Category Archives: Environmental Engineering

Lehigh Engineering Candidates’ Day!


This past Saturday, I signed up to volunteer at Lehigh University’s annual Candidates’ Day which is hosted by the Engineering Department. Candidates’ Day is the day when students who have been accepted into Lehigh (and more specifically into the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science) come with their parents to learn more about the opportunities Lehigh has to offer.As a student who has been here at Lehigh for three years and who has recently changed her major, I was more than excited to share my experiences thus far here at Lehigh! As part of my duty as a volunteer, I had to show up at 10am on Saturday (which is early for me as I like to sleep in on the IMG_4640weekends!) to hear Associate Dean Tonkay give a speech about the importance of our roles as volunteers as well as further instructions prior to our walking to Packard 101 (the big lecture hall in Packard). At around 10:30, we headed down to PA 101 where all parents and incoming students sat and listened to the opening session. After this, the parents and students were dismissed into groups (based on the student’s engineering-field interest) and then taken on a department tour. This is where we, the volunteers, came in. I, along with other CE and Environmental Engineering students, took my group to Fritz Lab which is where most CEE classes are held.

When we got there, some of the professors who were already present gave a small speech to the group about the CEE department as well as some background information about themselves. After this, the group then got divided into 2 smaller groups to tour the building. One of the groups was led to a lecture hall to hear one of the professors speak, and the other group was taken to a lab room to experience, first-hand, the Hydraulics lab CEE students have to take.In that room, Professor Lennon was waiting for us with a Hydraulics Lab ready. He asked for volunteers and three of the high school students who were touring quickly raised their hands.

In these images, the high school students can be seen getting first-hand experience with one of Lehigh’s hydraulics lab. It was fun watching them do this as it allowed me to see what I will be dealing with in the near future!

Apart from the touring done, the Engineering Department here at Lehigh also set up a parent panel for the parents as well as a student panel for the high school students. And right outside the hall where the panels were being held, Lehigh’s Marching Band, Marching ’97, were playing songs.

And did I forget to mention that it was snowing this Saturday?? On a morning in April (which is supposed to be Spring already!), we got snow!!

Rain Snow or Shine, it was a very exciting day for Candidates’ Day. I can’t wait to volunteer again next year!




When a Solution is more than just about Technology

This semester, I enrolled in EWB’s social class; at first I was not entirely sure what this would entail but after a couple of meetings in attendance and having met the faculty advisor, Dr. Orrs, I am slowly gaining a better understanding.As engineers, we are constantly coming up with new technological advances and implementing them to problems we face in our daily lives. As an engineer in EWB, we go one step further and aim towards ensuring that every human being has their basic needs met by use of these innovative and technological solutions. At last Monday’s club meeting, EWB invited Dr. Arup SenGupta to come talk to us about his past and current projects in various foreign countries. Although much of the work he spoke about revolves around making purified water available for the people of those countries, the solutions he uses to carrying out his project goes beyond being a water-relief system. For one specific project, he showed us how women were the forefront of the project. As he mentioned, aside from being a water solution, his project also became a source of opportunity for women empowerment and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, Dr. SenGupta  spoke about how sometimes the technology behind the solution was not what was important, but rather the solution itself. If the solution was a simple yet efficient one, it would be worth more than one with an intricate design that ends up failing in the long run. Dr. SenGupta’s talk was very motivational as he pushed towards making us see that a solution was more than just about technology.

When I met with Dr. Orrs, the faculty advisor and professor for the Social Class, I was not sure what to expect, but as soon as he began asking questions – such as whether or not a project was truly necessary or whether or not the social and political aspects of the country had been taken into consideration and would have an effect on our project- I began to think back to Dr. SenGupta’s presentation and piece things together. The questions Dr. Orrs asked tied back to Monday’s presentation as he began talking to the class about projects other EWB student chapters had carried out and seen fail. With various water project left abandoned after either neglect for maintenance or simply due to it being inefficient, he made me realize that Dr. SenGupta’s message on solution vs. technology was correct. As a future Civil Engineer wanting to go back to my hometown and fix the water-drought issue, these kinds of questions have to be acknowledged prior to carrying out a solution. My involvement in the social class is helping me see that technology should not simply be about how intricate a design can be but rather whether or not it will be a good and efficient one. As an engineer, I have not had these types of questions asked in my classes (at least not yet) but I am excited to continue to meet with Dr. Orrs, the professor leading the Social Class and learn how to connect both the social aspect and the engineering aspect to a solution, whether its as part of EWB or in my post-undergrad career. I truly feel that as engineers in general, it is important to ask these questions as well as we work towards bettering our world.


On the Mountaintop

As I sit typing this, I am on my lunch break in a giant renovated warehouse at the top of the Lehigh Mountain.  Indoor plants with purple flowers line the center walkway and juxtapose the gray cement floor and surrounding cinderblock walls.  Square workspaces formed by dozens of whiteboards containing doodles, brainstorming notes, and bubble letters frame the building’s perimeter, housing groups of creative students, some fastidious and some mellifluous, collaborating their crazy thoughts.  I am at the site of the Mountaintop Projects.


