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ChemE Undergraduates Take Their Research to Italy

Erin Hunter and Nicholas Waters present their work at the Gordon Research Seminar on Biointerface Science in Lucca, Italy

PITTSBURGH (July 31, 2018) … University of Pittsburgh undergraduates Erin Hunter and Nicholas Waters traveled to Lucca, Italy this summer to present at the 2018 Gordon Research Seminar (GRS) on Biointerface Science. Both students presented work from their past year of research with Tagbo Niepa, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

Niepa, who was co-chair of the GRS on Biointerface Science, knew it was uncommon for undergraduates to attend this meeting but thought that Hunter and Waters might benefit from the experience. 

“Erin and Nick are impressive undergraduates with a strong academic record and scientific curiosity,” said Niepa. “They were the first students to join my new lab at Pitt and demonstrated a strong dedication, high level of maturity, and responsibility for the tasks I assigned them. It was my personal goal to provide them with this prestigious and eye-opening experience; and I was extremely delighted that GRC made a special exception allowing these emerging researchers to present their work alongside experts in the field of Biointerface Science.”

Waters, a junior chemical engineering student, was granted a travel award by Pitt’s University Honors College to support his participation in the conference. His research focuses on understanding how bacteria interact with fluid interfaces.

“We work with Alcanivorax borkumensis, an oil-degrading bacteria that is capable of emulsifying the oil and water phases by interacting with the oil-water interface,” said Waters. “This work is significant because the findings could help us better understand how to use bacteria for bioremediation of crude oil spills and/or microbial enhanced oil recovery from the ground.”

After Niepa joined in the Swanson School in 2017, Waters was quick to contact him for research opportunities. He said, “I got involved in this work simply by reaching out to Dr. Niepa when he was first hired. I started working with him last fall semester and spent a lot of time helping set up his lab and learning the full capabilities of his instruments.”

One year later, Waters has now collected enough data that will likely lead to a publication in the near future. Regarding the conference, he said, “I greatly enjoyed being able to meet and discuss my work in a professional setting and receive high-level feedback from others working in similar fields.”

Hunter, a junior chemical engineering student, also spent her sophomore year in Niepa’s lab. Her research focuses on examining microbial dynamics in artificial confinements, referred to as microbial nanocultures. 

“Because of the amount of competition among species in a sample, traditional methods of culturing -such as using a flask- can be ineffective,” explains Hunter. “For example, a sample from the mouth contains an abundance of species, and in order to see growth from all species present, we must use a nanoculture.”

“We can isolate and examine the individual bacterial species when we take a few milligram sample that we swabbed and encapsulate into smaller 5-7 nanoliter capsules,” said Hunter. “The goal of my research is to show that by using this process, it is now possible to study and collect data on these previously ‘unculturable species.’”

Hunter believes that the Gordon Research Seminar was a valuable experience that helped guide her academic and research career. “It is helpful to learn about other people’s studies because it can inspire new ideas for your own research,” she said. “With Nick and I being the only undergraduate students there, it was nice to talk to current PhD students about their paths to graduate school.”

In the fall of 2018, Waters will return to Niepa’s lab to continue his research, and Hunter will start a yearlong internship with McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

“Whenever someone recalls the first undergraduate participation at the international GRS on Biointerface Science, they will remember these two Pitt ChemE undergrads. Their outstanding presentations initiated high-level conversations and promoted our work in the space of microbial interactions with solid or fluid interfaces.” said Niepa. “Erin and Nick are a testament to Pitt’s commitment to preparing its students for global scientific leadership”


Contact: Leah Russell