Talk on Emerging Contaminants

Lee Blaney, a professor in Maryland who did his undergraduate and masters degree here at Lehigh, came to give a talk about contaminants that are appearing more consistently in waterways and sediments.  He explained that in 80% of streams across the world, traces of pharmaceuticals and hormones have been found.  80%!! Some of the major chemicals that are affecting animals and ecosystems include BPA, the active ingredient in the birth control pill, and oxybenzone.  The active ingredient in birth control is fully synthetic and an anthropogenic endocrine disrupter.  For example, when 4 ng/L  of it was encountered by fish, the whole fish population suffered from intersex condition and became female.  Also, oxybenzone, which is the uv protectant in sunscreen, has been found to contribute to the bleaching of corals.  Dr. Blaney talked about the solutions that would ameliorate this problem of anthropogenic chemicals in our water.  His lab is currently doing research in using UV to destroy the chemicals, which could be implemented at a wastewater treatment plant.  However, when a some of these pharmaceutical chemicals are split up by UV radiation, their byproducts are more harmful than the original molecule.  Other byproducts are molecules that could react with other chemicals to form harmful products, or molecules whose safety has never been tested before.  So, anthropogenic compounds in our waterways lead to harmful consequences, and finding a way to destroy them is proving to be extremely difficult.  This is why Dr. Blaney’s research is extremely important; as long as these chemicals continue to find a way into the water, we need to figure out what they are doing and how to get rid of them, for the safety of people and the surrounding ecosystems.


Talk on Environmental Engineering Career Options

This week we had a visit from Dr. Dan Elliott, who went to Lehigh for his Ph.D in environmental engineering and currently does environmental consulting at Geosyntec.  He gave us a presentation titled “Opportunities for Environmental Professionals in a Rapidly Changing World & Introduction to Geosyntec,” and explained the different avenues an environmental engineer can go down.  The options included the industry sector, the university sector, and consulting.  In industry, he used to do coordinate permitting, cleanup, and sustainability programs.  Dr. Elliott explained how environmental professionals tend to be generalists in this field because even if one specializes in something during college, she/he will have to do a wide range of environmental tasks in the real world.  At Merck, he managed hazardous waste treatment systems and in the corporate world at American Standard, he managed environmental work for all of the offices around the world.  He now does consulting work at Geosyntec, which includes a lot of remediation of chemical spills in the soil and groundwater.

Dr. Elliott advised us aspiring environmental engineers to take as much chemistry as we can; he did his undergrad in chemistry and said that of the seven people in his class, six went to med school.  Because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood, he became a “doctor of the earth” instead.  When he said this, unlike it written here, it wasn’t corny and was actually really inspiring.  He said that he loves his job because everyday there is a new problem to solve, so you are constantly learning.  The work that he and the other environmental consultants do contributes to the safety and wellbeing of the people and the environment, which is rewarding and motivating.  To hear Dr. Elliott genuinely explain that he thinks his job is interesting and for a good purpose was enlightening.  I’ve talked to many professional environmental engineers  who are not as excited or positive about what they do or the reasons that they do it.  It’s super motivating to see a well-established, very smart environmental consultant who sincerely enjoys his job and the value it creates for the world.


Engineering & Entrepreneurship: Lehigh Biltong

As told by my previous post, at Lehigh a student in any major can become an entrepreneur with just an idea and a little will power.  A prime example of this ideal Lehigh student is Daniel Levy, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.  His junior year, he decided to start toying with his grandpa’s authentic South African Biltong recipe; his parents were born and raised there, so he’s trying to bring a bit of his heritage to the States!  Biltong is kind of like beef jerky, but better; it’s beef that’s been soaked in vinegar, spiced, and dried, and has less preservatives and more savoriness.  For the past year between studying for his engineering courses, Dan’s been taking courses in entrepreneurship and growing his biltong business, appropriately called Lehigh Biltong.

