The first time I left the country, it was not for vacation, but to see a wastewater treatmentplant.
In the summer of 2016, I traveled to Rwanda, where I collaborated with a wastewatertreatment plant that turns fecal sludge into solid fuel. I worked on improving their sustainableprocess and implementing a water treatment process I have researched since my first year at PennState. Working in a much different country inspired me to continue research and toward my ultimategoal to work as an environmental engineer on the Global Grand Challenge of improving access toclean water. In order to achieve this goal, I plan to obtain a PhD in Environmental Engineeringresearch at Yale.I am currently a civil engineering student at Penn State with a minor in environmentalengineering working on research related to sustainable water treatment. As a first-year student, Iapproached a research faculty, asking to learn more about her research and potentially join herresearch team. Since then, under the leadership of Dr.
Stephanie Velegol, I have worked for 12hours a week on a water purification technology using the seeds of the Moringa oleifera tree to create asustainable filter that can clean water in developing countries around the world. The tree, whichgrows naturally in many areas that lack access to clean water, has seeds that contain a cationicantimicrobial protein with water purification properties. I apply these properties of the seed to asand filter that can remove microbes from water. The method shows promise, but must be alteredto be culturally appropriate and therefore sustainable.In May 2016, I even traveled to Rwanda to do research in a real-world setting whereMoringa oleifera grows. This experience gave me a sense of how this technology might be applied invarious places around the world.
When I traveled to Rwanda, I realized that many Rwandans do notdrink clean water, and it is commonplace to get water-borne illnesses. Even though humans knowhow to purify water in many different ways, these methods are not effective in areas such as Rwandadue largely to socioeconomic factors. While I have been very lucky to have constant access to cleanwater, a sustainable water filter could directly benefit people in areas with poor or limited drinkingwater. Because of my research, I want to work to make sure that issues of water purification andwater management are reduced and, perhaps one day, removed entirely. Many questions remain,including how this method can be incorporated into various communities around the world. Amultidisciplinary approach to the problem of water insecurity is needed to successfully introduce anew technology to areas with many different cultures, societies, and influences.
My lab experiments require that I research previous work, compare results to theoreticalmodels, and communicate my results through reports, presentations and posters. We are currentlyworking on submitting a paper to be published this fall that details the modeling of the filter and thecalculations that allow for scale-up; my role in this entails obtaining needed repeat trials of data forthe paper, academic literature review, and assisting with the write-up and review of the paper. Ipresented this research on the filter modeling in April of 2017 at the Environmental Chemistry andMicrobiology Student Symposium, where I received First Place Undergraduate Oral Presentation. Inaddition, as a member of Penn State’s Honors College, I will write an honors thesis that condensesthe research I have worked on over the past three years. This research has taught me a lot about both working individually and also collaborating in ateam. I was able to work independently on developing a microscope procedure for effectiveness ofmoringa-coated sand, taking the research in multiple directions and contacting different experts toconfirm my work. On the other hand, I have also worked in groups, collaborating closely to churnout experiment after experiment, running many repetitive trials in order to obtain data replicates.I have worked with graduate students, undergraduate students, and professors, along withother experts in fields relating to this research.
I have even gained experience training otherundergraduates in complex lab procedures. When I taught a new researcher how to create and runwater with model microbes through Moringa-coated sand columns, I had to quickly learn how todivide complex instructions into very simple tasks, which helps to reduce errors. I also learned thatstaying calm, even if the trainee makes a mistake, is the best way to teach someone to learn fromthat mistake. I have not only become a better teacher by mentoring undergraduates, but I have alsobecome less critical of myself if I make a mistake in the lab.Working on this research project has changed me in other ways. When I got the data backfrom my first experiment, it was the opposite of what I had expected. At first, I thought I had mixedup the labels on each sample! But I realized that, contrary to when one fails a test, a failedexperiment is an opportunity to learn and discover something new.
My first experiment, which Iinitially dubbed a failure, was what actually helped me discover that the protein in Moringa seedsdissolves rather quickly, before flocculating and settling out of the solution. This breakthroughallowed me to shorten the needed time to dissolve the protein in solution, therefore reducing thecreation time of Moringa-coated sand by 50%.Studying environmental engineering at Yale would allow me to pursue the research that Ifind most interesting, and would provide me access to the resources that will allow me to learn fromand contribute to the field of environmental engineering and water treatment. In addition, thisexperience would further prepare my research and engineering skills, and would provide mesubstantial experience for a future career working on water treatment, water resource management,and water purification for the many communities around the world who lack access to our mostprecious resource.