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Student researchers rarely see how their work affects society, but three chemical engineering majors will soon witness how their contributions tie into a product with far-reaching benefits.

This summer, EXCEL Scholars Jessica Jenkins ’07 (Fayetteville, N.C.), Briana Hecht ’08 (Chestnut Hill, Mass.), and Korin Kohen ’08 (Istanbul, Turkey) are pursuing a project aimed at developing technology to remove the contaminant perchlorate from water and destroy it. They are conducting experiments with using bacteria to destroy the chemical after it has been removed.

Guiding the multi-disciplinary project are Javad Tavakoli, professor and head of chemical engineering; Arthur Kney, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Steve Mylon, assistant professor of chemistry; and Laurie Caslake, assistant professor of biology.

In Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

The group has attended a conference and presented its work to environmental biologists at Swarthmore College. Next year, members will attend a conference in Monterrey, Calif., and participate in a competition involving research on chlorinate compounds.

An ion exchange resin has already been developed to remove perchlorate, a byproduct of munitions development, from water. Tavakoli has been working on the project for several years in conjunction with researchers at Auburn University.

“While removing perchlorate is a good thing, it is not the ultimate solution,” he says. “When we remove it, it builds up on the resin, which cannot be reused. We want to go further and be able to not only remove the perchlorate, but destroy it so the expensive resin material can be reused.”

Perchlorate is a very soluble chemical that moves easily through groundwater and has been linked to certain cancers. However, the Environmental Protection Agency has not regulated the amount of the toxin allowed in water.

“It’s clear that something has to be done, and it’s to the point where we’re pretty certain it’s going to be regulated,” Kney says. “So the research we’re doing now is certainly necessary in telling scientists what perchlorate is, what levels are harmful, the need to remove it, and the method to do it.”

Tavakoli hopes that within the next few months the team’s work will progress to the point where the technology can be applied to a real-world situation. The team would like to begin running pilot studies within a year.

Mylon is writing a National Science Foundation proposal that could potentially fund ongoing research.

“Clearly, perchlorate is an issue, and [the research] will benefit society because it’s a complete process,” he says. “The students benefit because they learn about techniques and research and about themselves and what they want to do.”

The students are attacking the problem from two angles: how much of the chemical the ion exchange resin can hold and what perchlorate concentrations the microbial bacteria can destroy.

They research what has already been done on the project, conduct experiments, collect data, and analyze results. Each week, the team meets to discuss progress and plan the next stages of its research.

Tavakoli notes that the students were chosen for the EXCEL work because of their commitment to the project. Early last year, they approached professors about becoming involved. Each devoted hours during the academic year to learn about the research.

“Being chosen as an EXCEL Scholar is not like the old times where we had a hard time finding someone,” Tavakoli says. “A good number of students are interested, and it has become a very competitive process.”

Although the students are quite knowledgeable about the work already done and the ultimate goal, Hecht says that conducting experiments has been one of the most challenging aspects of the groundbreaking research.

“Right now, we’re working on finding the optimal conditions under which the bacteria can survive, so we’ve been putting the bacteria in experimental environmental situations and seeing if they can survive and degrade the perchlorate at the same time,” she says. “But because we have so little information about the bacteria, it has been frustrating to repeat the experiments multiple times and sometimes not get clear results.”

Jenkins’ contributions include determining the effectiveness of the ion exchange resin. She notes that the team wants to apply its findings to industry where it is more economically feasible to reuse resin.

“Because it’s such new research, instead of being able to look up other people’s articles, we’ve basically had to figure it all out for ourselves, from the initial experiment to the procedure and what we want to happen,” she says.

“We start out with the solution that has perchlorate in it, pass it through the ion-exchange column, and the hope is that all of the perchlorate is going to come out of the solution stuck onto the resin,” she continues. “Because we want this to be a continuous cycle, we use yet another solution to get the perchlorate off the resin so we can reuse the resin over and over again.”

Sharing frustration with the entire team makes daily aggravations more manageable.

