Environmental engineering researchers at Oregon State University have received a $1.4 million grant to develop a promising technology for removing toxic pollutants from groundwater sources that supply drinking water to much of the United States.

Leading the effort is Lewis Semprini, university distinguished professor of environmental engineering, an internationally recognized expert with more than three decades of experience. His research focuses on various strategies for bioremediation, using microorganisms to break down dangerous environmental contaminants into smaller, more benign molecules. Funding for the project comes from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, through its Superfund Research Program.

Lewis Semprini

Of chief concern is a class of synthetic chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Of nearly 3,500 samples collected from 98 major drinking water supply aquifers between 1985 and 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey determined that more than half contained at least one human-introduced contaminant, with VOCs detected most frequently.

Among the top 15 VOCs detected, eight were chlorinated aliphatic hydrocarbons listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as likely human carcinogens. These include common industrial solvents and degreasers, such as chloroform, perchloroethylene, and trichloroethylene. Increasingly problematic are emerging co-contaminants, such as 1,4-dioxane, also a likely human carcinogen.

VOCs are literally everywhere in the United States, and in other countries around the world. For decades, these compounds were widely used, poorly regulated, and carelessly disposed of. One of the biggest challenges in cleaning up the mess is the fact that VOCs are continuously leaking into groundwater from these past improper disposal practices, Semprini said.

“Common remediation techniques, such as pump-and-treat, are not sustainable for treating contaminant mixtures that slowly diffuse from low permeability zones in the subsurface,” Semprini said. “These issues highlight the need for long-term, passive, and more economical remediation techniques.”

“Common remediation techniques, such as pump-and-treat, are not sustainable for treating contaminant mixtures that slowly diffuse from low permeability zones in the subsurface,” Semprini said. “These issues highlight the need for long-term, passive, and more economical remediation techniques.”

One of the goals of the project is to determine how to make stronger hydrogel beads that will last for long periods in the subsurface remediation environment. Skip Rochefort, associate professor of chemical engineering and Kaitlin Fogg, assistant professor in bioengineering, and Michael Hyman, professor of microbiology at North Carolina State University, are members of the project team providing the needed expertise in the polymer, biological, and microbial science for the development of hydrogel beads.

The team will also investigate how to produce the beads in large quantities, so they can be added into aquifers as a passive remediation mechanism. As the substrate inside the beads is made available to the bacteria, gradually over time, they produce enzymes called monooxygenases, which metabolize the substrate along with any VOCs that diffuse into the bead from the surrounding water. Eventually, the beads themselves break down into harmless constituents.

Nearly 1,500 people attended this year’s College of Engineering Virtual Expo, and there was no shortage of things for them to do during this daylong event: learning about more than 170 student design projects, hearing from the first Latina in space about her life and career, learning about becoming an Oregon State Engineering student, and much more.

Each spring, College of Engineering seniors showcase their design projects at the Engineering Expo to fellow students, faculty, industry representatives, members of the Oregon State community, and the public, including high school students interested in engineering. Projects cover a broad range of areas, including artificial intelligence, clean water, health, natural disaster preparedness, robotics, sustainable energy, and virtual reality.

In addition to perusing student projects, Expo attendees were invited to a keynote address by Ellen Ochoa, astronaut, former Johnson Space Center director, and first Latina in space.

Visitors also voted for their favorite projects. Below are the first and second place winners of the People’s Choice Award, selected by the general public, and the Industry Choice Award, chosen by professional engineers.

Winner of the People’s Choice First Place Award

The Hybrid Rocket Team is a platform for development of new ideas in high-powered rocketry. Its current members have been working together since 2018 to develop the manufacturing, testing, and launch infrastructure for the team’s largest rocket yet. The focus of this year’s Expo project was developing and improving rocket recovery assemblies. The recovery development team (Kevin Daellenbach, Jordan Johnson, and Bergen Anderson) developed a reusable pneumatic deployment system that is safer and more reliable than previous designs. The use of pressurized carbon dioxide canisters allows multiple mechanical and electrical safety mechanisms to prevent an unexpected firing. Additionally, the components can be tested multiple times on the day of launch to ensure their resilience. Future design iterations will focus on reducing weight and size.

