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Undergraduate Researchers Tackle Key Problems

What if we could cure diabetes, save the Great Lakes, relieve sleep deprivation in surgeons, and figure out a faster way to rescue disaster victims, all in one summer? In fact, those goals were only part of the agenda when 25 undergraduate students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst presented posters and talked about their summer research projects on July 30 in the Gunness Engineering Student Center. The students were part of the College of Engineering Research Experience for Undergraduates, in which they worked with nationally recognized faculty researchers to help solve some of society’s most pressing problems.

What kind of research was being carried out by this group? Take the work of chemical engineering student Vanessa Mukania. The purpose of her research is to treat type 1 diabetes with polymer capsules carrying a payload of insulin-producing islets of Langerhans cells, which can be introduced into the body of a diabetic and, in effect, replace the malfunctioning pancreas. Mukania is studying appropriate encapsulation conditions for optimal diffusion of insulin while she works this summer on the research team of Chemical Engineering Professor Susan Roberts, who is developing the encapsulation technique.

“My role in this study,” says Mukania, “is to investigate how capsules behave (if they swell or shrink) in several environments by studying their sizes.”

In a second REU project, civil and environmental engineering student Amy Getchell is examining the General Circulation Models (GCMs) that the International Joint Commission of the United States and Canada is using to create crucial environmental regulations for the Upper Great Lakes Region.

“This summer I will be comparing the actual precipitation and temperature data of the Lake Superior Region from 1950 to present day with the projected precipitation and temperature data…from the multiple GCMs,” says Getchell. “This will determine how reliable the GCM output is for [predicting] future precipitation and temperature values.”

Among other issues, industrial engineering major Adam Duffield is tackling one of medicine’s enduring problems, the effects of too little sleep on the performance of overworked surgeons. To do this, he will examine actual surgery processes and how they can be upgraded to relieve sleep deprivation issues.

“We hope we will essentially map out and form a clear picture of the processes,” comments Duffield, “to enable healthcare decision makers to make more accurate assumptions about the processes and make better decisions about how to improve the processes.”

Yet another project, being carried out by electrical and computer engineering student Mikyle Bengtson, aims to streamline the function of the revolutionary DIORAMA system, which is being developed by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Aura Ganz. DIORAMA uses RFID technology to communicate the locations of victims during mass disasters while also reporting the urgency of their injuries for the triage process.

“This project requires robust and clearly defined communications between a host machine, RFID reader, and RFID tags,” says Bengtson. “I’m planning to build a software application that allows for straightforward data transmission and receipt on the host machine.”

Obviously, no problem seems too overwhelming for these enterprising young researchers. The students are funded through a variety of sources, including alumni donations, endowment funds, and faculty REU supplements. Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the College of Engineering is receiving $228,888 from the National Science Foundation to fund 12 student researchers for the summers of 2010 and 2011.

“Undergraduate students who are thinking of graduate study and want to get a taste of research can do so and get paid for it, the same as if they had a position in industry,” says Kathleen Rubin, the co-principal investigator for the project and the assistant dean for outreach at the College of Engineering. (July 2010)