Barrett Scholars Dig into Real-World Problems
- By Carolyn Shapiro
As president of his high school environmental club, Austin Grant set out to reduce his classmates’ use of plastic water bottles, pushing the school to install a reusable-bottle water station. Now a civil engineering student in the University of Vermont class of ’16, Grant has moved his problem-solving upstream: He hopes to build a better disposable bottle, so lingering plastic litter has a shorter lifespan in the landfill.
“It’s easier to create a new biodegradable plastic bottle than it is to stop people from using plastic bottles,” he says.
The New Hampshire native spent this summer in a research lab working with two of his College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS) professors on a project to turn wastewater into a “bioplastic.”
“We start from basically zero,” says Patrick Lee, one of the two assistant professors guiding Grant’s project. “Austin began by learning how to approach the problem.”
His project was one of five chosen for a Barrett Research Scholarship this summer. The program is funded with a gift from UVM alum Richard Barrett, ’66, an entrepreneur who credits early internship experiences with bolstering his success. He now encourages undergraduates to acquire similar hands-on experience by pursuing a research project under the mentorship of CEMS faculty members. Each Barrett scholar receives $6,500.
The summer program provides a unique opportunity for faculty to build a relationship with undergraduates at a time of year when they aren’t busy with classes and other demands -- and that enhances the teaching process, says CEMS Dean Luis Garcia. “To do mentoring and to work with students is about more than just doing it inside the classroom.”
Because CEMS has a smaller number of graduate students available to assist faculty in their labs, undergrads can step up to fill that role, he says. They learn not only the importance of research for science but also the potential “for longterm benefit for human kind,” he says.
Sara Dorr, another 2015 Barrett scholar, studied the development of a carbon fiber product that mimics the strength of bamboo. Nicholas Bucci worked on a microbial agent that seals fractures in rock to address common challenges with carbon sequestration, a method of capturing pollution from power and industrial plants.
For the students, the research requires a variety of skills that the mathematical equations of the classroom don’t necessarily teach them. The ability to think creatively, collaborate with others and communicate ideas -- to colleagues and, most importantly, the agencies that can provide funding -- are crucial.
So is learning about the research enterprise itself.
“Research is a dynamic process,” explains Huijie Lu, the other CEMS assistant professor who is working with Grant. “There’s an ultimate destination, but there are challenges in the middle -- or interesting discoveries that are worth taking a look at -- that are not what you expect.”
Lu brought the wastewater-to-plastic proposal to Grant, and it immediately appealed to the student’s environmental bent.
“That’s taking Vermont recycling to an extreme,” he says. “That’s why I loved the idea.”
Grant and Lu tested manure from a dairy farm and compost from food waste for properties that would create bioplastic. But the human variety of waste -- specifically surplus from the Essex Junction Wastewater Treatment Facility -- had the best characteristics, he says.
For weeks, he researched the equipment and chemicals needed to build his reactor, where his experiment would take place. The reactor looks like a beer growler, a glass vessel that sits inside a small refrigerator in Lu’s lab. It holds a mixture of wastewater and bacteria that feed on the nutrients and fatty acids in the waste.
Multiple times daily, Grant visits the lab to siphon a little of the liquid into test tubes to measure chemical oxygen demand, which indicates how well the bacteria are consuming those nutrients and fatty acids, such as butyrate.
The ingredients produce a strong stench akin to dirty socks, which is immediately apparent upon entering the lab.
The bacteria store the wastewater nutrients as energy in the form of polyhydroxyalcanoates, or PHAs, which in turn are converted into a polymer that can be made into plastic. Under a microscope, the bacteria grow from skinny little rods to bloated, potato-shaped nuggets with circular masses of polymer inside.
That’s where Lee comes in. The CEMS professor is an expert in PHAs, specifically in the process of converting those polymers into a useful industrial product. That isn’t easy because the polymers are often difficult to manipulate. For example, some are brittle and easily break.
“You have to understand how these plastics behave in certain manufacturing conditions,” Lee says.
For those who might feel squeamish about drinking from a bottle made from the substances they flush down their toilets, Grant says it’s unlikely his waste-based plastic would end up as a food or beverage product. The researchers will have to test his polymer’s characteristics to determine its best purpose, perhaps for packaging or 3-D printing.
“It’s another problem to solve, and that’s what engineering is,” Grant says. “We’re problem-solvers.”