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Preparing for a Sustainable Future

MCSI Undergraduate Summer Research Program Lets Students Contribute to Innovative Sustainability Research Before Graduation

PITTSBURGH (July 2, 2019) — When it comes to finding sustainable solutions for our planet, there is no time to waste. Luckily, students in the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation’s (MSCI) Undergraduate Summer Research Program don’t have to wait until graduation to start working on projects that can make a big difference. From data that can help replace lead pipes here in Pittsburgh to devices that can identify and track birdsongs out in the field, students are doing work that will help solve the problems facing our planet

“Our students are passionate about sustainability and truly want to make a difference in the world,” says Gena Kovalcik, co-director of MCSI. “The Undergraduate Summer Research Program gives them a chance to learn new skills while contributing to important sustainability research.

Students work 40 hours a week for 12 weeks over the summer and meet weekly with their advisors. In addition to the research, students in the program have to write a final paper, produce a two-minute video detailing their work and its significance for sustainability, and give an oral presentation at the Undergraduate Research Symposium, which will be held on July 24 this year.

The program, currently in its 15th year, was started in 2004 with just five students participating. In all, there are 22 MCSI Undergraduate Summer Research Program projects across the University this year. Here is a look at five of them.

Recirculating Aquaculture: Managing Water Quality in a Closed System

Over-fishing is a problem in many oceans and waterways, and companies are turning to land-based fish farming (recirculating aquaculture) to provide a more sustainable protein source. But one major risk is that farmed fish can end up tasting a little off—hints of earthy, musty flavors can taint some of the fish raised this way.

This summer, Mason Unger, senior civil and environmental engineering major, and his adviser David Sanchez, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, are trying to solve that problem.

“There’s a risk to flavor profiles of farmed fish because of an off-flavor produced by chemical compounds like geosmin. To avoid this, the fish go through ‘purging,’ where they run clean water through the tank over the fish for 7-10 days,” Mason explains. “During that time, they aren’t fed, so the fish lose mass, and it’s not great for water use. If you could figure out how the compounds are created and degrade them, it’d have economic and environmental benefits.”

Using samples from fish farms across the country, Mason is working to verify protocols for collecting samples and detecting the off-flavors in the water. The ultimate goal is to find a way to eliminate the compounds causing the musty taste as soon as they are identified, saving water and keeping sustainable fish accessible and affordable.

“The state of the industry is changing. Land-based farming systems have been around for a while, but there have been a lot of false starts,” says Dr. Sanchez. “This time is quite different, companies are scaling up successful operations and the World Bank projects that aquaculture will supply more than half of all fish globally by 2030.”

Using Data to Improve Drinking Water: Identifying Lead Water Lines in Allegheny County

Lead water pipes are an issue elevated to national attention when the horrific water quality in Flint, Mich., was discovered, but lead pipes are widely used in Pittsburgh, as well. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) is replacing those lines; in the meantime, homeowners may want to test their own water’s safety.

Testing your own tap water, though, is notoriously tricky, explains Michael Blackhurst, PhD, Co-Director of Urban & Regional Analysis Program and Research Development Manager at the Center for Social & Urban Research.

“There is a lot of variation in the amount of lead you’d observe in your tap water, depending on whether or not you were able to capture the water that had been stagnant in the lead pipes,” he says. “Even if you do, there is a lot of evidence that lead pipes can be coated to varying degrees, affecting how much lead will leach into the pipe.”

According to Dr. Blackhurst, it is important to understand how accurate these home water tests are. Arianna Heilbrunn, senior environmental studies major, will spend much of her summer with Dr. Blackhurst combing through data from PWSA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to compare home test results with the known locations of lead pipes.

“We’re combining data from historical records and excavations, comparing whether the materials that we know the pipes are made from match up with the results people are getting in their homes,” she says.

Generally, people are advised to test their water first thing in the morning, flushing the line by running the water for one or two minutes and then collecting a sample to send in for testing. It is not clear, however, that these guidelines provide consistently accurate results.

Though previous internships put Arianna out in the field, doing water and soil testing, she wanted to learn new skills. The trove of data and the program used to sift through it will build skills that will be useful in a future career in consulting or federal environmental work, which is Arianna’s current goal for the future.

By working with the PWSA and Pennsylvania DEP, the team hopes they can help lower lead exposure, something especially important for children.