Winner of the People’s Choice Second Place Award

A team of bioengineering students (Kyra Kadhim, Annabel Martin Varnum, Rachel Polaski, and Rachel O’Brien) designed a device to provide researchers with a noninvasive, semicontinuous method of determining stress levels in animals (mice, specifically) by measuring cortisol levels. Cortisol, a hormone correlated directly with stress, can be measured in the fluid in and around cells known as interstitial fluid, or ISF. The team’s device attaches to the back of a mouse’s neck using an adhesive patch with an array of microneedles. The ISF flows in small channels through the device to a detection region, where an electrochemical reaction measures the amount of cortisol in the ISF and outputs a concentration. The device takes measurements over short intervals and tracks changes in concentration to establish a baseline and help researchers identify causes of stress. As proof of concept, the team created a 3D-printed model of the device, as well as mathematical and physical models of the microneedle puncture force and microfluidic flow patterns of ISF within the device.

Winner of the Industry Choice First Place Award

Intel sponsored a team of computer science students (Sowmya Jujjuri, Evan Medinger, Joelle Perez, and Xindi Guo) to create virtual video studio software based on the Unreal Engine, a powerful game engine used throughout the gaming, film, and television industries. The goal of the software is to make it easier and less expensive for people to shoot professional-grade videos.

Winner of the Industry Choice Second Place Award

Beaver Racing, Oregon State’s Baja SAE team, designed, built, and tested an all-weather, single-seat, off-road sporting vehicle that can survive the severe punishment of rough terrain. The vehicle is meant to be a prototype of a reliable, maintainable, ergonomic, and economic recreational vehicle. This year’s team (led by Tanner Asher, Sheldon Lim, Nathaniel Garcia, Dominic Mikalson, and Allyson Stansell) included 22 senior capstone projects and resulted in Oregon State’s first ever four-wheel-drive Baja car, which placed third at a competition in Arizona. The team also finished first in maneuverability, and third in endurance.

The 170 student projects are available to view at the Engineering Virtual Expo website. For more information, please email engineering.events@oregonstate.edu.

Three students from Oregon State University’s College of Engineering have been named Goldwater Scholars for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Juniors Tegan Thurston and Cindy Wong, and sophomore Alyssa Pratt, are among 410 students — selected from a nationwide pool of more than 5,000 candidates — to receive the prestigious award. Emily Gemmill, a junior from the College of Science, also earned the scholarship. 

Goldwater scholarships are awarded by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation to sophomores and juniors in mathematics, natural sciences, or engineering who exhibit intellectual intensity and exceptional promise of becoming research leaders in their chosen fields. Each student will each receive up to $7,500 annually for tuition, fees, books, and housing expenses.

“These students stand out because of their impressive personal qualities and their proactive approach to forming research collaborations and nurturing mentor relationships,” said LeAnn Joy Adam, coordinator of the National and Global Scholarships Advising office at Oregon State. “Mentors have high expectations of them, and they consistently deliver outstanding work and demonstrate leadership qualities, such as mentoring new students.”


Left to right: Alyssa Pratt, Tegan Thurston, and Cindy Wong

Alyssa Pratt, Analyzing RNA

As a high school student in Portland, Pratt figured it would be a good idea to get a head start on college and meet with faculty at the school she planned to attend. She already had set her sights on studying computational biology, so she reached out to David Hendrix, associate professor of computer science at Oregon State, to ask some questions. The next time, she asked if he had any open positions in his lab. He did.

For more than a year now, Pratt, who is double majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and in computer science, has been a valued research assistant in the lab. Her work has focused on characterizing secondary RNA structures called hairpins — a name that describes their distinctive “U” shape.

