half-lives of the materials we’re looking at range from 100 to 3,000 days.”
Advancing cryopreservation to the next level
Ross Warner, a third-year chemical engineering Ph.D. student working in the lab of Adam Higgins, was awarded third place for his poster concerning a cryopreservation project.
Cryopreservation involves introducing chemicals such as ethylene glycol, better known as antifreeze, into biological specimens to suppress the formation of ice crystals so they can be preserved at very low temperatures.
“Dr. Higgins has done a lot of work at the single-cell level,” Warner said. “We’re at the point now of taking that knowledge gained and trying to advance to the next level of biological complexity. So a lot of my work has been on the theoretical modeling of tissues and organs.”
A major problem with exposing cells to ethylene glycol is toxicity. This problem is accentuated in larger specimens, such as whole organs, Warner says, because their larger volume requires greater cooling time and exposure to higher concentrations of antifreeze.
“If we can model the transport of this given antifreeze into and out of the cell, we can get a grasp of the toxicity it’s imparting,” Warner said. “Through mathematical modeling, we can calculate a given percentage of cell death at different concentrations, temperatures, time of exposure, and so on, and compare that to acceptable tolerances. If we can obtain a model that predicts concentration as a function of space and time we can predict toxicity as a function of space and time.”
Mathematical modeling enables researchers to home in on the type of experiments needed, Warner says, conserving time and resources and accelerating the pace of progress in the field. The research has big implications in the long-term preservation of tissues and organs, which could revolutionize transplant surgery.
“The lifespan of donor organs outside of the body is typically measured in hours,” Warner said. “What if we could extend that to days or weeks? Right now we have a pretty good grasp of blood banks, but what if there were organ banks? We could potentially save a lot of lives.”
Eric MacKender, a 2000 graduate in chemical engineering, was honored at the 2018 Oregon Stater Awards, held Feb. 22 in Portland, where he joined the Council of Early Career Engineers.
MacKender says it was thanks to prompting from his high school chemistry teacher that he became interested in chemical engineering, and he selected Oregon State after being awarded a scholarship and admission to the Honors College.
When it came time to write the thank you letter for the scholarship, he was surprised to learn that there wasn’t anyone to thank. The scholarship was a generous endowment created from the estate of a woman who valued education.
“I always remembered that,” MacKender said, “and I started giving back to Oregon State after graduation. It wasn’t much at first, but slowly it increased over time.”
MacKender, an Honors College graduate, says the program influenced him a great deal.
“The honors program opened my eyes to more than just engineering,” he said, “and I really benefited from the colloquial courses, seeing the passion of my professors, and from the opportunities to learn about many different topics.”
Chevron recruited MacKender directly out of school for its specialty chemical business, and he has worked there for 18 years. In that time, he’s had an opportunity to work in many different parts of the business and see how they are all connected.
“It’s been fun commercializing new chemistry and bringing new products to market,” he said.
The Chevron Oronite plant produces quality additives that improve the performance of fuels and lubricants. As technical manager, MacKender oversees all the engineering functions and the quality control laboratory. MacKender enjoys helping others to thrive.
“I’ve had a chance to lead a lot of great people, mentor them, watch them grow, and help them get promoted to bigger and broader roles. My wife and I both value the importance of education, and we donate our time and money to help others in this way,” he said.
MacKender serves on the Board of Regents, the development advisory group for the Honors College at Oregon State.
Colette Gaona, a 2008 graduate in chemical engineering, was honored at the 2018 Oregon Stater Awards, held Feb. 22 in Portland, where she joined the Council of Early Career Engineers.
Knowing the actual chemistry behind environmental contamination issues is what sets Gaona apart from her colleagues. She is one of just three chemical engineering professionals on Landau Associates’ staff of 92 employees.
“I often get calls when a more technical explanation is needed concerning chemical contaminants,” she said.
In her 9 1/2-year career with Landau Associates, Gaona has conducted a number of field studies that include finding and tracing the pathways of pollutants, evaluating analytical data, preparing technical reports, and developing cleanup recommendations for aerospace, industrial, and public sector facilities.
“I enjoy playing the role of detective in helping our clients solve problems,” she said.
Gaona is now taking it to the next level. Landau Associates is an employee-owned company, and she ran for a seat on the firm’s board of directors in 2016. Now in her second year on the board, she serves as corporate secretary.
