2021 Research Projects

Projects are posted below; new projects will continue to be posted. To learn more about the type of research conducted by undergraduates, view the 2021 Research Symposium Abstracts (PDF) and search the past SURF projects.

This is a list of research projects that may have opportunities for undergraduate students. Please note that it is not a complete list of every SURF project. Undergraduates will discover other projects when talking directly to Purdue faculty.

You can browse all the projects on the list or view only projects in the following categories:

Environmental Characterization (6)


Indoor Air Chemistry & Physics 

Brandon Boor
Preferred major(s):
Any engineering or science major.
Desired experience:
Seeking a student passionate about studying environmental contaminants, air pollutant dynamics, HVAC systems, and filtration. Preferred skills: experience with MATLAB, Python, R. Coursework: chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, heat/mass transfer, fluid mechanics.

We spend 90% of our time indoors. Indoor air quality has a significant impact on human health and well-being. Our research group studies the physics and chemistry of indoor air. We use state-of-the-art measurement techniques to explore the dynamics of indoor air pollutants in diverse indoor environments. We are seeking a motivated student to assist with ongoing research projects related to indoor air chemistry - dynamics of volatile organic compounds and ozone in buildings and indoor air physics - emissions and filtration of airborne particles (aerosols). Your role will involve assisting graduate students with indoor air measurements and data analysis in MATLAB.

More information: www.brandonboor.com


Measuring wetland greenhouse gas emissions with environmental Internet of Things sensors. 

Jacob Hosen
Preferred major(s):
Biology, Natural Resources, Computer Science, and Environmental Engineering majors (interpreted broadly).
Desired experience:
Students with an interest in working with IoT technology, including sensors powered by Arduino processors, are encouraged to apply. Experience with environmental sensors and/or wetland field work is beneficial, but not required.

Wetlands in agricultural landscapes are important sites for maintaining water quality in streams, rivers, and reservoirs that are downstream of farmland. Despite these benefits, such wetlands can be a large source of potent greenhouse gasses—primarily methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Yet, data on the amount of greenhouse gasses produced by agricultural wetlands and the environmental factors that cause these differences are not widely available. For this project, we will leverage environmental internet of things (IoT) technology to deploy networks of gas sensors in agricultural wetlands. We will use these gas sensors to determine what local environmental factors (e.g., water inundation length, elevation, soil organic matter content) cause CH4 and N2O emissions to increase and decrease from wetland soils.

The student working on this project would be responsible for deploying gas sensors, which will involve fieldwork at wetlands located near Purdue. This student will also have the opportunity to analyze the data collected from these sensors with the assistance of faculty and graduate student mentors.

More information: http://www.ecosystemscience.io


Microbiological Dynamics of Drinking Water during Stagnation 

Caitlin Proctor
Preferred major(s):
Biology, Environmental and Ecological Engineering, Civil Engineering, Environmental Science
Desired experience:
Experience in a biological lab is desired but not required. All hands-on lab skills can be taught.

The pipes that deliver drinking water to individual taps develop into complex ecosystems. Most of the bacteria that live on these pipes and in the water are harmless, but several are capable of causing disease. For example, Legionella pneumophila is a bacterium that causes a potentially fatal pneumonia in immunocompromised individuals. It is thus critical to understand and ultimately control the ecosystem within these pipes. This work will contribute to policies (e.g., the minimum required temperature in a water heater) and technologies (e.g., auto-flushing sinks) that will limit needless disease.

In this project, the student will utilize bench scale experiments, a pilot-scale piping rig, and full-scale plumbing systems to test hypotheses regarding establishment of biofilm and relationships between biofilm and water over time. The student will collect and analyze water samples, using a variety of tools to fully characterize the physiochemical and biological dynamics within the system. They will also learn how to write a scientific report and will present it at the SURF symposium.


Remote sensing of soil moisture using Signals of Opportunity: Field Experiments and Validation Studies  

James Garrison
Preferred major(s):
EE, AAE, ABE, Agronomy, Civil
Desired experience:
Position 1 - signal processing, microwave hardware, programming (C, python, matlab) Position 2 - agricultural field and lab experience, electronic hardware, Both positions - willingness and ability to work outdoors, access to transportation.

Root Zone Soil Moisture (RZSM), defined as the water profile in the top meter of soil where most plant absorption occurs, is an important environmental variable for understanding the global water cycle, forecasting droughts and floods, and agricultural management. No existing satellite remote sensing instrument can measure RZSM. Sensing below the top few centimeters of soil, often through dense vegetation, requires the use of microwave frequencies below 500 MHz, a frequency range known as “P-band”. A P-band microwave radiometer would require an aperture diameter larger than 10 meters. Launching such a satellite into orbit will present big and expensive technical challenge, certainly not feasible for a low-cost small satellite mission. This range for frequencies is also heavily utilized for UHF/VHF communications, presenting an enormous amount of radio frequency interference (RFI). Competition for access to this spectrum also makes it difficult to obtain the required license to use active radar for scientific use.

