Undergrads get a jump on research with REU program


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Above: Professor Wen-Tso Liu, Kate Stephens and Johnathan Moor pose in a lab.

By Tom Thoren (BS 12)

CEE undergraduates are gaining valuable research experience and insight into graduate school, thanks to the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, launched last spring with the goal of enhancing undergraduate education.

“The earlier we get them into the research mentality, the better they’re going to be because many of them have this wonderful creativity and a willingness to work with professors, but a lot of times, the research opportunities are pretty much only at the master’s level,” said Professor and Associate Head Liang Liu.

Kate Stephens, a senior in environmental engineering and hydrology, participated in the REU program over the summer. She worked under Professor Wen-Tso Liu and his graduate student, Johnathan Moor, on their drinking water purification project.Stephens worked closely with Moor to monitor experimental water filters using microbial communities. They tested to see how well the microbes could break down the water’s ammonia. This is a desirable water pretreatment technique because the water would require less chlorination during the treatment process, meaning reduced costs and fewer harmful byproducts in the water. Stephens and Moor have three 6-foot-tall test columns on campus, and have also built a full-scale filter that is currently running tests at the Illinois American Water treatment plant on Bradley Avenue in Urbana.

“If everything goes well, this could change the way that drinking water is treated,” Stephens said. “So it was really cool to be a part of something that’s very cutting-edge.”

Stephens is now no longer part of the REU program, but instead works directly with Moor and Professor Wen-Tso Liu. They knew they would hire her on a continuing basis even before her time with the REU program was over, Moor said. Stephens’ self-motivation and independence allowed her to get the most out of the REU program, Wen-Tso Liu said. She took ownership of her area of the project, testing and monitoring the water content, and worked beyond her responsibilities to save Moor time, he said.

“If she sees something, she’s going to say something,” Moor said. “Or if she has a suggestion for how to make the process better, she’s going to voice that.”

Before last summer, Stephens’ only experience with any sort of research was through her two years volunteering on Engineers Without Borders’ Guatemala Water Project. Since working with the REU program, she is able to “better understand what graduate school means,” she said. Stephens has not decided whether she wants to attend graduate school right away or work first, but as a result of her research experience she has decided to complete a thesis master’s program in environmental engineering at some point.

No matter what a student’s thoughts about research are, Stephens said, all students should at least try research to find out for themselves if it is something they might enjoy.

“(The REU program) is a really good way to get introduced to doing research,” she said. “If you’re going to school at the University of Illinois, and you’re at one of the top research institutions, it’s crazy not to try.”

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This story was published February 21, 2017.