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Not only has he been selling it to all of his friends on campus, but he now has a website and ships his product all over the country!  I asked Dan some questions about being an engineering major AND an entrepreneur at Lehigh, and this is what he said:

  • Me: “How has Lehigh helped you with your business?”
  • Dan: “I’ve used resources such as the laser cutter and have gotten connections from teachers and professors.  I have also been invited to events where I can display and advertise my product through Lehigh.”
  • Me: “Do you feel like being a mechE has helped you at all?”
  • Dan: “Just in the confidence that I can solve almost any problem, like if I can solve an engineering problem surely I can figure out how to make and sell biltong.  I also built by own dehydrator.”
  • (A dehydrator is used to dry the meat once it’s soaked in vinegar.)
  • Me: “What’s the general reaction of your college peers when you tell them you made your own business?”
  • Dan: “They are impressed that I have so much free time and am willing to jump into something totally new and untested.  They are also supportive and willing to help most of the time.”
  • Me: “Who are you targeting your product towards?”
  • Dan: “Males in their 20’s-30’s who like to eat healthy and are also looking for a protein filled snack.”

Dan is a prime example of one of the many multi-faceted engineering majors who can be found at Lehigh.  He discovered a need for a product (there are only two other Biltong makers on the east coast) and worked hard to perfect and market it, all while also completing a mechanical engineering degree!  I hope this inspires all of you prospective students to explore the different avenues you can go down in college; you can have a major in one area and still be involved in other disciplines.  If you’re interested in buying Dan’s biltong, go to his website Lehigh Biltong.  I’m a vegetarian, but I’ve heard that it’s delicious, and he uses free-range meat!


Eureka!

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This post is about the Eureka! Ventures Competition put on by the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity, and Innovation.   They look for Lehigh students pursuing innovative thinking and sustainable business models for their ideas or inventions.

My research partner Erin and I applied to the Eureka! competition for our product, Air Releaf, that I have mentioned in previous blog posts.  Air Releaf is a plant-based indoor air purifier; we have been working on the prototype at Mountaintop for the past semester.  To apply, we had to create a business plan, make a pitch in front of judges, and answer a bunch of questions about how we plan to market the product and make it sellable.  This all came out of left field for me, considering I have absolutely no experience in anything business related.

Looking back on our pitch and Q&A with the Eureka! judges, it seems obvious, but at the time, I was so confused as to why the judges were asking us questions about who our market is going to be and what stores we plan to sell in.  I was expecting the majority to be technical questions, like how does the plant filter out contaminants or which contaminants are filtered, etc.  This is the moment I realized that during my 3.5 years at Lehigh, I have been trained to explain scientific processes and answers so well that I totally misjudged what our actual presentation was going to be focused on.  So, this experience was priceless for me because it made me realize that not everybody wants to know the technical details; some may be a bit more focused on the business methods, like in the case of the Eureka! competition.

I’m excited to say that we came in 2nd place for our competition category, and can apply our winnings to build and test a new Air Releaf prototype next semester!

From when I was a freshman at Lehigh to now, I’ve definitely seen a growth in the entrepreneurial spirit at the university.  There are countless opportunities for motivated students to bring their projects to fruition, whether they be focused in business, the arts & sciences, or engineering.  Through Mountaintop, the Baker institute, and Lehigh’s entrepreneurship programs, so many resources exist to accomplish your creative ideas!


Solar Panels @ Lehigh Community Garden, Pt. 1

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Solar panel racking system installation @ Lehigh Community Garden

This Friday, me and the rest of the Low-Energy Sustainable Farming Mountaintop Team saw our summer’s work begin to come to fruition.  We arrived at the former soybean crop next to the Lehigh Community Garden to help with the installation of the solar panel racking system.  This was an exciting day for us, seeing as it took two months of summer and part of the semester to get to this point!

Our group and our mountaintop advisors worked with TerraSmart, an outside company that specializes in solar panel racking systems, to put this thing together.  The reason we chose TerraSmart is because they use groundscrews to secure the structure into the ground, as opposed to cement which can cause more environmental disruption.  The groundscrews are about as tall as me and as thick as a coffee mug, and TerraSmart used a giant machine to spin them into the ground (it was really cool to watch).

They did not bring their “robot” to measure out the square distances needed for placing the groundscrews, so us students did it using string and tape measures…it took us around two hours.  However, as pictured above, the structure looks pretty square and symmetrical right!?

The picture shows one of the racking systems, capable of holding 16 panels.  Because TerraSmart usually does way bigger projects and had leftover material, they gave us enough material to build a second racking system capable of holding another 16 panels!  So, we now have the capacity to hold 32 solar panels at the community garden, and once those panels are inserted a couple of weeks from now, we plan to continue to expand the system.  The panels will connect to the grid to offset the electricity used to pump irrigation water from a well at the site.

The fact that we are installing solar panels on Lehigh’s campus is quite an exciting feat.  Next I’ll be writing about the solar panel installation, so stay tuned!