“It’s been a great opportunity to learn about the company and the business of my profession from a different perspective,” she said.
Gaona also has stepped into a leadership role in the firm’s Portland office, overseeing larger projects and staff. And she’s accomplished all this while embarking on parenthood — her second child is due in April.
“It’s worked out well,” she said, “I’m learning how to balance and excel in new areas while becoming a mom.”
For students entering the profession, especially women, she offers this advice:
“You don’t have to take the traditional route, but women must have passion if they want to advance in this industry. Excellent mentors and internships provided by the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering prepared me for real-life work. If you don’t take internships, it’s tough to get your foot in the door. Wisdom, education, tenacity, and a little experience help you get noticed.”
Col. (Dr.) Sarady Tan joined the Academy of Distinguished Engineers at the 2018 Oregon Stater Awards ceremony, held Feb. 22 in Portland.
Tan earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering at Oregon State University, in 1988 and 1990, before earning his medical degree from Oregon Health and Science University in 1993.
Today he is director of the National Center for Medical Intelligence within the Defense Intelligence Agency, headquartered in Washington, D.C. He leads a diverse team of military, civilian, and international partners who monitor the medical risk intelligence of foreign adversaries to help the president and national policymakers make informed security decisions.
His impressive 22-year career as a physician and commander in the U.S. Air Force includes eight deployments: to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar. “As an operational flight surgeon, my responsibility has always been to prepare — physically and mentally — the folks who are going to fight on the front lines and make sure they’re fit to go,” Tan said.
Tan came to the United States from Cambodia as a refugee with his family in 1975 during the U.S. withdrawal from the Vietnam War. He was just 9 years old. In high school, he watched documentaries about the challenges faced by refugees and wanted to do something to serve the underprivileged.
Before Tan started graduate school at Oregon State, his parents gave him a plane ticket to Thailand so he could visit a refugee camp.
“I saw a lot of doctors working there,” Tan said. “When I experienced Doctors Without Borders, I knew I wanted to be a physician.”
Tan also knew he wanted to serve in the U.S. military. His father was formerly in the Cambodian Royal Air Force.
“I wanted to at least serve my adopted country as a way to repay for the second chance in life and opportunities I’d been given living here,” Tan said.
Tan is passionate about educating others about the necessity of giving back to our country.
“It’s about doing something you enjoy,” Tan said. “For me, medicine and serving our country are intricately related. You can say that I am living the American dream.”
In the near future, you might be able to charge your smartphone using solar panels printed directly onto your T-shirt, says Oregon State chemical engineering professor Chih-hung Chang.
Perhaps that same shirt will contain sensors that take your temperature or monitor your health by sampling your sweat. Or maybe the fabric will change color to alert you to environmental threats.
“I love coming up with new ideas,” Chang said. “It’s always exciting to try new things.”
Chang is optimistic about the potential for “smart textile” applications like these. An expert in printable electronics, Chang is currently working on a project supported by the Walmart Manufacturing Innovation Foundation that aims to print functional electronic devices directly onto fabrics.
“Right now we’re at the stage where we want to be able to fabricate components onto the fabric, including transistors or solar cells,” Chang said.
The way printable electronics are fabricated is similar to inkjet printing, Chang says. A silicon microfluidic chip dispenses microscopic droplets of different inks with a very high degree of accuracy. Only with this printer, instead of different colored pigment inks, molecular and nanoparticle “inks” function as conductors, semiconductors, and insulators.
“We are working to develop the inks that will be used to print electronics using print-additive techniques,” Chang said. “And we’re looking at energy-efficient curing processes, like microwaves, to make smart textiles.”
Printable electronics are just part of what Chang spends his days on. The majority of Chang’s work, largely funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on using microchemical reactors in the creation of nanomaterials, nanostructures, and thin films.
“We use microreactors as a tool for manufacturing and also for fundamental study,” Chang said. “In the reactor, we generate all sorts of reactive species, including nanoparticles. We send these to a surface, and then they reorganize themselves on the surface to create nanostructured thin films.”
These thin films are used in a variety of applications, including photovoltaic cells, heat-transfer surfaces for electronic devices, and a variety of chemical sensors.