“From an ethics standpoint, the problem is hard to ignore,” says Dr. Blackhurst. “Lead has a greater effect on children, and they have no say in how much lead they’re exposed to.”

The data the team is working with can help not only see where the city’s lead pipes are but can also predict where they’ll find lead lateral lines, which bring the water from the main line to the house, even if homeowners aren’t aware of them.

“People don’t want to know [how much lead is in their water], but they should want to know,” says Arianna. “Everyone thinks of Flint’s water as a tragedy, but no one wants to hear that their own water contains lead, too.”

Using acoustic sensors and machine learning to locate birds and bats in the field

It took a little time for Jiade Song, senior industrial engineering major, to get used to working in the Kitzes Lab, a biology lab. But now that he has, his work will contribute to a system that can record birds in the field and, using AI and machine learning, learn to locate the sounds and tell which creatures are making them. Eventually, they hope their software will be able to pinpoint and ID species recorded in the field on a device called the AudioMoth.

“I’m in industrial engineering, and we work in all types of fields. I’ve taken a variety of courses—production optimizations, coding, data analysis and physics—but this lab was different from my previous working spots in an industrial or production department,” says Jiade. “It has been really great in helping me get used to working in a new environment.”

Jiade’s particular goal this summer is creating a tool called a calibration chamber that uses code to detect if the devices are working well. The team puts a batch of the AudioMoths in the box-like device, which then plays a recording. Afterward, they use Jiade’s program to see if all of the AudioMoths are “hearing” the same sounds. The method will produce a visualized report and help the team weed out malfunctioning devices before they are sent into the field, or check their quality after spending weeks outdoors.

“One cool thing here is that Jiade is here as an engineer, and I’m an engineer,” says Trieste Devlin, a technician in the Kitzes Lab. “Dr. Kitzes is intentional about creating an interdisciplinary approach to biology.”

What the Frack: Designing nanocatalysts for responsible use of natural gas

“Fracking” is a buzzword that most people, especially in western Pennsylvania, are familiar with. It is at once an important economic driver in the state and a process that has a striking environmental impact. This summer, Albert Lopez-Martinez, a junior chemical and petroleum engineering major, is working with Götz Veser, PhD, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, to find ways to make fracking more sustainable.

“When fracking happens in oil shales, natural gas is burned off using flares. Instead of combusting it we’re trying to find a way to convert it into a more viable, eco-friendly alternative by turning methane into benzene,” says Albert. “My job is to help find that catalyst, varying parameters and seeing how it is affected by microwave heating.”

In collaboration with Shell, West Virginia University and the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), the team is looking for a new way to convert methane to a liquid chemical like benzene. This would make it a valuable chemical resource that could be transported, lessening the environmental impact while acting as an economic boon in the region.

“Here in Pennsylvania, we’re not doing as much flaring, but the issue is that our natural resources are being stripped from under us, and we are left with nothing but the pollution,” says Dr. Veser. “If we can turn natural gas into a valuable product on its own here in the region, it could balance the environmental impact with a positive economic impact.”

For Albert, the project is an opportunity to get started on work he is passionate about. Now that he has gotten involved in research, he is considering pursuing a masters or even a doctorate after graduation.

“I know I want to work in sustainability, giving back to the community and working against climate change,” says Albert. “The Mascaro Center’s summer research program seemed like a good fit for my future goals.

Durable Antireflective, Anti-Soiling and Self-Cleaning Solar Glass

When it comes to renewable energy, solar panels are perhaps the most promising. There is more energy in the sunlight that hits the earth’s surface in one hour than all of humanity uses in an entire year. But solar panels do have their challenges: conventional solar panels only convert about 20 percent of the sun’s light to electricity. The top glass on a solar panel is partially reflective, losing valuable rays that could be converted to energy as they bounce off the glass. Solar panels may also be installed in desert and urban environments, where particulates and pollutants may dirty the glass, resulting in less sunlight being converted to electricity.

Sooraj Sharma, senior materials science and engineering (MSE) major, has been working with Paul Leu, PhD, associate professor of industrial engineering, since last summer on a way to make anti-reflective, anti-soiling and self-cleaning glass for solar panels.