In one project, Pratt looked at an unusual type of hairpin that had been identified previously by another researcher in the lab. Curiously, when the hairpin’s nucleotide sequence was subjected to dinucleotide shuffling — a common technique in bioinformatics for evaluating genetic sequences — its structure remained unchanged. The trait earned it the name “unbreakable hairpin,” Pratt explained. She detailed all of the potential causes for its resistance to shuffling and highlighted the causes that appeared to be most important. 

In addition, she and Hendrix created an algorithm to predict the number of unique sequences that can be generated by shuffling. 

“The key finding from unbreakable hairpins is that randomization from dinucleotide shuffling isn’t always as random as you think it is,” Pratt said. “Researchers expect sequences to be scrambled and not resemble the original sequence. But there might be a one in 10 chance or a one in 1,000 chance of getting a particular sequence, and it’s very useful to be able to quantify that and to determine whether they’re going to get many new shuffled sequences or not.” The work has major implications for dinucleotide shuffling as a method of generating random controls for bioinformatics analyses.

“Alyssa shows a combination of motivation, curiosity, creativity, and intellect that will carry her forward toward success in computational biology,” Hendrix said.

Tegan Thurston, Ergonomics; Prosthetic Sensory Feedback

Thurston’s first big research project as an Oregon State student took her into operating rooms at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Working with Xinhui Zhu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the time (now an ergonomics consultant), she assessed the musculoskeletal strain experienced by surgeons while they work. 

“Because they stand in awkward, static positions for hours every day, surgeons often suffer problems like joint and back pain,” said Thurston, a bioengineering major and Honors College student from Salem.

During the study, electrodes were positioned on the shoulders, back of the neck, lower back, triceps, and biceps of a group of surgeons. Tegan then observed and recorded the bioelectric impulses generated by the muscles while the surgeons performed laparoscopic gastrointestinal procedures. Changes in the signals indicated that muscles weakened markedly as surgery progressed. 

“We concluded that there’s stress going on in their muscles even though they’re standing still,” Thurston said. “As the doctors get older, those stresses can build up and cause a lot damage to the body.”

The findings provide information that might help surgeons ease fatigue and discomfort. For instance, they could focus on relaxing and stretching the affected muscle groups between procedures. The results may also offer insight into how long it takes before muscle fatigue diminishes a surgeon’s efficacy over the course of day — a factor that could have an impact on patient safety and surgical outcomes. 

“The results don’t point to a single solution, but they provide data from which a solution can be found,” Thurston said.

And in Oregon State’s Information Processing Group, Thurston is developing a haptic feedback system that returns sensory information for myoelectric hand prostheses — a valuable feature that many prosthetic systems lack. She’s also been immersed in genetic research in the lab of Michael Blouin, a professor of integrative biology, which she began while still in high school. 

“Tegan has been a wonderful member of our lab,” said Stephanie Bollman, a senior faculty research assistant who has worked closely with Thurston in Blouin’s lab. “She’s showed maturity beyond her years and great ability to do both molecular biology and statistical analysis. She continues to be a joy to work with.”

Cindy Wong, Storing Clean Energy with Seawater Electrolysis

Wong, a chemical engineering major from Albany, Oregon, dove into seawater electrolysis research during her Pete and Rosalie Johnson Undergraduate Internship. The positions are available to outstanding students in the school of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering who have completed their first year of study. 

In electrolysis of water, an electrical current splits water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which is a clean-burning renewable fuel. But using seawater poses a major challenge. 

“Seawater is more abundant and cheaper than fresh water, but it contains lots of chloride salts, which results in the evolution of [toxic] chlorine gas during electrolysis,” Wong said “That reaction interferes with the oxygen-evolving reaction.” Her primary research goal is identifying catalysts (used to coat the system’s electrodes) that result in high oxygen evolution and low chlorine evolution. 