Some of Chang’s recent projects, supported by the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, have potential applications in carbon sequestration. Chang’s work focused on using organic/inorganic hybrid nanomaterials to capture carbon dioxide, and also using nanomaterials to enhance near-infrared signals for monitoring carbon dioxide.
Chang’s own spinoff company, CSD Nano, developed a process to retrofit solar cells with a nanostructured coating that increases the output from existing solar farms. Chang founded the company in 2007. He currently advises the firm, sits on its board, and serves as its chief science officer.
Another Oregon company, Abom, turned to Chang to help develop its next-generation patented self-defogging ski goggles. Supported by ONAMI, Chang worked with his collaborator, Dr. Rajiv Malhotra, to develop innovative processes used in the defogging technology as well as a proprietary lens coating material.
Developing sustainable processes, by reducing energy consumption and achieving higher material utilization, is a guiding principle in Chang’s work. One major emphasis is developing a scalable manufacturing process for nanomaterials.
“The hope is that by making these processes more efficient, devices will be more cost-effective so they can be commercialized,” Chang said. “We want to get them into the market.”
Chang says he derives great personal satisfaction from his work, and working with students is one of the job’s major perks.
“It keeps your mind fresh, as you get older,” he says. “I think it’s very gratifying to see a student get excited about a project. Once they are motivated, they just do it themselves. In the research area, that’s the part that I like the most. To come up with new ideas and try them out in the lab and working with students.”
When he was himself a student, Chang says he was first drawn to study art, but he ultimately decided on chemical engineering. However, he doesn’t see the two as being mutually exclusive.
“I feel like I still get to do art,” he says. “Lots of people are using smart textiles for artistic expression in T-shirts. For example, you can have lighting or other interesting effects — for fashion, not necessarily for function. As engineers, of course, we care a lot more about function.”
Chang recently found creative inspiration in a collaboration with Sara Robinson, professor of wood science and engineering in College of Forestry. Their project, another Walmart-funded venture, aims to turn biopigments from fungi that grow on wood into printable inks for textiles.
“I actually bought a T-shirt printer, just to play around with,” Chang said. “My idea is that once I have the ink, I can design T-shirts and print them myself.”
For students in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, the senior project represents the crowning achievement of years of determination, work, and study. It also provides those who are about to graduate an opportunity to demonstrate to their mentors, peers, and community just how much they’ve learned.
These projects — undertaken with the supervision of either a faculty mentor or one of the school’s industry partners — require students to tackle real-world challenges using their hard-earned engineering skills and creative problem-solving abilities.
Administered by Philip Harding, Linus Pauling Engineer, the CBEE senior projects are formulated in the fall and assigned in late January. Work begins in mid-February. A listing of this year’s senior projects is now online. (Check back throughout the spring term for links to the teams’ most recent presentations, along with projects from previous years.)
Each year, the Expo offers an amazing breadth of engineering talent and ingenuity, featuring projects by seniors throughout the College of Engineering. The 2018 event will take place on Friday, May 18, in the Kelley Engineering Center, Johnson Hall and Community Plaza.
Zachery Knudsen jokes that he worked in just about every job you can have without going to college before he decided to pursue chemical engineering at Oregon State.
Never afraid of hard work, the 25-year-old junior from Las Vegas tried his hand at all kinds of jobs in construction, as a mechanic, even working in restaurants. But he had yet to find a job he wanted to make a career out of.
Last summer, Zach went to Longview, Washington, to work as an engineering intern at KapStone Paper and Packaging’s huge mill there. From the beginning, he says, his experience there confirmed that he had made the right career choice.
“During the first week, I shadowed one of the full-time engineers,” he said. “One of the dryers wasn’t working properly, and nobody could figure out why. This guy went out there, checked things out, got into the controls, changed a few things — and it started working again. I thought to myself: ‘This is exactly why I got into engineering, to solve problems.’”
In any production environment, there are always problems to be solved. KapStone’s Longview mill is huge, with a footprint of more than 100 acres and a capacity of 1.45 million tons per year. It’s also an older facility, operating on the same site since 1927. The problem Zach worked on isn’t very small or very new either: His work was part of the preparations for an overhaul to the mill’s white water system, a significant plant upgrade that the company has been planning for years.
