Students tackle weighty issues in Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Stephen Lowery

Stephen Lowery, a math major, prepares plates for use in a powerful microscope that will let him see the progress he is making in synthesizing silk proteins. Lowery and other students in the Bioprocess Engineering for Sustainability program synthesize natural fibers as part of their research.

By Amy Loeffler

Global warming, drought, and lack of renewable resources are all defining societal concerns of the 21st century. Undergraduates tackled these daunting subjects and had the opportunity to explore the challenges and possible solutions to these age-defining crises during this summer’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

The REU program — funded by the National Science Foundation — emphasizes the opportunity for students from four-year and community colleges to engage in research they might not be able to do otherwise. This summer, students from a host of colleges and universities worked with professors from the Department of Biological Systems Engineering in two programs: Bioprocess Engineering for Sustainability and Dynamics of Water and Societal Systems.

Students in the Bioprocess Engineering for Sustainability program focused on converting biological material such as plants into fuels, chemicals, materials, and pharmaceuticals. Students also attended the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute’s 17th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference.

“We try to accept students who would not otherwise have this opportunity,” said Justin Barone, associate professor of BSE and program site director. “We also focus on accepting underrepresented groups in science and engineering.”

Students in the water-focused project investigated complex, systems-level interactions within a relatively small, manageable watershed at the Stream Research, Education, and Management (StREAM) Lab. In addition to exposing students to the diversity of related research in this area, W. Cully Hession, professor and site director, gave students opportunities to engage with various community stakeholders and the general public. They also attended the 13th Annual American Ecological Engineering Society Conference at Michigan State University.

“Summer undergraduate research programs are a win-win experience for the department and the student participants,” said Mary Leigh Wolfe, head of biological systems engineering. “The students work with faculty and graduate students on cutting-edge research and discover their level of interest in including research in their future studies and careers.”