While conventional anti-reflective coatings aren’t effective against all wavelengths, the team in Leu’s lab is using sub-wavelength nano-structures to reduce broadband reflection over a wide range of incidence angles to as low as 0 percent. In addition, the glass repels water and can use naturally forming dew droplets to remove dirt. Last year, they were able to show these properties on a four-inch piece of glass, but this year, they’re hoping to improve the method so it could be used to create the glass for solar panels, which are usually over one square meter.

“The end product will have the same properties, but this year, our big focus is on using larger and more scalable methods that could translate to the factory level,” says Sooraj. “The viability of this glass depends on the ability to recreate it with more robust and scalable methods.”

Sooraj and the team are looking at not only the process used to coat the glass but the method used to apply it. “We’re looking at scalable methods to deposit the coating on the glass, and we’re engineering that glass to be more anti-reflective to different angles and wavelengths,” explains Sooraj.

The new process Sooraj is working with is called sol-gel, an extremely powerful fabrication process that can effectively produce a large variety of material end products. For solar, this means creating a porous, antireflective coating that should achieve similar results to the conventional nanostructures. The upside is that this method is far more economical, as creating the latter requires the use of expensive machines that operate on a small scale.

Though Sooraj’s original interest was in working with silicon and other semiconductor materials, he was surprised to find that he found glass so fascinating to work with.

“As a sophomore, I was feeling the pressure to get a co-op, but most of the ones I found weren’t that interesting to me,” he says. “When I talked to my adviser, Dr. Nettleship, he suggested I look into the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation Undergrad Summer Research Program. I found this project to be really interesting with enormous real-world potential, and I was later able to continue working on it throughout the rest of my junior year. I never knew working with glass would be so interesting to me. I think it confirmed and aligned my interests.”

Last year, Sooraj won the Best Presentation Award at the Mascaro Undergraduate Research Program Symposium and later submitted his summer findings to Science 2018, where he won the Innovation Institute’s Award for Best Poster on Innovation.

Sooraj presented his work this year at Allegheny SolarFest at Frick Environmental Center on June 23, marking the second year in a row they attended the event. Though the event is usually represented by community groups and solar panel vendors, Sooraj felt their contribution was valuable.

“We were sort the ‘black sheep’ of the event,” says Dr. Leu. “But I know the other attendees found our research interesting and valuable, and we were excited to present again.”


Other Opportunities for Undergraduate Research

Beyond the MCSI Undergraduate Summer Research Program, students have plenty of opportunities to pursue research alongside renowned faculty before donning their caps and gowns.

SSOE Summer Undergraduate Research Program
The decade-long program enables around 80 Pitt students to propose a topic of their choosing and work with a faculty mentor to pursue their research for 12 weeks over the summer.

Contact: Mary Besterfield-Sacre (mbsacre@pitt.edu)

Excel Summer Research Institute (SRI)
The EXCEL program focuses on preparing under-represented minority students for graduate education and professional careers, and the EXCEL Summer Research Institute helps achieve that goal by giving students research experience in their freshman, sophomore or junior year. The program offers eight to 10 students a nine-week summer research internship, pairing students with faculty mentors to complete a research project in their engineering field.

Contact: Yvette Moore, Director of Pitt EXCEL (yvettemoore@pitt.edu)

NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Programs
Each year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) provides funds for researchers to engage undergraduates in their work. Swanson has such programs in Civil Engineering and Chemical Engineering.

Civil Engineering: Kent Harries (kharries@pitt.edu)
Chemical and Petroleum Engineering: Joseph McCarthy (joseph.john.mccarthy@gmail.com)

Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing (SHREC) Summer Undergraduate Research Group (SURG)
The NSF Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing (SHREC), recently responsible for a supercomputer sent to the International Space Station, invites 24 undergraduate students in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science to work alongside researchers in this important national research center.

Contact: Alan George (alan.george@pitt.edu)

Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC)
The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) is a joint effort between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, founded over 30 years ago. It offers undergraduate students the opportunity to work with university, government and industrial researchers on high-performance computing, communications and data analytics.

Contact: Alan George (alan.george@pitt.edu)

NSF International Research Experiences for Students
This NSF-funded opportunity sends students to research battery-less embedded systems in Internet of Things devices in China, which has one of the world’s largest electronic industry and market. Five graduate students and two graduate students are selected each year to participate in this research at Tsinghua University for eight weeks.

Contact: Jingtong Hu (jthu@pitt.edu)

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick