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Preserving our natural environment colors the perspective of Marquis Scholar Gabriella Engelhart ’05 (York, Pa.) on her academic career and her research on color removal from the wastewater discharge of pulp from paper mills. The youthful ecologist spent time this summer both in the laboratory and on field trips studying economical ways to produce clear water discharge from plants.

“The current process of making pulp for paper produces water that is brown in color,” says Engelhart, a chemical engineering major. “That colored water is dumped into our streams and our rivers. Certainly, there is a question of aesthetics. Who wants to see dirty brown water in their waterways? But there may also be questions of damaging the aquatic life.”

Engelhart’s two-fold study was overseen by Javad Tavakoli, associate professor of chemical engineering, as part of Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students collaborate with faculty on research while earning a stipend. Many of the 180 students who participate each year go on to publish papers in scholarly journals and/or present their research at conferences.

Tavokoli has worked on related research with chemical engineering majors Naa Quarcoo ’04 (Accra, Ghana) and Garret Nicodemus ’04 (Lake Charles, La.).

“The brownish color in the discharge comes from a compound glue that binds the cellulose together to help make paper. What we don’t know is if the colored water affects how fish navigate, for example. We don’t know if the colored water affects micro-organisms and in turn may affect the food chain,” says Engelhart, who was recently recognized with the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, the premier undergraduate award of its type in the fields of mathematics, science and engineering.

Engelhart and Tavakoli spent some time examining how charcoal and carbon may act as a filter that would produce clear water. Their research also includes absorption and other chemical methods.

Though most of her time was spent in the laboratory, Engelhart says she enjoyed getting to visit a paper mill in Spring Grove, Pa., where she saw firsthand just how dark the water could be after discharge from the mill.

“Most of my time was spent running test beakers with different charcoal and carbon compounds,” she says. “I tested the water before and after the treatments, looking for the optimal compound to cleanse the water.

“It was challenging work,” says Engelhart, “because we know that carbon works. The trick is scaling it up to an industrial level. It’s a matter of science as well as economics and efficiency. For 30 years this has been an unresolved issue. There are no current regulations for colored discharge of a non-conventional pollutant, but that may change in time.”

Engelhart credits Tavakoli with helping her attend a semester-long program last fall at the prestigious environmental facilities in Woods Hole, Mass., which she says fueled her interests in environment science. “I couldn’t have participated in that program were it not for Professor Tavakoli and the personal interest he took in me.”

“We talked about the Woods Hole program, which few get to attend, and I recommended her,” says Tavakoli. “She did a great job. I later heard from their staff that she was the best student that they ever had.”

Working for Tavakoli as an EXCEL Scholar just seemed natural to her, says Engelhart. “Professor Tavakoli gives you a problem, discusses it with you, and then gives you to the freedom to explore it on your own. This has been an amazing experience and it is not often someone at the undergraduate level gets to do such hands-on research with a full professor. He is always busy with other projects, other students, but he always has time for me.”

A recipient of the United Nations TOKTEN Award and a Fulbright Summer Scholarship, Tavakoli has presented his research in numerous publications and at conferences such as the World Water & Environmental Resources Congress, the World Congress of Chemical Engineering, and the National Science Foundation International Symposium and Technology Expo on Small Drinking Water and Wastewater Systems. He has served as a consultant for the Department of Environmental Protection and companies based in the U.S. and abroad.

“He’s a role model for me,” says Engelhart. “I watch the amount of work he puts into teaching and research. You learn that professors are people, too. It’s revealing to see professors sometimes make mistakes in the lab or to see they don’t always have the answers.”

As for Tavakoli, he has nothing but the highest of praise for Engelhart. “Her efforts have been equal to any graduate student’s work. She is an unbelievably outstanding student. She is very systematic and very focused. You don’t come across someone as good as she is at so young an age very often.”

When not trying to preserve the environment, Engelhart keeps busy with playing club field hockey and serving as a tour guide for the admissions office. She is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers. She graduated from Central York High School.

Lafayette has gained national recognition for its success in attracting and retaining outstanding women engineering students like Engelhart. Last year, women earned about 31% of the bachelor’s degrees the College awarded in engineering. Nationally women make up approximately 19% of engineering B.S. graduates, according to a 2002 National Science Foundation report.

The American Society for Engineering Education featured Lafayette in a cover story of its Prism magazine, entitled “Getting it Right: Attracting Women to Engineering is Tough, but Some Schools Have Found a Formula that Seems to Work.” Prism cites Lafayette among nine engineering schools nationwide that have “excelled in upping the ranks of women in their midst.” The other schools are Michigan State, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Purdue, Tufts, Tulane, and the universities of Colorado and Oklahoma.

In addition, Lafayette received a grant of $151,875 from the National Science Foundation to build on this success and further strengthen recruitment and retention of both women and minority engineering students.

The opportunity to conduct meaningful research with faculty is a major advantage for these students. As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Over the past five years, more than 130 Lafayette students have presented results from research conducted with faculty mentors, or under their guidance, at the conference.

Lafayette ranks No. 1 among all U.S. colleges that grant only bachelor’s degrees in the number of graduates who went on to earn doctorates in engineering between 1920-1995, according to the Franklin and Marshall College study “Baccalaureate Origins of Doctoral Recipients.”

Categorized in: Academic News