Stacey Hughes is analyzing sediment samples from the Pigeon River for toxic metals. Chris Eubanks and Trey Archer are looking at ways to improve hydrogen fuel cell efficiency. Michelle Kerestes is researching a way to produce ethanol fuel more economically.
They are among 10 students who are participating in a 10-week intensive research experience at Appalachian State University this summer funded by a three-year National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.
In addition to students from Appalachian, students from UNC Pembroke, N.C. A&T and Meredith College are working alongside (under the direction of) faculty mentors from Appalachian's Department of Chemistry on research projects that focus on the environment and energy.
Research is one of the cornerstones of the academic experience for undergraduates at Appalachian.
"The goal is to give these students an intensive undergraduate research experience," said Associate Professor Nicole Bennett, who directs the REU program at Appalachian. "They are really learning what it means to be a research scientist, and they are building community with student scientists from other institutions."
Hughes, a senior chemistry major at Appalachian, is concerned about the environment, particularly in her local community in Maggie Valley. "I'm analyzing the amount of heavy metals in sediment samples from the river above and below a paper mill in Canton," she said. Hughes has found a variety of heavy metals, such as lead, downstream from the plant.
Hughes' research tools are as simple as a pair of waders, a bucket and shovel used to collect sediment samples, and as sophisticated as inductively coupled plasma optical emissions spectroscopy (ICPOES) used to extract metals from Hughes' samples, enabling her to analyze them, determine if the concentration of metals found poses any concerns, and eventually determine the source of the metals.
"I plan to study environmental engineering in graduate school, so participating in the REU has been very helpful," Hughes said, whose faculty mentor is Associate Professor Carol Babyak. "It has allowed me to focus on research without worrying about schoolwork every day. It has really helped me get a look at what I plan to do in the future."
Spending 40 hours a week on a research project can be rare at a university, particularly for undergraduate students.
"A lot of these students, when they are doing their research, need all day, day after day, to get their results," Babyak said. "During the school year they might have a two- or three-hour break (from classes), but you can't be as productive that way."
Participating in the program has other benefits, too.
"It gives them confidence," Babyak said of the students. "They learn how to do things on their own and how to think on their own. When they are in the labs during the school year, students follow a set procedure. Here, the students develop their own procedure to conduct their research, determine what chemicals they need, and learn about the cost of doing research. But the main benefit students get from this experience is the confidence they gain in doing and communicating science."
Katie Estridge, a senior chemistry major at Appalachian, plans to analyze estrogens found in treated wastewater. The hormone, which is produced naturally in the body as well as introduced synthetically, typically ends up in wastewater through human waste. It can remain in the treated water and negatively impact fish reproductive patterns. To do that, Estridge first is exploring ways high performance liquid chromatography coupled mass spectrometry can be used to detect and quantify estrogens in water samples.
"I started working on this research last summer, but was unable to devote as many hours to it," Estridge said. "The REU is an opportunity for me to continue my research and put more time into it so that I can get closer to seeing real results." She also believes the experience she gains from being an REU student will boost her chances of being admitted to graduate school.
Assistant Professor Michael Hambourger is working with junior Chris Eubanks from Appalachian and senior Trey Archer from UNC Pembroke to determine if cobalt compounds can be used to produce cheaper water electrolyzers and hydrogen fuel cells.
Both Eubanks and Archer plan to attend graduate school after earning their undergraduate degree.
"Students are more likely to remember what they learn through hands-on applications in the lab as compared to material learned in the classroom. For those inclined to go into a research-oriented career, the undergraduate research experience will certainly make them more competitive," Hambourger said.
"We need different sources of energy," Eubanks said of his interest in the research. "We need to reduce our dependency on oil."
The project also is helping Hambourger build his research lab and obtain data for future research publications which his REU students will co-author. Hambourger, who received his undergraduate degree from Appalachian, is in his second year as a professor at the university. "It takes time to build a program for the research laboratory, obtain results and receive research grants. I don't think my lab would be in the same place right now without these students assisting me 40 hours a week," he said.
The ethanol research project, part of the department's focus on fermentation science, is focusing on ways to remove yeast enzymes from the fermentation process that makes the fuel and in turn produce it more efficiently. "That's important when you are considering making a commodity product like fuel," according to Assistant Professor Eric Allain.
"As solely an undergraduate department, it is essential that we have students who work in research in the summer," said Libby Puckett, assistant director of the REU program and an associate professor of chemistry. "Being able to provide a paid 10-week research experience increases our research productivity," she said.
Students in the REU program receive a $5,000 stipend. They also will receive support to attend a professional conference in the fall.
Appalachian has had a strong chemistry undergraduate research program for many years, Bennett said. As many as 30 students each summer work on research fulltime through individual faculty member's grant-funded work. "We want to use the REU funding to advance faculty research programs, help individual faculty have research that might be the basis for writing other grants, and to encourage more interdepartmental grant applications. This can be a springboard for greater things in our department."