Her work has expanded to include seawater electrolysis for the production of synthetic gas — a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide — which can subsequently be converted into liquid hydrocarbons. “Much of my research is part of the larger challenge to find efficient methods for storing renewable energy,” Wong said.

“Cindy has been an outstanding member of our research team,” said Kelsey Stoerzinger, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and one of Wong’s mentors. “She’s inquisitive, eager to understand deeply and to learn more. She also excels in distilling information and presenting it in an accessible way.” 

Wong’s first venture into research occurred before she enrolled at Oregon State, when she participated in the university’s Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering Internship. The eight-week, STEM-oriented program matches exceptional high-school students with scientists and engineers.

“That’s where I discovered that I really enjoy research,” she said. “I’m invigorated by the chance to solve big problems, especially those related to sustainable energy and climate change, and I love the freedom and the creativity I have when I’m looking for those solutions.” 

Learn More

Oregon State has enjoyed a strong history of success with the Goldwater Scholarship. Two of the university’s nominees were selected in 2020, and all four were chosen in 2019. 

Schools are permitted to nominate up to five students each year. Forty-six Oregon State students have earned the scholarship since it was first conferred in 1989. 

Students interested in applying for the Goldwater Scholarship, or faculty who would like to encourage students to apply, can contact the National and Global Scholarships Advising office. On Tuesday, May 25, at 5 p.m. PDT, the office is hosting a Zoom panel discussion featuring Oregon State Goldwater Scholars. You can find more information about the Goldwater Scholarship on the advising office and Goldwater Foundation websites. 

Learn more about last year’s College of Engineering Goldwater Scholars here.

Christian Horton

Christian Horton, a senior in construction engineering management at Oregon State University, was honored with an outstanding student achievement award at the 2021 ASC Open Mechanical competition hosted by the Associated Schools of Construction in February.

The Oregon State Mechanical team placed second overall. Other team members were Evan Lehman, Connor Splitstoser, Amin Tuffa, Keven Estupinian, and Thomas Robinson. Joe Fradella, senior instructor in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering, served as the team’s faculty coach.

Popularly known as the Reno competition, this year’s event was conducted online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Horton and his teammates’ preparations began last fall, including a two-term “Reno class” course sequence. While they spent a lot of time getting ready for the competition, when the big day came, nobody knew quite what to expect.

“You have 14 hours to work on a problem from a real-world project that has already been completed, and then you have an hour to present your solution,” Horton explained. “The judges include people who worked on the original project, so they know all the ins and outs. There’s not too much wiggle room.”

The day began at 6 a.m., when Horton jumped onto a Zoom video conference with his teammates. By 7 a.m., the team sponsor had released a folder containing about 5 gigabytes of documents: construction plans, drawings, various specifications, and customer communications.

Horton’s project involved installing some large, complex air handler units and chillers in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, a 2-million-square-foot concrete convention facility in a busy downtown area adjacent to the Bay Bridge. Assuming the role of project manager, Horton was tasked with finding a way to complete the installation with minimal disruption to building operations and surrounding traffic.

“These are massive units, basically the size of a small shipping container,” Horton said. “There are no doors in the building large enough to fit a unit through, and with multiple units to install, it requires extensive pre-planning.”

The Moscone Center presented Horton a very big box to think outside of. Part of the challenge lay in sorting through the thousands of pages of information, with no indication where to begin or how to find anything he might be looking for. Then there was the difficulty of trying to conceive of complex interactions in three dimensions and recognize potential clashes, relying exclusively on two-dimensional reference materials.

“I worked for a good 10 hours analyzing drawings and layouts with nothing to show on paper,” Horton said. “It was a bit nerve-racking as the clock was ticking and my team was counting on me.”

Then, he hit upon an idea.

First, he’d identify the best point of access that would cause the least disruption or destruction, and reroute traffic around the site. Then, he’d excavate the area outside the convention center and open up a hole in the wall roughly the size of an air handler unit. Finally, with a mobile crane oriented just right, he could stack the units on top of each other inside the building by hoisting through an existing cooling tower chimney stack.