Talk on Scientific Integrity at the EPA

This Monday I attended a lecture titled, “Scientific Integrity on Federal Decision Making: Where Politics and Responsible Conduct Collide” given by Dr. Francesca Grifo, who is the head of the Office of Scientific Integrity at the EPA.  What the heck? What is this “office”? It sounds too good to be true!  Scientific integrity in an agency integrated with politics!? Well, as Dr. Grifo eloquently explained, this office exists to, among many other goals:

  1. solve the problems of manipulation, suppression, or delay of the EPA’s scientific reports
  2. create a culture that is welcome to dissenting opinions by critical scientists

She began the talk with the story of how the world found out that lead is poisonous.  Basically, a scientist made the discovery back in the day that a threshold concentration of lead is dangerous to humans, but he was harshly criticized and ostracized by the lead-based paint and gas companies, who essentially said he was wrong.  It took thirteen years of this scientist being demeaned and hated on for the CDC to come out with lower maximum allowable concentration levels.  The toxic substance was lowered from 15 ug/dL to 1.4 ug/dL.  This story represents how even though the science is correct, policy is never guaranteed to follow, even when public health is in danger.

The three reasons Dr. Grifo gave for this major problem are ideology, money (we live in a political system where elections are donated to), and that a company cannot anger a contingency if they are receiving necessary benefits from them.  She proceeded to explain that there will always be a tension between science and politics.  This is where research integrity comes into play.  The issue is with the supervisors of the scientists; how are the scientists’ results communicated and utilized?

Steps are being taken by the EPA towards the solution to this problem, and it has started with Dr. Grifo, the first full-time scientific integrity official in the agency.  They have created procedures for reporting and resolving allegations: those reporting on questionable scientific integrity within the agency can remain anonymous, which is really important so that nobody will be afraid of losing their job by reporting their supervisor for manipulating their data for more favorable results, or requesting the scientists to not report certain parts of the results, for instance.

I know that all of this news sounds too good to be true, but it gets better!  The EPA will be providing access to all of their scientific studies in a more timely matter.

Dr. Grifo gave us advice for how to ensure that this office continues, and that advice is to vote!  The EPA is a federal agency that can be altered by whoever is president, so we all need to make sure our vote is going to the right person.

As somebody majoring in environmental engineering/environmental science in IDEAS at Lehigh, I feel like this is a career path that I and those in similar majors could take.  The job incorporates the major theme of IDEAS, maintaining ethics in engineering and science. My generation is very critical of the lack of science in policymaking, so I think that this Office of Scientific Integrity is appreciated by and an interest to many my age who want there to be more transparency at the EPA.


AirReLeaf on Mountaintop

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Snake plant, peace lily, and golden pothos (common names) are the three plants that we will test with our next prototype.

Over these past two months of school, me and Erin have been working on our product Air ReLeaf at Mountaintop.  We just finished testing elements of the prototype for removal of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide.  Our results indicate that, while the plant filter is working, it could be modified to achieve greater efficiency.  This is exciting actually, because now we get to design a new filtration system using knowledge from our coursework at Lehigh.

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Different designs for Air ReLeaf; red arrows indicate airflow.

For instance, we want to integrate the activated carbon with microbes that will “renew” the carbon by metabolizing the pollutants adsorbed to it.  Microbes are present in the rhizosphere (the soil surrounding a plant’s roots) and utilize certain contaminants as food or for another biological process that produces their energy.  At the moment, we have a plant growing in activated carbon, so the next step is to dose its roots with either a fungus or bacteria that can survive in symbiosis with the plant.  However, this species of microbes must not completely cover the activated carbon, because it could essentially clog its pores and prevent the contaminants of concern from being adsorbed.   Also, this species must be able to reproduce in aqueous environments, because the activated carbon will be in contact with the wet scrubber in this up and coming prototype.  In my hazardous waste mgmt. class, we learned about a technology called air stripping.  An air stripper is a packed bed where contaminated water trickles down from the top, and clean air is blown in from the bottom.  The air-water contact allows for diffusion of the water contaminants into the air, so clean water flows out the bottom and dirty air, which is later treated, flows out the top.  It would be interesting to apply this type of filtration mechanisms to the plant filter.  As of now, we are brainstorming on one of the many famous mountaintop whiteboards!

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Mountaintop brainstorming arena at 10am on a Monday morning.

 


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