On its way to becoming paper, wood pulp is laid out on wire supports that convey it through the mill. The pulp is sprayed with water from showers to keep it manageable and to help the fibers align properly. The wire itself is also sprayed to keep it clean and free of pulp residue. The used shower water, now an opaque waste product called “white water,” drips into a catch basin beneath the wire to be recycled.
Problems arise when pulp fibers suspended in recycled white water become trapped in shower nozzles, clogging them. This results in increased downtime for maintenance and, consequently, reduced production. Unchecked, it can lead to equipment failure and product losses. All of these are unrecoverable costs to the company. Zach’s work focused on two of the five machines running at the mill.
“I worked on understanding how all the water was fed, where the water was going, basically doing a big mass balance/energy balance around the whole machine,” Zach said. “They use WinGems modeling software, pretty much the standard in the pulp and paper industry. They had already built a model of what the white water system looked like. I just made improvements to it, like determining more precisely how much water was really in the system, determining the locations of all of the pumps, and just trying to get the numbers as close as possible to where the machines really are.”
Once that work was done, the team performed an economic analysis and determined that a whitewater filtration project could save the company about $800,000 per year, with a return on investment of 130-150 percent.
Zach says his summer experience gave him an opportunity to put some of his classroom learning to use in the real world.
“I used a lot of the ideas I learned in mass balances and energy balances, process dynamics, and problem solving in general. Eventually, I’ll take process controls, and I got a lot of hands-on exposure to that while I was there, too.”
Spending the summer at KapStone confirmed a few things for Zach. He says he now knows for certain that he wants to be in industry, that he wants to stay on the West Coast, and that he picked the right major.
“I saw what the full-time engineers were doing, and that looked like something I want to be doing,” he said. “After working so many jobs, this reassured me that this is exactly what I want to do.”
Persistence and stubbornness are the two qualities that Anthony Pyka says drew him to study chemical engineering at Oregon State. They’re also the qualities that served him well last summer, when he was working as an intern with the Funai Corporation. It was an experience that he says was as rewarding as it was challenging.
Anthony worked under the direction of Dr. Manish Giri, an Oregon State alumnus and 2017 inductee in the Council of Outstanding Early Career Engineers. Their project involved building on Funai’s microfluidics technology to create an accurate and portable liquid handling platform.
The underlying technology — using a silicon microfluidic chip to dispense picoliter-scale quantities of liquids with a high degree of accuracy — is familiar to anyone who has seen an inkjet printer in operation. But this technology shows great promise for a wide variety of applications, not just in industrial and consumer printing, but also in biomedical pico-dispensing, and microfluidic modules for lab-on-chip and point-of-care devices as well.
Anthony’s part of the project involved integrating an image validation system. He was given a computer and a USB camera to work with. He chose MATLAB as the scripting language because of its convenient image-processing software packages.
“I thought I knew a lot of MATLAB after being an undergraduate teaching assistant for CBEE’s freshman coding class,” Anthony said. “I was completely wrong. This internship showed me how different components of MATLAB can come together to complete a goal.”
Anthony learned different logging techniques and organizing functions to complete image processing. He says these skills helped his understanding of matrixes and made him more familiar with scripting languages, both important to industry and his own education. As with any learning process, it wasn’t always fun.
“At first it was frustrating to see ‘ERROR’ pop up every time I tried to run a code,” Anthony said. “I would often leave work with my code not working, only to come back again the next day and try something different.”
Eventually, everything worked. After six weeks and 600 lines of code, Anthony had a working system that could scan a print job accurately and send processed data to an executable user interface, so users could examine photos and determine whether a sample was printed to proper specifications.
“In class I had to use MATLAB as a modeling program and as a calculator,” Anthony said. “It was exciting to use MATALB for a practical application. “Maybe now I can build and control something on my own!”
Zhenxing Feng’s research focuses on the chemical processes involved in energy storage and conversion. Specifically, he is interested in developing and improving devices — such as batteries and fuel cells — instrumental in effecting the world’s transition to clean, sustainable, and renewable energy.
An assistant professor in chemical engineering, Feng came to Oregon State in the fall of 2016 after spending three years as a researcher at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory. Feng says his science background enables him to have a solid grasp of chemistry at the atomic level, but he derives great satisfaction from applying this knowledge to real-world problems on a human scale.
