NSF fellowship will support her grad school research on indoor environments at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
By Bryan Hay
Rachel Hurley ’23 has been awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will support her continued research in improving the quality of indoor environments when she enters grad school at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).
Highly competitive, NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are given to students pursuing or planning to pursue a research-based graduate degree program in a STEM-related field. Fellowships are awarded to exceptional students to support furthering their research and professional advancement.
“My research focuses on the indoor environment, because although we spend the majority of our time indoors, there is a gap in our understanding of how different airborne particles interact with one another,” says Hurley, an integrated engineering major whose faculty and research adviser is David Brandes, professor of civil and environmental engineering and Walter A. Scott Chair of Integrative Engineering.
“With my NSF fellowship, I plan to study and understand how indoor pollen interacts with semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs),” she says. “SVOCs are persistent chemicals indoors that are released from a variety of sources such as building materials or cleaning products.
“Both SVOCs and pollen can be found inside in the air and dust, and cause concern for human health. However, they are both difficult to measure. Therefore, with my research I aim to understand how pollen and specific SVOCs interact with one another and then, more broadly, how building characteristics play a role.”
Ultimately, Hurley wants to identify how control systems in buildings can be designed to mitigate these risks and improve indoor environmental quality by adopting better air cleaning technologies and improving indoor design.
“Throughout my research, I also see the opportunity to work with local communities and environmental justice groups to focus on lower income homes that are more prominently impacted by poor air quality, as well as have the opportunity to involve WPI undergraduate students,” she says.
As her Lafayette career draws to a close, she will find it easy to settle in at WPI. Hurley worked in its civil and architectural engineering department through a summer research program and, taking a leave from Lafayette, served as research assistant and developed her interest in studying indoor environments while working with Shichao Liu, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at WPI.
“My opportunity to pursue research at WPI would not have been possible without the support of the Lafayette community, particularly the Engineering Division,” Hurley notes. “At WPI, Prof. Liu from the start treated me as a valued member of his research team and enabled me to take on a leadership role, which was essential in my development as an independent researcher, and I am very grateful for that opportunity.”
She was first introduced to academic research by volunteering in the Concrete Lab with David Mante, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, with whom she worked as a Clare Boothe Luce Scholar. As an EXCEL Scholar, Hurley is currently working with Brandes and Christa Kelleher ’08, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, on hydrology research.
“The skills I had acquired at Lafayette led to my participation in a summer research program at WPI. This was my introduction to the world of academia and solidified my goal of pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering,” she says.
“Also, my major in integrative engineering made this opportunity possible, as the increased flexibility of my schedule allowed me to adjust my engineering courses to take during alternate semesters,” she adds. “Lafayette, moreover, was very supportive in ensuring that despite this leave, I would be able to resume in the spring with my financial aid and scholarship unaffected. This was exciting for me because, due to COVID, I was unable to study abroad for a semester as planned, so having a semester focused on research at WPI was, in a way, my own study abroad.”
While on leave at WPI, Hurley says she felt connected to Lafayette and was “accepted back into the engineering community as if I never left.”
For her career goals, Hurley would like to teach at a university to pursue research and inspire students to always ask “who am I designing for?”
“I think that a focus of scientific research should be to strive to tackle questions of our environment and how they disproportionately impact lower income communities that do not have sufficient resources to combat the many challenges of climate change and extreme weather,” she says. “Through teaching, I hope to contribute toward the next generation of engineers who greatly consider how inclusivity and equity play into their engineering designs so that science, research, and technology can be used to benefit as much of society as possible and make the world a better place.”