A summer of research for undergraduates
July 24, 2019
Eve Marealle ’21 from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is one of many Hajim School undergraduates engaging in hands-on research this summer, working in the lab of Marc Porosoff, assistant professor of chemical engineering, on a project related to converting CO2 into ethylene and propylene. (Photos by J. Adam Fenster/ University of Rochester)
The Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences provides undergraduates with numerous opportunities to engage in hands-on research, and summer is a particularly good time to engage in it full time, away from the distractions of coursework and other activities during the academic year. Here are stories about students working in four Hajim School research groups this summer.
Joanna Chavez ’21, at right, is working this summer with PhD student Michael Klaczko, at left, in the lab of James McGrath, professor of biomedical engineering, to develop and refine a point-of-care potassium electrode sensor. Chavez, a first-generation student, says her experience this summer has confirmed her desire to pursue a PhD.
First research opportunity offers glimpse of exciting possibilities
The EKG (electrocardiogram) readings from someone suffering ventricular tachycardia (rapid heartbeat related to heart failure and cardiac arrest) are remarkably similar to someone suffering hyperkalemia (high potassium levels). So, it is critical that EMT’s have a way to quickly assess what is actually causing such readings when they encounter them on calls. For example, if they mistakenly assume heart failure, and administer a drug to control tachycardia, it would be fatal to a person suffering high potassium levels instead.
This is the challenge that Joanna Chavez ’21, a chemical engineering major, is helping to address as part of her first ever research experience this summer at the University of Rochester.
The first-generation student from Matamoros Tamaulipas, Mexico is working with Michael Klaczko, a first-year PhD student in chemistry, in the lab of James McGrath, a professor of biomedical engineering, to develop and refine a point-of-care potassium electrode sensor. It would work much like the blood glucose monitoring devices used by persons with diabetes. A single drop of blood applied to a test strip, then inserted into the sensor would produce a reading within a minute, using the ultrathin membranes developed by McGrath’s lab to filter potassium ions from the blood.
“None of this would be possible without (McGrath’s) membranes that are acting as the scaffolds for this system,” Klaczko says. “Nobody else in the whole world yet has been able to make devices that can do this at this scale because they don’t have the scaffold.”
The work Chavez is doing this summer as a McNair Scholar has confirmed her desire to pursue a PhD. And it has offered a glimpse of the exciting possibilities that lay ahead for her.
“Right now, I’m doing the basics. I’m like an assistant to Michael. I watch him reading the papers, setting up the experiments, and I admire him,” she says. “Hopefully one day, I’m going to be the one doing that – reading the papers and setting up the experiments. And that is amazing.”
Setting her sights high
Chavez crossed the border into Texas every day to attend high school. She was a top student, interested in pursuing a medical degree. One of her teachers urged her to set her sights high. So, she looked online for top universities with medical schools and found the University of Rochester.
The summer before her first semester she attended the Early Connection Opportunity program, which is offered by the Office of Minority Affairs to help students take full advantage of the University’s resources. Chavez did just that, quickly signing up for the Kearns Center Scholar program. The scholars participate in a series of workshops throughout the academic year, exploring ongoing research projects conducted at the University, students’ career goals, and the balance between academic and social expectations. In addition, students receive intensive academic advising, access to study groups, career mentoring, and other enrichment opportunities.
“The center has helped me throughout my stay here,” Chavez says. “They are an amazing resource.”
For example, she initially planned to major in public health and biology. But then she took chemistry as a prerequisite – a subject she knew nothing about – and fell in love with it. “I worked really hard to understand it, and when I finally did, it was the closest thing to magic that I had ever found,” Chavez says.
She switched her major to chemical engineering, then turned to Kearns Center for advice on what to do next.
And that’s how she learned about the McNair Scholars program, which is paying all her expenses to work in the McGrath lab this summer, plus helping her with the tools to apply for graduate school.
“I didn’t realize I could have an opportunity like that until they told me,” she says gratefully. “I was shocked.”
A passion for teaching
Chavez is working this summer more with microscopy and microchips than with chemicals, and “really enjoying the engineering side of chemistry,” she says. “It is showing me that I like both chemistry and chemical engineering.”
She has also discovered a passion for teaching, after serving as a teaching assistant for a general chemistry class.
“That is the thing that I have enjoyed the most in my life, helping students learn about something that I’m passionate about,” she says. “That is something I cannot compare to anything else.
So, it is not surprising to hear what she would like to do with a PhD degree.
“I first want to go into industry to explore and gain more experience,” she says. “And then I want to become a professor.”