“I started off studying physics, but I really wanted to see applications,” Feng said. “All the work I am doing has the potential to make changes in everyday life. For example, battery technology has become a hot topic lately because of electric cars. This is an area where small details can create a big impact.”
If you want to build a better battery, Feng says, you first need to understand how it works. A big part of Feng’s work focuses on fundamental studies for elaborating the processes at work in existing technologies to identify potential inefficiencies and areas for improvement.
“We try to do things rationally,” Feng says. “If we know, for example, that a cathode is the bottleneck for the development of next-generation battery, we will identify factors that can improve the cathode performance. The best way to diagnose the device is to ‘see’ what is going on inside it during its operation, which is called in situ operando studies.”
These studies often involve trips to national facilities, such as the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory and Advanced Light source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where high-flux and bright X-rays are generated to penetrate the working devices (e.g., battery and fuel cells) in a non-destructive way but provide atomic structure and chemical information of materials that researchers are interested in.
“It is like a doctor using a CT scan to examine a patient,” said Feng.
One of Feng’s projects is focused on the development of safe, high-energy-density, lithium-ion batteries with long cycle life for applications both in small electronic devices, such as laptop computers, and in electric cars.
The state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries in today’s electric cars can support a range of only around 100 miles, one-third the range of a typical gasoline-powered car. By using a lithium-conducting thin layer to coat the surface of the battery’s cathode, Feng has improved the energy density more than 30 percent, as the modified cathode can be operated at higher voltage. Furthermore, this improvement elongates the cycle life about two to three times longer than commercial lithium-ion batteries, due to the robust surface protection.
Feng’s research is also looking beyond lithium-ion technologies, including lithium-sulfur batteries, which offer eight times the storage density of current lithium-ion batteries, and solid-state batteries, which eliminate the need for liquid electrolytes and can work under extreme high or low temperatures.
“This could be useful if we want to go to Mars, for example,” Feng said. “However, these advanced technologies have problems in stability and cycle life that will need to be overcome before they can be considered a practical alternative”
In the area of energy conversion, Feng is examining the possibility of using low-cost metal oxides as catalysts in fuel cells to replace precious metals like platinum. A fuel cell is a clean-energy device that uses zero-pollution fuels, hydrogen and oxygen, to generate electricity. Their low efficiency is the key issue that prevents their wide commercialization, and a cost-effective catalyst could be their salvation. Feng is also interested in using catalysts to convert carbon dioxide into useful fuels, which is called the carbon-neutral process.
Feng’s work has received funding support from the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research and the Energy Frontier Research Center of the U.S. Department of Energy. He is the current Callahan Faculty Scholar in Chemical Engineering at Oregon State. In 2017, he was named a Scialog Fellow of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which recently awarded him a grant for his advanced energy storage research.
“Solving big problems, installing new systems, and developing new ideas are the reasons I chose to study chemical engineering,” says Madeleine Adams.
The CBEE junior spent last summer doing all of those things, working at the corporate headquarters of W.R. Grace in Columbia, Maryland. While there, she helped to implement a new in-house method to determine the crystalline content in homo-polypropylene. This thermoplastic resin is a key component in a wide variety of products —including Tupperware, laboratory equipment, furniture, and packaging materials.
The method Madeleine worked on replicates the method used by Grace’s Chinese clients. Madeleine worked with a team investigating the correlation between the Chinese method, also the international standard method, and the method provided by Grace, which is actually more widely used in industry.
First, Madeleine translated the procedure from Chinese to English. Then she set up the apparatus and got it running, developing a new standard operating procedure along the way. She conducted a job safety analysis, writing up emergency shutdown procedures and analyzing safety concerns with the procedure. She also gained experience working with other analytical techniques to characterize polymers, including carbon NMR and GPC.
“This summer internship has been amazing, because I had the opportunity to see how research works in an industrial setting,” Madeleine said. “I was also able to directly apply what I had just learned in my polymer science and engineering elective during spring term.”
Madeleine says she especially appreciated the collaborative nature of the work she did at Grace, noting the willingness of the team to answer any questions she might have and never passing up an opportunity to teach her something new.
“This internship has really shown me how fun it is to learn something in class and then see it in action in the real world,” she said.
Leaders in energy storage technology converged on the Oregon State University campus Nov. 5-6 for a symposium to discuss opportunities and challenges for next-generation, large-scale grid energy storage systems in the Pacific Northwest and nationwide.