“When we get frustrated, we get frustrated together,” Kohen says. “We try to work together on a solution. The part of the project I enjoy the most is working with other people and sharing those emotions.”

Overcoming frustration and working through problems almost always produces benefits.

“This work has really put me beyond what I see other students at my grade level doing,” says Kohen. “We haven’t had any technical courses, so this is equipping us with lab skills that others don’t have yet.”

Jenkins adds that the EXCEL research has given her a completely new perspective on running experiments by offering a more in-depth experience than a pre-arranged experiment in a general chemistry lab.

“Here, we know what we want to happen, but no one can guarantee that it’s going to happen,” she explains. “It teaches you the ability to sit back and think about it and really gives you analytical skills.”

Kohen, who is interested in biotechnology, agrees that the collaborative nature of the research is equipping her with skills critical for a successful career.

“This project teaches you how to work with a team and I really feel like I learn a lot just by working with the different members,” she says. “Every week, we have a group meeting and have to put all of our work and findings together. This is just a minor example of how things are done in the real world and what I will be faced with in the future when I start working.”

For Hecht, the multi-disciplinary nature of the project is giving her insight into a variety of areas, which has helped narrow her career goals. The work combines chemistry, biology, chemical engineering, and environmental engineering.

“As for going to graduate school or applying for a job, I guess that’s one of the shining examples of how Lafayette gives students a leg up,” Kney says. “In most other schools, they would get lab experience, but in Lafayette’s labs, they are doing the same things that students at the graduate level are doing. They are involved heavily in figuring out the answer to a problem, just as a graduate student would do.”

“The difference between students who chose to come to Lafayette and other students is they get these research opportunities EXCEL offers them,” Mylon adds. “They are working one-on-one with professors and conducting experiments independently, whereas undergraduates who conduct research at major research institutions would probably be working as an aide to a graduate student.”

Other advantages the students will have over their peers are presentation experience and co- authorship of academic papers.

The students are proud that they are helping develop technology that will have an immediate benefit to society. They are also gaining confidence about their career goals.

“It’s an honor that they let me be a part of it because it is so ‘breakthrough,’” Hecht says. “We’re learning about things that are confidential because of the nature of our experiments. I think it’s great to see results, and we know that every result we get is one step closer to reaching a product that has a direct application to the real world.”

“It’s so exciting that as a 20-year-old, I am developing a product that industry can use,” Jenkins says. “When you think about product development, you usually think about someone who has been in the industry for several years. And then you have us, a bunch of undergrads, coming up with a product that others are going to use.”

A Marquis Scholar, Jenkins is a member of the student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers and coordinates brown bag sessions for the student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. She serves as membership coordinator and philanthropy chair of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority.

Hecht, also is a Marquis Scholar and coordinates brown bag events for the student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. She is treasurer of the club tennis team and publicity chair of Residence Hall Council.

Kohen is a member of International Students Association and belongs to student chapters of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, and Minority Scientists and Engineers. She is a teaching assistant in biology labs and volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club.

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.

Kney regularly involves students in his research, coauthoring papers published in scientific journals and presented at academic conferences. He has played a leadership role in obtaining three grants in less than two years from the National Science Foundation, totaling more than $650,000. He also helped establish a monitoring program for Bushkill Creek that is carried out by student volunteers.

Mylon serves as an adviser to Lafayette’s Society of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (SEES), a student group that conducts interdisciplinary collaborative research on environmental issues. The group won a research competition hosted May 3-5 by the PA-American Water Works Association in Valley Forge, Pa., and finished second in the 2005 WERC International Environmental Engineering Design Contest held April 3-7 at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M.

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.

Chosen from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars such as Jenkins and Hecht receive special financial aid and distinctive educational experiences and benefits, including a three-week, Lafayette-funded study-abroad course during January’s interim session between semesters. Marquis Scholars also participate in cultural activities in major cities and on campus, and mentoring programs with Lafayette faculty.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Thirty-nine students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News