Left to right: Aime Laurent Twizerimana ’20; Marc Porosoff, assistant professor of chemical engineering; Eve Marealle ’21; and Madeline Vonglis ’20, in Porosoff’s lab. The three chemical engineering undergraduates are doing various research projects this summer related to converting carbon dioxide for other purposes. Porosoff, who broke his hip at the start of summer in a scooter accident, has taken up residence in an extended care suite at the Hilton Garden Inn at College Town while he recovers -- so it will be easier for the students to meet with him. All three students say they are gaining invaluable experience in Porosoff’s lab, and plan to go on to graduate school to further study conversion of carbon dioxide.
Putting theory into practice in quest to convert CO2
It is all well and good to learn theories in the classroom, say three University of Rochester chemical engineering undergraduates working with Marc Porosoff this summer.
But they much prefer actually putting those theories into practice, which is exactly what they’re doing in the assistant professor’s lab.
Eve Marealle ’21 from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Aime Laurent Twizerimana ’20 from the Nyahibu District of Rwanda; and Madeline Vonglis ’20 from nearby Scottsville, NY, are all working on various projects associated with converting carbon dioxide for other uses.
Both Marealle and Twizerimana, for example, who are both Xerox Engineering Research Fellows, are looking at ways to convert carbon dioxide into ethylene and propylene, the two leading petrochemicals manufactured worldwide.
“Rather than use oil resources to make these commodity chemicals, we could use carbon dioxide instead,” says Porosoff.
Carbon dioxide has been identified as a major contributor to global warming. But even if it wasn’t, it would still be a prime target for this kind of research, Porosoff says.
“We have all this carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and it would be a missed opportunity not to try to use it as a low-cost feedstock.”
Vonglis, an Eisenberg Summer Intern, is working on a different project. While Porosoff was doing his postdoc at the Naval Research Lab, he discovered that molybdenum carbide, used in conjunction with potassium, is a very good catalyst for converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide could then be used in a process developed by the Navy to make synthetic jet fuel.
Vonglis is running experiments to further characterize the catalyst and determine “how hard can we push it,” Porosoff says. “This will be the first time someone has shown that this type of molybdenum catalyst can be used on an industrial scale.”
Different paths to exactly where they want to be
The three students followed different paths to reach the University. But they all agree the Porosoff lab is exactly the right place, teaching them exactly the right things, to prepare them for their future careers.
Vonglis, for example, “grew up knowing she would attend the University of Rochester.” Both of her parents work for the University. Originally, she contemplated majoring in biomedical engineering – until she heard about the green energy applications that chemical engineers pursue. “That’s something I’ve always been passionate about, so I switched,” she says.
This has been her first opportunity to work in a lab.
“I really like the research we are doing,” she says. “Direct conversion of carbon dioxide is exactly what I want to be doing and want to continue doing in grad school.”
“Getting to actually do reactor studies, rather than just learning the theory of it,” she adds, “helps make everything fall into place, and it makes so much more sense.”
Science is “something that has always fascinated me,” says Marealle, who has followed in the footsteps of her older sister Joyceline ’20, who is also studying chemical engineering at the University of Rochester; a school counselor also encouraged Eve to apply because of the university’s strength in research
This is also her first opportunity to work in a lab.
“In the classes we take during the academic year, we are learning knowledge that already exists,” she says. “I wanted to do research to get a new experience, and to learn how we can apply what we learn in the classroom. It’s been a great experience so far.”
She would like to get a master’s degree in energy systems, then either stay in the US and work for a company reducing the effects of global warming or return to Tanzania and start her own company to increase awareness of the problem in that country.
Twizerimana heard about the University of Rochester and its flexible curriculum while attending a gap year program called Bridge2Rwanda, which helps students apply for scholarships to schools in the US and Europe. He initially wanted to concentrate on industrial chemistry, which is not offered at Rochester, so he enrolled in chemical engineering instead.
That has worked out well, he says, because it has allowed him to explore a broader range of subjects.
He spent the first part of last summer doing research as an intern at the Forschungszentrum Julich research center in Germany, then joined the Porosoff lab last August.
His work in the lab has given him hands-on experience with synthesis techniques, characterization, and reactor studies – all of which are at the core of the catalysis studies he would like to pursue in graduate school.
“I’m interested in pursuing a PhD because there’s more I still need to learn,” Twizerimana says. “I am especially interested in alternative uses of carbon dioxide, because there are potential markets and potential applications to so many things.”
His “ideal dream”: Starting his own chemical company in Rwanda.
