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A.B. engineering major Milena Petrova ’07 (Sofia, Bulgaria) is working to improve a Native American reservation’s water distribution system in research that will significantly impact the lives of the Tohono O’odham Nation and may be published in a scientific journal.

Located within the Sonoran Desert in south central Arizona, the Tohono O’odham Nation is comparable in size to the state of Connecticut and has a population most recently reported at nearly 24,000. Petrova is working with Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, to complete a feasibility assessment of rural water distribution. The goal is to identify the best methods of improving water systems for the 10 villages that make up the reservation.

They are collaborating through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which 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.

“These small, rural villages have older water distribution systems with deficiencies that include undersized pipes, tanks in poor locations, and inadequate materials,” says Jones, who developed GIS structures for the Tohono O’odham Nation and was recognized for her work with the Indian Health Service’s Tribal/Urban Recognition Award.

A recipient of many grants and awards, Jones used a NASA Summer Faculty Fellowship to conduct research at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where she developed and used web-based, state-of-the-art GIS technologies for infrastructure management. She regularly involves Lafayette students in her research, which she publishes in scientific journals and presents at academic conferences.

A.B. engineering major Jenny Moerschbacher ’05 laid the groundwork for the project last year by completing feasibility studies for four villages. Petrova’s focus is to improve old village infrastructure that poses health hazards and inconveniences.

“Milena’s job is to apply [Moerschbacher’s] findings to the remaining villages,” Jones says. “My hope is that she can complete these tasks so that we can prepare a manuscript for publication.

“It is always a particular pleasure to work with students in a one-on-one setting where both parties are intent on gaining a better understanding of a particular issue,” she continues. “The passion for finding answers drives the process as opposed to the sometimes orchestrated routine of a classroom.”

Determining the best method for improving the water systems depends on village location, materials, environmental conditions, and population. Federal grants may be obtained to complete the improvements once viable methods are identified. Because federal funding is difficult to obtain, Petrova must evaluate the effectiveness of the program and list alternatives to federal money.

“These alternatives have different benefits, both tangible and intangible,” Petrova says, adding that she used a traditional benefit-cost analysis to evaluate the tangible benefits. “The most exciting aspect of this project was also the hardest – deciding on how to calculate intangible benefits.”

Petrova’s work will help her in graduate school as she purses a career in environmental policy. Jones notes that it is unusual for an undergraduate to do research of this caliber, and that is one of the strongest benefits of the EXCEL Scholars program.

“Working with Professor Jones has been a very rewarding experience,” Petrova says. “We are working together on this project, and she expects me to develop my own concepts and share them with her.”

Petrova is a member of International Students Association and a tutor at the Academic Resource Center. She is a graduate of the American College of Sofia.

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