Signals of opportunity (SoOp) are being studied as alternatives to active radars or passive radiometry. SoOp re-utilizes existing powerful communication satellite transmissions as “free” sources of illumination, measuring the change in the signal after reflecting from soil surface. In this manner, SoOp methods actually make use of the very same transmissions that would cause interference in traditional microwave remote sensing. Communication signal processing methods are used in SoOp, enabling high quality measurements to be obtained with smaller, lower gain, antennas.

Under NASA funding, Purdue and the Goddard Space Flight Center have developed prototype instrumentation using P-band (360-380 MHz) and I-band (137 MHz) SoOp measurements to retrieve soil moisture. These studies have culminated in the planned (2021) launch of the SNOOPI (SigNals Of Opportunity P-band Investigation) satellite to present the first demonstration of these measurements from orbit.

To support this mission, an extensive campaign of experiments are planned in the Purdue agricultural research fields and potentially at some remote locations. We are seeking up to two motivated students to assist with these experiments. One position may involve installing and maintaining remote sensing instruments in the field and on an Unpiloted Aerial Vehicle (UAV), writing software for signal and data processing, and performing quality control checks on the collected data. The other position may involve collecting field measurements of soil and vegetation properties.

Students in Electrical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering or Physics are desired for the first position. Good programming skills, experience with C, python and MATLAB, and a strong background in basic signal processing is required. Experience with building computers or other electronic equipment will also be an advantage.

Students in Agronomy, Agricultural and Biological Engineering or Civil Engineering are desired for the second position. Laboratory or field experience is desired.

In both cases, students must be willing to work outdoors for a substantial amount of time and have an interest in applying their skills to solving problems in the Earth sciences, environment, or agriculture. Students should have their own means of transportation as the experimental sites are in remote locations.

More information: https://science.nasa.gov/technology/technology-highlights/cubesat-mission-demonstrate-innovative-method-mapping-soil-moisture-and-snow-space


Smart Water for Smart Cities 

Inez Hua
Preferred major(s):
EEE, CE, or IE
Desired experience:
Minimum GPA: 3.0. Preferred majors: Environmental and Ecological Engineering, Civil Engineering, or Industrial Engineering. Preferred coursework: CE/EEE 350 or CE/EEE 355 or EEE 250 Preferred skills: Proficiency with programming in R or Python Python, experience with ArcGIS or similar programs.

Water is centrally important to environmental sustainability: it supports human societal needs and the natural environment, and powers the growth of economic sectors, geographic regions, and cities. Data science should be harnessed to better understand how much and where water is consumed. The undergraduate researcher will be apply methods to quantify and model industrial water consumption at fine spatial and industry-sector resolution, visualize the results with geographic information systems, and interpret the impacts of water consumption on the urban environment.


Understanding building water safety under routine and post-disaster conditions 

Andrew Whelton
Preferred major(s):
Chemistry, Environmental and Ecological Engineering, Civil Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Environmental Science, Health Sciences
Desired experience:
Skills: Self-motivated, desire to learn, works well with others Coursework: Interests in chemistry, environmental science, environmental engineering, public health

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted building shutdowns across the globe to promote physical distancing. This however prompted worldwide concerns that the water, left in the plumbing, would become unsafe with high levels of lead, copper, and legionella, posing a health risk to building occupants who returned. Many of the shutdowns or low occupancy conditions still exist. Over the past 11 months, the PI and research teams have been working with public health officials and other researchers to understand the public safety risks and remediation measures needed for building reopening and preventing health risks to increase.

Separately, when disasters strike and drinking water becomes chemically contaminated, sometimes this water enters residential and commercial buildings. This results in do not use orders for the population and potentially contaminated plumbing. This SURF project focusses on better understanding drinking water safety under various plumbing use and contamination scenarios through laboratory testing.

This project will involve a student learning and applying water quality measurement techniques to determine the chemical safety of water in building plumbing systems. Theories that will be tested pertain to the impact of water stagnation time (no use) on the safety of the water inside plumbing systems of various configurations. Pilot- and bench-scale systems will be setup in the laboratory (Hampton Hall) to test specific theories identified by the team. Chemical drinking water characterization would include standard drinking water safety parameters, as well as heavy metals, organic carbon, etc. The student may also work with collaborating faculty and students on microbiology topics. If time permits, the student would conduct chemical contamination and decontamination experiments of different building water treatment devices or assist a graduate student already working on this effort. The purpose of this secondary experiment is to understand the vulnerability of these devices to damage and ability of them to be restored to safe use. For both of these efforts the student would learn and conduct testing, analyze, report, and present the results at the end of the SURF summer.

More information: www.PlumbingSafety.org