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The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant to Mary Spry Roth ’83, associate professor and head of civil and environmental engineering, and Laurie Caslake, assistant professor of biology, for an innovative research project to determine whether bacteria can be used to strengthen soil that would otherwise be too weak to safely support buildings.

The project marks the first collaboration between the two departments and will provide significant student research experience in each.

It adds to a growing number of interdisciplinary, student-faculty research collaborations at Lafayette funded by the National Science Foundation. In recent years, NSF has provided a $243,526 grant to establish a laboratory for projects involving mechanical engineering, civil & environmental engineering, and mathematics; a $366,354 grant for research on a method to improve water and wastewater treatment, involving the physics, chemical engineering, and civil & environmental engineering departments; and a grant to establish a monitoring program at the Bushkill Creek Watershed, involving the civil engineering and geology & environmental geosciences departments.

Roth and Caslake note that during earthquakes, dynamic pressures within the earth can cause saturated, loose sand deposits to rapidly lose their strength and settle – a process called “liquefaction” – resulting in damage to the buildings that they support. Traditional methods to improve soils at developed sites using compaction may damage existing structures. Roth and Caslake will attempt to use bacteria, an important natural component of saturated soils, to increase the strength and stability of the problematic soils. They believe that the bacteria will create cohesion between the soil particles, thereby increasing their resistance to liquefaction.

Little research has been done on the use of microbes to improve the strength of soil. The major focus of previous research has been the influence of microbes on the hydraulic conductivity of soil or rock or the use of microbes to treat contaminated soils. The limited work conducted to evaluate the effect of microbes on soil strength has focused on strength improvements of sand at great depths to enhance the recovery of oil.

One of very few geotechnical engineers conducting critical analysis of earth resistivity as an investigation tool, Roth has conducted extensive research in this field and has regularly included Lafayette students in her work. She has participated in several NSF-funded research programs related to assessing subsurface conditions to improve the safety of foundations for buildings. She used NSF funding and a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Oslo assisting engineers and geologists at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, one of world’s most prominent research institutes in her field, in the study of multi-electrode resistivity testing on “sensitive” clay soils common in Norway and on permafrost.

Through this project, a Lafayette student served a three-week internship at the institute in January 2001, and civil engineering major Erin O’Brien ’02 spent a week there in January 2002, exchanging information about how the United States and Norway conduct environmental site assessments.

Roth, who has worked extensively with students to map the subsurface features of Lafayette’s Metzgar Fields, has co-authored more than 10 articles and conference papers with her student researchers. “I am able to bring my research into my courses, which improves the course and benefits the students,” says Roth, who was named Engineer of the Year by the Lehigh Valley chapters of the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers and American Society of Civil Engineers in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

“Professor Roth is best described as the quintessential Lafayette professor,” said Brian Guzas ’00, a bridge engineer with URS Corp., Hunt Valley, Md. “I worked with her on researching earth resistivity testing for the detection of sinkholes, which proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career. She gave me the opportunity to take the research in the direction I wanted and to present our results in publications and conferences. She also educated me on the realities of the civil engineering industry and what to expect once I graduated. As a result, I was very well prepared for my first job as a bridge engineer.”

Her recent research partners include mechanical engineering major Adam Faroni ’04 (Granby, Conn.) and civil engineering major Sandra Henning ’05 (Jarrettsville, Md.), who worked with Roth on improving methods of investigating sites located in sinkhole areas. The collaboration was funded by Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students assist faculty with research while earning a stipend. The program has helped make Lafayette a leader in undergraduate research. About 180 students participate in EXCEL each year, with many going on to share their research through academic journal articles or conference presentations.

Caslake has included more than a dozen Lafayette students in her research since joining the faculty in fall 1999, with a number of projects focusing on microorganisms found in polluted bodies of water. Several students have coauthored papers with her that have been published in academic journals, and many of her student collaborators have shared their research at conferences such as the annual meetings of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Science, where she will accompany more of her research students next month.

Neuroscience major Katie Schrack ’03 (Mill Hall, Pa.) examined the linkage between mercury resistance and antibiotic-resistance in bacteria as an EXCEL Scholar with Caslake, and then though a yearlong honors research project under her direction. The project was funded by the ASM’s prestigious Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Schrack twice presented her research at ASM conferences and also accompanied Caslake in presenting it at Drexel College of Medicine’s Research Day.

“She has been an amazing mentor,” Schrack said before graduating with honors last May. “I love working with her, because she is constantly challenging me and encouraging me to take advantage of all opportunities available. In the lab, she is always available to help, even if it means I have to call her at home. Over the past few years, she has become a good friend as well as a mentor. I’m very thankful I had the opportunity to develop a close relationship with my professor.”

She added, “Lafayette is a wonderful academic environment for academic projects like my thesis. I chose to do a thesis because I was encouraged to start research and developed a close relationship with Prof. Caslake. At other schools, it may have been difficult to get to know my professors and work out schedules with them to do research, but Lafayette has been very accommodating in that respect.”

Biology major Lee Williams ’03 (Farmington, N.Y.) also earned honors under Caslake’s guidance, completing a yearlong research project on microbial resistance to methyl-mercury in their environment. She presented her research at the 79th Annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science in Grantville, Pa., and is a co-author of a research presentation that will be given at the annual ASM meeting in New Orleans, La.

“Dr. Caslake helped me greatly,” says Williams, who graduated cum laude and was elected to Sigma Xi, the national honor society for scientific research. “When I ran into problems or got results I didn’t understand, she was great at guiding me to find the answer myself. With her help I learned multiple molecular biology techniques and how to apply them.”

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. Forty-two students have been approved to present at next month’s meeting.

Hands-on research opportunities with faculty are part of the reason that Lafayette has gained national recognition for its success in attracting and retaining outstanding women engineering students. 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 has cited Lafayette among nine engineering schools nationwide that have “excelled in upping the ranks of women in their midst.” 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

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