The meeting, which drew more than 80 participants, served as a forum for industry representatives, utility companies, academic and government researchers, and policymakers to discuss energy storage and potential major applications in the region.
“This meeting exceeded our expectations,” said conference chair Zhenxing Feng, assistant professor of chemical engineering in OSU’s College of Engineering. “We are creating new possibilities for collaboration among the leaders in energy storage systems for sustainable energy technologies.”
The symposium was organized by Oregon State with assistance from the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a public/private partnership established by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2012. Presenters included researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. Industry representatives from 10 companies were in attendance, including Organo Corporation from Japan, China’s Neware Technology, Nissan North America, and Lebanon, Oregon-based Entek Manufacturing.
A poster session showcased work by graduate and undergraduate students from Oregon State University and the University of Washington. Awards went to the top three presenters, all from Oregon State.
Ismael Rodriguez Perez, a graduate student in chemistry, received the top honor and a check for $250 for “Pure Hydrocarbon Cathodes for Dual-Ion Batteries – A Trend.” Justin Tran, a recent chemical engineering and sustainability graduate, took home second place ($150) for “Incorporation of Polymorphic Spacers to Inhibit Sintering of SrO/SrCO3 for Thermochemical Energy Storage.” Kofi Oware Sarfo, a graduate student in chemical engineering, was awarded third place ($100) for “Investigation of γ-Al2O3 Surface and Interface with Pt(111) Using Density Functional Theory.”
A contingent of 16 CBEE students attended 2017 AIChE Student Conference, held Oct. 27-30 in Minneapolis. The CBEE chapter once again volunteered to help run the meeting as a co-host chapter. AIChE national staff said they “love” our students, who have developed a well-earned reputation for being reliable, professional, and pleasant in carrying out their volunteer assignments.
Freshman Outstanding Student Award: Joseph Hebert (sophomore, chemical engineering)
Sophomore Outstanding Student Award: Monika Hoke (junior, chemical engineering)
Othmer Oustanding Senior Scholarship ($1,000): Silvia Colussi-Pelaez (senior, chemical engineering and environmental engineering)
ChemE Car Team
The CBEE ChemE Car Team (first place at the PNW regionals) came in a respectable 15th place out of 40 teams.
CBEE pulled off a remarkable recovery after its car received “no distance” in the first run (car went out of track and didn’t stop) because its iodine clock-stopping reaction didn’t work. The team went back to their work table and experimented for the hour between runs, coming back to land within 1.8 meters of the 23.5-meter total distance. Of the 14 cars with “no distance” in the first run, the OSU team came back with the very best second run.
“That’s great engineering problem solving and great teamwork,” said Professor Skip Rochefort, who accompanied the team “It was fun to watch them go through this process and even more fun to see them succeed.”
The team, led by co-captains Gillian Williams and Parker Busch, included Grant Kresge, Logan Slater, Ben Appleby, and Jasper Limon.
Undergraduate Poster Presentations
Six CBEE students presented poster, and two won awards out of more than 300 undergraduate student posters.
Conor Harris (senior, chemical engineering). Faculty mentors: Walker and Rochefort. Third Place, Materials Engineering
Griffin Drake (junior, chemical engineering). 2017 UMaine Summer REU Program. Second Place, Bioprocess
Ben Appleby (senior, chemical engineering, and member of ChemE Car Team) Faculty mentors: Walker and Rochefort.
Kendra Jones (sophomore, bioengineering, first-year Johnson Intern). Faculty mentor: Owen McCarty (OHSU)
Gillian Williams (sophomore, bioengineering, and member of ChemE Car Team). Faculty mentors: Lew Semprini and Mohammed Azzizian.
Tala Navab-Daneshmand has made a career out of wastewater sludge.
“I sometimes joke that I am ‘The Poop Scientist,’” Navab says. “But it’s an accurate description.”
An assistant professor of environmental engineering, Navab examines the persistence and growth of enteric pathogens from wastewater in the environment, with an eye toward designing better treatment and handling processes. Enteric pathogens – including viruses, bacteria like E. coli, and other microorganisms – are a leading cause of diarrheal disease, which kills more than a half-million children each year, according to the World Health Organization.