The idea of working with massive equipment doesn’t intimidate Horton. Before going to college, the 28-year-old spent several years working overseas as a roughneck in the offshore oil and gas industry, a job that took him to Italy and Romania, and into the Black Sea. He had originally intended to jump into the construction trades straight after high school, but he found the allure of black gold too strong to resist. (“It’s kind of a family tradition,” he said.)

Working on a six-month construction project on an oil rig in 2014, with people from about 20 other countries, gave Horton unique perspective and experience.

“You’ve got people coming and going from all directions. You’re trying to communicate with people who speak zero English, and you don’t speak their language either. Meanwhile there’s 100,000 pounds of equipment hanging over your head,” he explained. “Nothing compares to the oil and gas industry; however, construction has its own unique demands and challenges, which I am eager to learn and master.”

At 9 p.m. the night of the competition, the team members had to submit their final reports, then rest up for their presentation the following morning. The judges were impressed with the work, but they still managed to throw Horton a curveball or two.

“They asked how the building would operate while the air handlers were being replaced,” Horton said. “I had zero time to look up an answer. Thinking from the top of my head, I explained that the work was going to take place during a time when the temperatures would be moderate, so the system would not experience any heavy loads, and the secondary units would still be functioning.”

Horton credits his fast thinking for the award he received.

In addition to his previous work experience, Horton says industry coaches Reggie McShane, Garret Eisenbrandt, and Grant Smith of TCM Mechanical were instrumental in helping the team prepare for success in the competition.

“Christian is a focused, hardworking student who has some real-world experience that has definitely helped him,” said McShane, who has coached teams from Oregon State in Reno competitions for the past five years. “He was a leader within the group, and the students who enter this competition are already top performers who want to excel. They have to put in a lot of extra time and effort.”

After graduation in June, Horton will begin work as an assistant project manager for Rosendin Electric in Prineville, where the firm is currently building data centers for Facebook.

The National Science Foundation has selected two graduate students in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, as well as two recent alumni, as fellows in the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support, including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost-of-education allowance of $12,000 to the institution. The program recognizes and supports outstanding students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based masters and doctoral degrees. Only 10% of applicants receive fellowships.

Damon George, who graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Gonzaga University, is currently pursuing a doctorate in computer science at Oregon State. As part of the Information Processing Group, George works under the direction of V John Mathews, professor of electrical and computer engineering, focusing on how machine learning and AI can be used to help people with disabilities.

Left to right: Kyle Chin, Alyssa Ekdahl, Damon George, and Leni Halaapiapi.

“I am creating advanced prostheses that interpret people’s movement intent from their biological signals, with the goal of creating artificial limbs that operate and feel like natural limbs and are controlled by thought,” George said. “Modern prostheses tend to deteriorate in performance over time, often rendering them unusable, so I am developing adaptive prostheses that can learn from the user over time.”

Leni Halaapiapi, a 2019 graduate of Central Washington University, is also pursuing a doctorate in computer science. Working in the lab of Rakesh Bobba, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, his research is in cybersecurity with a focus on swarm intelligence.

“Some projects I am currently working on are unmanned aerial systems (drone) security and nuclear power plant cyber vulnerability analysis,” Halaapiapi said. “I have an interest in swarm intelligence and swarm intelligence algorithms, so I hope to use the NSF funding to help further my knowledge in this domain and produce new and exciting research.”

Alyssa Ekdahl (’15 B.S., Chemical Engineering) is pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. Her research integrates synthetic biology and engineering to study the structure and function of regulatory RNAs for therapeutic applications.

Kyle Chin (’19 B.S., Chemical Engineering) is currently pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research interests lie in developing chemical systems and 3D printing methods to allow better control of material structure and chemical composition across multiple length scales.

“It’s great that so many Beavers were awarded the fellowship,” Chin said.