Rising junior Lyse Mugeni, at left, is working this summer as a Xerox Engineering Research Fellow in the lab of Kenneth L. Marshall, at right, a senior research engineer and organic chemist at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. “I thought if I want to go into a PhD program, I should start looking into research and see if it is something I would be interested in-- and also whether it’s right for me,” says Mugeni, an optical engineering major.
Savoring the ‘independence’ of working in a lab
As a rising junior at the University of Rochester, Lyse Mugeni was beginning to think seriously about what she should do after she graduates.
“I thought if I want to go into a PhD program, I should start looking into research and see if it is something I would be interested in-- and also whether it’s right for me,” says the optical engineering major.
Mugeni is getting an in-depth introduction to research this summer as a Xerox Engineering Research Fellow, working in the lab of Kenneth L. Marshall, a senior research engineer and organic chemist at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Marshall, who has worked at LLE since 1984, is an expert in liquid crystals, and has been working in the field since 1973. He worked with James L. Fergason, the individual who invented the liquid crystal display as well as numerous other optical applications.
The project Mugeni is working on involves polymer cholesteric liquid crystal flakes suspended in silicone oils of various viscosities to visualize the velocity gradients that occur when an air stream is directed across a metal surface.
The suspended PCLC flakes reflect light at different wavelengths in the visible spectrum depending on the angle at which they are illuminated and viewed.
This temperature-insensitive combination could be used to visualize airflow patterns over a surface, such as the wing of an aircraft, or on hot surfaces (e.g, jet engine housings).
Mugeni is determining the optimum range of viscosities of oil in which to suspend the flakes for room temperature measurement conditions.
“So far I have some rough numbers, and now I’m trying to narrow it down to the best range,” she says.
Flexible curriculum brought her to Rochester
Mugeni became interested in math and science while attending primary school in her hometown of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
She learned about the University of Rochester while participating in the Bridge2Rwanda program, which helps students in East Africa apply to universities in the US and Europe. Rochester appealed to her because of the “flexibility” of its curriculum, she says.
While scanning through the different majors listed at the University’s website, The Institute of Optics and its optical engineering program caught her eye.
“I liked the fact that it was a special program,” Mugeni says. “And I liked the math and physics part of it.”
Her decision to enroll in The Institute has worked out well, she says.
“I really like the program,” she says. “Everybody knows each other; people take care of you.”
‘You have to be your own teacher at times’
And now she’s learning what it’s like to do research.
“The thing I’m learning most is, there’s this independence that comes with doing research,” she says. “It’s not like in a class, where you have a quiz each Monday. You have to be your own teacher at times, and I like that aspect of it.”
But she’s also glad to have a mentor like Marshall.
“He gives you that independence, but he’s always there if you have questions. So many times, I had to make him repeat things, and he was really helpful.”
“I’ve really enjoyed the research,” she adds.
But she’s not yet sure if she’ll pursue a PhD. “I definitely want to go on to graduate school (in optics), but I’m thinking about working first to see if there is something specific I am interested in, and then decide if I should go for a masters or a PhD.
“Next summer I want to do an internship to see the industrial part of it.”
Posse of undergrads tackle a computing bottleneck
Last summer, Hannah Simons and Noah Bertram worked one on one with faculty members at the University of Rochester.
Simons ’20, who is majoring in computer science and gender studies, looked at how bills affecting women are edited during the legislative process in order to become laws. Bertram ’21, a math, physics and economics major, did independent study in math.
This summer, Simons and Bertram are part a veritable posse of eager young researchers helping another University faculty member ease the bottleneck that occurs when data must be moved from a computer’s memory to its processor. They are among eight undergraduates working in the research group of Chen Ding, professor of computer science.
“It’s really helpful when I’m stuck on something to be able to ask other people, and to be able to ask for more perspective,” Simons says.
“We will shoot ideas at each other and correct each other’s mistakes. Or sometimes I’ll just ask what someone is working on independently,” Bertram says. “I like it. It’s very social.”
Collaboration is key
Ding encourages the collaboration. The very nature of conducting research in computer science depends on it, he says.
“There are so many (computing) resources available now,” Ding says. “Any single person has only a limited scope of how many tools they can use, and how much information they can look at. So, having a group like this is really beneficial.”
Most of the students, with the help of two graduate students, are working on various aspects of Ding’s research on optimizing the use of “caches” to temporarily hold small amounts of data from a computer’s memory. Caches can ease the bottleneck that occurs when data must be located and then transferred from memory to a processor. But a cache can hold only a fraction of all the data stored in a system’s memory. How do you make sure the right data is in the right place when it’s needed? Ding has received a $499,816 National Science Foundation grant to address this problem with a process called “lease caching,” an interface that directly integrates software with hardware to determine, based on the capacity of the cache and the type of program being used, which data should be kept in the cache and for how long.