After wastewater is treated, the resulting sludge may be further treated to become “biosolids,” used as fertilizer in agriculture. So, Navab follows pathogens in these biosolids from the wastewater treatment plants to their receiving environments, to see whether they end up in crops that are harvested and, ultimately, whether they end up on our plates.
She also follows enteric pathogens in low-income settings in the developing world, tracing their paths through water and soil, onto hands or food crops, and into homes and kitchens, to see how they are transmitted within these environments, with a focus on preventing diarrheal disease.
Originally from Iran, Navab was trained as a civil engineer, working on dam construction and hydropower plants in Tehran before pursuing a master’s degree in environmental engineering. That’s when she discovered her passion for pathogens. Prior to that, she says, she had zero interest in biology, which she remembers as her least favorite course in high school.
“I think I can say I hated it,” Navab says. “And then I took this microbiology course during my master’s, and it was so interesting to me. All these bacteria and microorganisms, I just loved them, so I studied them more.”
Navab went on to earn her Ph.D. from McGill University in Montreal, examining the inactivation of bacterial pathogens through de-watering of biosolids. She then did a postdoctoral fellowship with Eawag Water Research Institute in Switzerland, where field projects took her to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
Today, Navab’s work looks mostly at E. coli, which is a reliable indicator of fecal contamination when evaluating water for microbiological quality. Her research focuses in particular on a phenomenon called regrowth.
“This doesn’t happen with viruses. If you kill viruses, they’re done,” Navab says. “But with bacteria, you can kill them – you think you’ve killed them – but they can grow back. And there are many different reasons why they grow back.”
For example, biosolids applied to agricultural fields have to meet certain standards for microbiological quality. However, Navab says, testing of biosolids at the treatment plant won’t necessarily ensure that biosolids will still meet those standards weeks or months later, when they are applied to the soil.
“The reason is these bacteria have food available,” Navab says. “And then, depending on many other environmental conditions – moisture content, temperature, pH, all these different things – they can grow back. Even with standards defined for the time of application, what happens to these microorganisms when they are in the soil?”
A specific area of interest for Navab is the persistence and regrowth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These so-called superbugs pose a vexing challenge in the fight against infectious disease because they are immune to the front-line treatments health professionals have come to rely upon.
“This is a newer field,” Navab says. “There are no regulations specifically concerning antibiotic-resistant bacteria in biosolids for land application. We also are not quite sure of how they impact human health. We know that getting infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria is not good. But we don’t know how they are transmitted to humans.”
One current project, undertaken in collaboration with Joy Waite-Cusic in the Department of Food Science and Technology, is looking at the application of either biosolids or of non-traditional sources of water for irrigation in agriculture. The project will examine whether antibiotic-resistant bacteria are introduced to the field through either of these sources, how these bacteria persist in the soil during the growth season, and whether they end up on crops (farm to fork).
The first step involves little pots of basil growing in a greenhouse on campus. The plants have been set up in different control groups and test groups, some using wastewater sludge as a fertilizer, and some inoculated separately with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Samples taken during the growth season and of the finished crop will be analyzed in the lab to quantify antibiotic-resistant bacteria, using culture-based techniques and molecular methods.
Another project is looking at septic sludge in residential households in Vietnam, where 80 percent of households have septic tanks. For the most part, the sludge from these tanks is disposed of without treatment, directly into some sort of receiving environment – landfill, surface water, fish ponds, or agricultural fields. Navab and her collaborator in Vietnam, Mi Nguyen, will examine if pathogens from wastewater sludge end up in agricultural crops or in the flesh of fish consumed by humans, or if there is a risk to children who swim in contaminated water.
“If that’s the case, we can look at using a treatment process that is appropriate, economical, and practical for that setting,” Navab says. “We have been talking about, for example, anaerobic digestion, but then first we have to figure out what exactly is the situation.”
The issues surrounding safe food and water go beyond wastewater treatment and include economic and cultural factors such as education, sanitation, and handwashing practices. Navab warns against the appeal a technological quick fix or a one-size-fits-all solution.
“As engineers alone, I don’t think we can solve the problem,” Navab says. “People from different fields need to work together, and this is where interdisciplinary work really matters. People from many different fields – social sciences, engineering, public health, medicine – should come together and try to understand the problem, the culture, the community, and then define interventions that work for that specific society.”