Mountaintop Project Site (Photocred: Dan Levy and Freddy the Quadcopter)

This umbrella program provides grants to research groups who want to explore some invention or theory they are passionate about, and up here all of the resources to promote thinking and creativity are provided.  I am in the “Low-Energy Sustainable Farming” group researching how to integrate the Lehigh Community Garden with the campus and make it more sustainable.  So far, there are two sides of the project: an environmental engineering side and an environmental studies side (perfect for IDEAS majors).  The environmental engineering side involves installing solar panels at the garden to offset the energy used by the water pump for watering the plants.  The environmental studies side, which surprisingly contains more challenging obstacles, involves working with Lehigh faculty and staff to devise a plan to keep the garden growing and thriving for the years to come.  We have to use our knowledge of sustainable gardening and its potential impact on the community to show the faculty and staff how much potential it has!  We are even looking into creating a business loop where students get paid to grow vegetables for the Lehigh dining services.  Being in the IDEAS program has helped me through this project because I’ve been trained to not only look at technical aspects of a project but the social, political, and ethical aspects as well, which are equally as important.  Here’s a picture of the thriving community garden, which is growing delicious broccoli, kale, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, zucchini, and much more as I type this!

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Lehigh Community Garden

Some Data and Muir Woods

This weekend we took a road trip up the 101 (yes, that’s the highway quoted in the song California by Phantom Planet) to the San Francisco Bay Area where the Redwood trees grow.  We found ourselves walking through Muir Woods, gazing up at these 200 foot trees the writer and conservationist John Muir wrote poems about a hundred years ago.  He’s the one who said,”When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  How right he is!

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Fun fact: some of these redwoods have been standing for a thousand years and are pretty fire resistant thanks to their moist bark.

We also came across a sign indicating that the surrounding space is a “First Amendment Area”.  This must be where groups can stand to petition for their cause.  From my previous experience as a petitioner for the Food & Water Watch, I can say it would be nice if parks everywhere set aside a place like this for petitioners and speakers!  California and especially the Bay Area seem to be very forward-thinking compared to the rest of the United States, so I wasn’t too surprised to see a cool sign like this.

Our drive home on Highway 1 was breathtaking, both because of the beautiful scenery and the fact that our car could fall off a cliff if the driver tried to appreciate the view with the rest of us.

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The picture on the right is a similar view off of California Highway 1 after the clouds rolled in.  You literally cannot tell how high up you are and feel like you’re floating in the sky.

Back on the ground, there have been some discoveries made with the phytoremediation plants.  The three native California plants I have been working with–Coyote Brush, Mulefat, and Purple Needlegrass–were tested to see which chemicals they were emitting and if these chemicals happened to be the organic contaminants from the soil they were planted in or not.  It turns out, my method of capturing volatilized chemicals worked, because the gas chromatogram showed peaks for molecules that plants are known to emit!  Of these are stearic and oleic acid, which are fatty acids, and D-Limonine, an essential oil.  This is what one of my chromatograms looked like.  Each peak indicates a chemical that was essentially volatilized by the plant.Sorbent In

And this is what the computer tells you when you click on a peak:


To me, it’s so exciting to be able to determine what chemicals an unknown sample consists of.  All you have to do is run it through the GC-MS and voila, the database lists all of the possibilities of what the chemical could be.  The crazy looking molecule pictured above is Stigmastan-3,5-diene, an antimicrobial compound found in tree roots and emitted by the plants I was testing!

Though none of the organic contaminants were captured, establishing a working system for determining what the plants give off was a necessary step.  Next, some independent variables will be changed in order to increase the likelihood of capturing a contaminant from the soil that the plants are potentially phytovolatilizing.

Chelating Agents and Starfish

The phytoremediation research that I’m doing here at Cal Poly requires a bit of creativity.  To give some background before I delve into the interesting tests we are running, phytoremediation is a form of environmental remediation that uses plants to clean up chemical contaminants in the soil.  I am working with three native California plants–coyote brush, mulefat, and purple needlegrass–to determine their ability to take up chemicals in the contaminated soil.

Here is a summary of the organic contaminants that the soil contains:


  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are a man-made chemical found in transformer fluid and banned for use by U.S. Congress in 1979

Dioxin (2,3,7,8_TCDD)

  • Chlorinated dioxins, which are produced from smelting and also naturally from forest fires and volcanoes


  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other petroleum hydrocarbons, which are found in crude oil

There’s also a plethora of metals in the soil, some of which are dangerous…like mercury.  What I am going to explain in this post is how we plan to help the plants extract mercury from the soil they’re planted in.