“It’s a challenging problem that has elements of math, algorithm, implementation, experimentation, program design and computer architecture,” says Ding. So, there are plenty of opportunities for students – no matter how many courses they have taken -- to find specific parts of the project that interest them and that they can contribute to.
Michael Chavrimootoo ’20, a dual computer science and political science major, is working with another student on a different project that also bears on the problem. They are doing further research and development of advanced memory allocator software developed by the Ding group for more efficient management of memory in a computer system.
An accessible mentor
This is the largest number of undergraduates that Ding has had in his research group during a summer – reflecting the success he has had in obtaining outside funding. Five of the students this summer, for example, are being supported with supplement funding Ding has obtained through two of the three current NSF grants he is working on.
He is happy to give undergraduates the opportunity to work in his group. “It is totally new for them,” he says. “In the courses we teach them, we know the problem, we know the answer. We are training the students how to solve the problem with the solution that we teach them. In the lab, doing research, we don’t know the answer and often not even how to phrase the question. So, it’s a very good experience for them.”
Beginning immediately after commencement, Ding conducts an orientation for his incoming summer researchers, introducing the overall problem they’ll be working on. Students read recent papers on the topic, then, with Ding’s help, start to narrow the focus of what they will work on. Students then present their ideas to the entire group.
To further build team cohesion, Ding took the students rock climbing, and celebrated a notable achievement with a group luncheon.
The undergrads also participated in Zoom meetings with leading scientists in the area they work on, including Peter Denning, a distinguished professor at the Naval Postgraduate School (on locality research) and Doug Lea, professor and chair of computer science at SUNY-Oswego (on memory allocation).
Students say they enjoy working with Ding.
“He gives us a lot of control and ownership over what we do, and encourages us to bring our ideas forward,” says Chavrimootoo.
They especially appreciate his accessibility—and his concern that they find ways to enjoy life outside of work.
“He’s always coming in, talking to us not only about what we’re doing, but what’s going on in our lives,” says Bertram. “So, he’s like a friend. If we don’t understand something, he’s very patient.”
About the students
Noah Bertram ’21, from Jackson, Michigan, makes a point of going to bed early and “never procrastinating.” That helps him pursue three demanding degrees at once, in math, physics, and economics.
However, the main reason he is able to tackle these three majors is his “huge amount of passion and interest” in each of them, he says. “I am therefore motivated, which ties into all three sharing a theory component.”
One of the things he finds most fascinating is “using mathematical tools and arguments to predict things in the economy,” he says. It’s not surprising, then, that he would be interested in helping Prof. Chen Ding’s research group optimize the use of “caches” to speed up the transfer of data in computer systems. “You can’t put everything you want in a cache. So, to me it is an economics problem,” Bertram says. “You’re trying to maximize the performance by figuring out what should go in the cache, and what shouldn’t.”
Bertram would like to pursue a PhD, and then a career in academia, but is still debating which field.
Michael Chavrimootoo ’20, who is from the island nation of Mauritius, spent two gap years after high school running his own company designing web sites. He also tutored children “how to think like programmers” at a non-profit NGO in that country.
He chose to attend the University of Rochester because of its open curriculum and strong entrepreneurial programs; he is pursuing degrees in both computer science and political science.
Prior to being a teaching assistant, Chavrimootoo says, he had “absolutely no interest” in going to grad school. “But I enjoyed my TA experience with Prof. Ding so much, it reminded me how much I like teaching and want to do that in the long run.”
He now plans to pursue a PhD in computer science. Eventually he would like to return to Mauritius, teach computer science at a university there, and join efforts to make the island’s government more open. “It’s a democracy, but it’s always the same people in power,” he says.
Hannah Simons’ 20, from Westport, CT, was more interested in the humanities in high school – until she took an AP computer science course her senior year to fulfill a science requirement.
There were only two other girls in the class of 25, but “I loved it,” Simons says. “I had the greatest teacher.” She took additional tutoring on the side to further hone her coding skills.
She is majoring in both computer science and gender studies. Simons says it’s still “a little weird” to be a woman in male-dominated field like computer science, but she’s looking forward to attending the Grace Hopper Conference, the world's largest gathering of women technologists, this October in Orlando.
After graduating she would like to do IT work for a tech company “that does good for the world,” preferably with initiatives to help women. “So I can continue to code, but have it matter,” she says.