UB helps undergraduates and an alumnus teacher research pollution prevention

By Peter Murphy

Published August 30, 2017

On Wednesday, August 9, the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering (CSEE) held its 8 annual Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Symposium. Students who participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded program gave presentations and discussed posters highlighting their summer research.

“Every year, the student group is different, and this year’s cohort was committed to high-quality research. All participants will attend professional conferences or submit peer-reviewed papers based on their short, but dense, experience working with UB faculty. They’re all enthusiastic to contribute to the field of pollution prevention.”
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

The REU is a 10-week-long opportunity for undergraduate students to conduct research similar to what is almost exclusively done by graduate students. Participants apply to the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded program and conduct research related to the site’s theme: Environmental Engineering Solutions for Pollution Prevention.

This was the 2 year assistant professor John D. Atkinson, a CSEE faculty member and the REU site’s principal investigator, led the REU initiative. “Every year, the student group is different, and this year’s cohort was committed to high-quality research. All participants will attend professional conferences or submit peer-reviewed papers based on their short, but dense, experience working with UB faculty. They’re all enthusiastic to contribute to the field of pollution prevention,” he says.

Over 150 students across the country applied to work at UB this past summer. “Every year, and this is our 8, we strive to recruit a diverse student cohort, in every sense of the word. We want participants to benefit from, and value, the opportunity to engage peers who are different from themselves. It improves the experience and the research.” says Atkinson.

Eight students and one high school teacher worked with eight faculty mentors from different departments throughout the University. Mentors include Atkinson and assistant professors Nirupam Aich, Lauren Sassoubre, and Zhenduo Zhu from CSEE; professor Richelle Allen-King (Geology); assistant professor Haiqing Ling (Chemical and Biological Engineering); associate professor Christopher Lowry (Geology); and professor D. Scott Mackay (Geography).

 “Because of the REU, I’m definitely thinking about going to graduate school, or doing a PhD program,” says Paul Entwistle, an undergraduate from Rowen University, “I think this encouraged me to go down that route because I had a positive experience, and I can see myself doing it in the future.”

Jennifer Soonthornrangsan, an undergraduate student from a private college in New York State, had a similar experience, and applied to the REU program to engage in research opportunities she does not have at her university. “This is my first research experience, it was really eye-opening. My school is small. We don’t have the facilities to conduct big research like this.”

One UB student, Kaitlyn Alcazaren, participated in the REU program (although she was not funded by the REU supplement). Alcazaren worked with Sassoubre on a research project entitled The Effect of Quicklime on Antimicrobial Resistance in Dairy Manure.

While most program participants were undergraduates from other colleges and universities, Christopher Riley was the exception. Riley teaches oceanography and Advanced Placement (AP) environmental science at Lancaster High School, located in Western New York. The REU program supported a local high school teacher this year because of supplemental funding provided by the NSF Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program.

Riley is a UB alumnus and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Studies. Research has been a passion of his for a number of years. He worked on research projects for organizations including Buffalo State College’s Great Lakes Center (GLC) and the Erie County Health Department.  

“I’ve been very fortunate my whole life. Opportunities seem to just come to me,” Riley says. After college he did environmental work for AmeriCorps, a national service organization, in West Seneca, NY (just outside of Buffalo). Shortly after his time with AmeriCorps, Riley went to Buffalo State College to earn a NYS Teaching Certification, and found another opportunity researching stream insect communities, work he incorporated into a master’s degree in environmental research and education. After finishing his degree, Riley worked with the GLC at Buffalo State College. The GLC is an institute of researchers and educators at Buffalo State who are dedicated to studying the ecology of the Great Lakes.

“I had an opportunity to participate in a project with the Erie county Health Department, while I was with the GLC. They were looking for contaminants at our local beaches,” Riley says. He worked on this project for about two years, until he had an opportunity to teach at Lancaster High School. Riley began his teaching career, but kept in touch with some of the people he worked with on the Health Department project. Five years into teaching, the Health Department asked Riley to help in another research project. He did research for the department during summers over the next four years. One of Riley’s coworkers from Lancaster, John Pleban, joined him on the project. Pleban eventually left teaching to earn a PhD at UB, but the two stayed in touch.

“He contacted me and said ‘there’s this NSF opportunity for teachers.’ I was interested. He said it was going to be plant research with this new device called the MultispeQ, and I had never done plant research before. I was interested in learning new methodology and tools and topics,” Riley says, “what I was excited about was being able to take that back to my students.”

Riley’s project focused on the use of the MultispeQ. The device is used primarily to measure the efficiency of photosynthesis in plants. Using the device and the accompanying application (for an android phone, laptop or other device), Riley compared three different types of plants’ photosynthesis under similar light conditions in UB’s greenhouse. “First, you create a series of questions you want to answer. Then, when you take a measurement, clip the device on a leaf. In about 15 seconds it takes a variety of measurements. Temperature, air pressure, it has a light sensor on the top to measure how much light is available for this leaf to take and create sugars during photosynthesis. A tremendous amount of data is collected as a series of LEDs of different wavelengths are quickly pulsed measuring how much of the light is reflected, absorbed and transmitted,” he says.

Lancaster High School has a greenhouse attached to Riley’s classroom. Riley plans to grow plants under a variety of conditions and teach the students how to use the MultispeQ, so they can later use the device effectively when they set up their own projects.

“What they would do is come up with their own project. They’ll look at different conditions the plants will be growing in and measuring efficiency in photosynthesis, which is a fundamental measure of plant health.”

Riley’s students were one of his main reasons for becoming part of this program. In 2016, just 46% of students worldwide received college credit from the AP environmental science exam. In 2017, 87% of Riley’s students received credit for the exam. “Making class more enriching for my students, I think requires me to keep up with new technologies,” he says. “I’m trying to improve college readiness for our students. Developing relationships with college professors will help me identify what skills students need to be successful in college.”

Riley will be back at UB for the Spring 2018 Orientation to present his project, and provide incoming students with a firsthand experience of the REU program.

 “This was a dense 10 weeks for the student participants, and for Chris,” Atkinson says, “They were in the field doing research, in labs all night, collaborating to make posters, and reviewing each other’s talks. They participated in communication and creativity trainings. We completed a community service project with the Allentown Neighborhood Association in Buffalo. After this summer, they’re going to want to get some sleep, ASAP.”

To view pictures from the presentation and symposium, click here.