The mercury in the soil is in Hg(II) form.  Basically, Hg(II) is taken into the plant by its roots and travels through the stems to its foliage.  During this process, Hg(II) is reduced to Hg(0) by mechanisms in the plant that are still being researched.  Once the Hg(0) reaches the foliage, it is released into the air as a gas via the stomata.  The stomata are essentially holes in the plant’s leaves that open and close depending on the pressure differential from the moisture in the air.

The beauty of mother nature’s setup is this: Hg(0) is less likely to be harmful to people and in the environment than Hg(II).  Because Hg(II) can more easily form organic mercury compounds, which are the most dangerous, it is better that mercury be in the Hg(0) form and out of the soil, which is teeming with organic molecules that have Hg(II) binding potential.

So, to recap, we are researching to determine which of the three plants, if any, have this potential to uptake mercury from the soil into their roots and volatilize it as a way less-harmful gas into the air.

Next is the fun part.  We decided to add a chelating agent, EDTA, to the soil to increase the plant uptake.   Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is an organic molecule that forms multiple bonds with an ion, encapsulating it.  It’s like putting a wrapper around a sticky piece of candy so that it won’t get stuck in your pocket.  The wrapper is the chelating agent, the sticky piece of candy is the ion, and the surroundings are the soil.  Because contaminants adsorb, or “stick”, to the soil, they need help detaching from it.  Once the chemicals are not adsorbed to the soil, they are more easily guided through the plant root cells. Below is a picture of the chelating agent (clear) that we added to the soil:

photo 3 (1)


So far, the plants that received a dose have started to get brown leaves and die.  This could be because the EDTA did what we wanted it to and increased the sequestration of Hg in the roots, stems, and foliage.  However, it’s likely that EDTA prevented the plant from receiving other vital metals that it naturally uptakes from the soil.

In my next post I will explain the process of analyzing what chemicals the plants volatilize.

On another note, this weekend the other REU students and I went to Montana De Oro, home to giant sand dunes and starfish!


I have never seen a real-life starfish, so this was exciting!  We spent the afternoon walking on the rocks and finding sea anemones.  I noticed a black, sticky tar that covered most of the rocks and think this may be from oil pollution in the ocean.  It was nice to see that the rest of the beach and park was clean though!

Horizons End

I have greatly enjoyed my time here in Abu Dhabi. There are definitely many new buildings and opportunities arising out of this desert, changing and creating new horizons. It is amazing how much the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have grown in just a few decades of time. From small desert outposts to growing international communities. There are people working and living in Abu Dhabi from every known corner of the world. It has been wonderful to spend time learning from and talking to people from other places and other cultures. As much as I have enjoyed seeing and learning about the architecture and structures in the UAE, it is the people I met here that I will miss the most.

Kalifa Port End

Although figuratively for me since, it is also nearing the end of my trip here to the UAE. This is the end of Abu Dhabi Island. Literally, these rocks prevent the sand from eroding away at the end of the Khalifa Port. They also provide a beautiful view for sitting down and looking out at the Arabian Gulf.

As it is with most journeys then end of one, is also the beginning of another. There will be more horizons waiting back in the USA.

Using Plants to Do Our Dirty Work

Here at Cal Poly, my research lab is the greenhouse.


I am part of a project that studies the mechanisms and effectiveness of phytoremediation.  If you’re an environmental engineer, you’ve definitely heard of environmental remediation, which is the term for cleaning up contaminants in the air, water, and soil.  There are several types of environmental remediation: bioremediation, natural attenuation, and phytoremediation.  The latter stands for using plants to remediate soil, air, and/or water contaminants.

Here’s a quick science lesson.  Keep reading, I promise it’s actually really cool!  A contaminant can be remediated by a plant in 5 general ways:


(Photo Credit: Institute for Green Energy & Clean Environment)

Phytostabilization–the plant reduces the bioavailability of the contaminant in the soil

Phytostimulation–the plant stimulates microbes in the surrounding soil that break down or alter the contaminant, making it less harmful

Phytoextraction–the plant absorbs the chemical through its roots or shoots and sequesters it

Phytodegradation–the plant absorbs the chemical and then oxidizes or reduces it to a less harmful form

Phytovolatilization–the plant absorbs the chemical, possibly alters it in its roots, shoots, or foliage, and then emits it into the air in gas form

My focus this summer is to figure out which contaminants the plants volatilize.  They are grown in soil containing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), dioxins, TPH (total petroleum hydrocarbons), PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and some heavy metals like mercury.  Therefore, we have to wear gloves when taking samples and touching the plants.  The concentrations are not high enough to hurt you unless you “eat the soil”, as my advisor Dr. Nelson put it.  I was sad to hear that no, we do not have to wear classic Breaking Bad Hazmat suits as part of our lab attire.

Here in San Luis Obispo, California, there are a lot of outdoorsy things to do.  If you walk off campus in any direction, you’re bound to encounter a mountain beckoning you to follow its steep and winding path to its peak.  My roommates and I somehow ended up at the top of Bishop’s Peak, overlooking our little city:

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