Research Projects

This is a list of research projects that may have opportunities for undergraduate students. You can browse all the projects, or view only projects in the following categories:

Environmental Science


Characterization of Stomatal Development Genes

Research categories:  Agricultural, Bioscience/Biomedical, Environmental Science, Life Science
School/Dept.: Horticulture
Professor: Mike Mickelbart
Preferred major(s): Biology, biochemistry, or related majors
Desired experience:   Biology and genetics
Number of positions: 1

Stomata are small pores on the surface of leaves that regulate gas exchange with the environment. The genetic determinants of stomatal density (SD) changes in response to intrinsic or extrinsic factors are largely unknown. We screened a large population of Arabidopsis thaliana and identified genetic regions correlated with differences in stomatal density. Within these genetic regions, we have selected candidate genes that may be involved in stomatal development. The goal of this summer project is to utilize plants that have mutations in genes of interest to determine if they affect stomatal development. Natural genetic variation will also be used to assess differences in expression of these genes in a diverse set of plant material. The student will gain experience in DNA and RNA isolation, gene expression, DNA sequencing, growth measurements, and leaf anatomical characterization using light microscopy.


Design and evaluation of a data connection pathway and a new user interface between multiple online water quality models

Research categories:  Computational/Mathematical, Computer Engineering and Computer Science, Environmental Science
School/Dept.: ABE
Professor: Lawrence Theller
Preferred major(s): agricultural, natural resources or environmental engineering or software engineering or computer science
Desired experience:   One position is for a student interested in watershed scale management of soil erosion, pesticide loss in runoff, or nutrient management. One position is for a student with classwork or experience with at least *one* of these: HTML 5 development or REST Service - XML schema or Java applications or JavaScript web development or Android development.
Number of positions: 2

This team is investigating the possibility of creating water quality models which are programmed with open-source components (Web processing Services) that can read open format streaming data (Web Feature Services) from various servers, such as the EPA Exchange Network or USGS Realtime gauges. This team will be designing a web application, which is a server-side environmental analysis model. This model will use streaming REST data services as inputs and outputs into a database which then uses open-source software Geoserver to stream the results to the web to be displayed over a backdrop like Google Maps.
Students will work on a team which is testing the computational accuracy of some of our hydrologic modeling tools, and students will participate in refining the user interface of the tools. This will involve minor exposure to some python and javascript although one position is not expected to be doing programming, one intern will be providing user feedback to the (staff and intern) programmers in terms of functionality, ease of use, and accuracy of calculations. For example this intern will run hydrologic models in desktop and online GIS and compare the output results to known and expected outputs, in order to locate problems in calculations or in how the user interface is working. This will be a great position for students interested in watershed scale management of soil erosion, pesticide loss in runoff, or nutrient management.
Depending on background, the second intern will be involved with constructing (programming) either the data handling or computational aspect of an experimental effort to connect two online models to servers streaming water quality data from EPA databases. The project team is conducting research into methods to connect existing water quality models to new types of input data streaming from federal and private servers.


Development of a new wind sensor

Research categories:  Agricultural, Electronics, Environmental Science, Innovative Technology/Design, Mechanical Systems
School/Dept.: Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Professor: Jiqin (Jee-Chin) Ni
Preferred major(s): Electrical engineering; computer engineering; mechanical engineering
Desired experience:   Hands-on and technical writing skills, knowledge and experience in electronics.
Number of positions: 1

This project is to develop an innovative and compact wind speed and direction sensor. It is expected to have wide applications. The student’s contribution will be (1) select materials for the sensor and an electronic device; (2) build a prototype sensor and the device that acquires, converts, and displays sensor output; (3) test the sensor and the device; (4) assist in preparing an invention disclosure.


Effects of climate change and nitrogen on woody plants and tallgrass prairie

Research categories:  Environmental Science, Life Science
School/Dept.: Forestry and Natural Resources; Biological Sciences
Professor: Jeff Dukes
Preferred major(s): Biology, Forestry, Environmental Science, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science, Environmental Engineering
Desired experience:   A knowledge of basic plant biology is desired, but not required.
Number of positions: 1

The Prairie Invasion and Climate Experiment (PRICLE) examines the effects of two global change factors, nitrogen fertilization and climate change, on plant community composition and ecosystem processes in tallgrass prairie. Particularly, PRICLE considers how more variable rainfall might interact with nitrogen addition to influence the spread of invasive or weedy plant species. Since its start in 2012, PRICLE has focused on grasses and wildflowers, but starting in 2014, the experiment will be expanded to include tree and shrub species. Students working on PRICLE will be tasked with collecting data on tree growth and prairie community composition in the field, as well as processing and analyzing materials in the lab. Over the course of the summer, students will conduct in-field measurements of plant growth and community composition, assist in the application of experimental treatments, and conduct elemental analyses of plant tissues and soils. Students will also be encouraged to design their own project within the larger experimental design.

While working on PRICLE, students will learn a suite of techniques relevant to in-field environmental measurements and in-lab analyses, and gain valuable experience in field ecology. PRICLE has hosted SURF students twice before (in 2012 and 2013), and students will work closely with the same Ph.D. candidate this year as in years past. Students working on PRICLE should expect to spend at least one day per week on average conducting research in the field, with remaining time spent conducting research in the lab.


Enhancing the Resource Potential of Anaerobic Digestion

Research categories:  Bioscience/Biomedical, Chemical, Environmental Science
School/Dept.: Agricultural & Biological Engineering
Professor: Abigail Engelberth
Preferred major(s): Chemical or Biological Engineering
Desired experience:   Statistics, Biology, Chemistry
Number of positions: 1

Anaerobic digestion is an established technology for the treatment of organic waste and the production of energy rich methane, but there is an opportunity to use it for the production of volatile acids as well. Volatile acids are used in the production of plastics, solvents, and pharmaceuticals and are currently being derived from petroleum sources. The anaerobic digestion of organics in wastewater could provide a renewable source of acids for the production of goods in existing markets. The SURF student will conduct experiments to narrow in on the conditions which are optimal for volatile acid production. This work will aid in upcycling a waste source and moving the economy away from dependence on fossil carbon sources.


Evaluating Release and Uptake of Contaminants of Emerging Concern in Biosolids

Research categories:  Agricultural, Chemical, Environmental Science
School/Dept.: Agronomy/ESE/EEE
Professor: Linda Lee
Preferred major(s): Environmental Science/Chemistry/Engineering
Desired experience:   General Chemistry sequence
Number of positions: 1

We have a project that will evaluate the transfer of contaminants of emerging concern from biosolids into water, soils, and plants. These biosolids are used as fertilizers in urban gardens as well as larger scale land production. The focus of the research for a SURF student this summer involves quantifying contaminants of emerging concern in the biosolids. Students would gain experience in extraction, clean up, and analytical methods common to environmental samples including liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry and development of associated analytical methods. In addition, the student will participate in studies targeted at evaluating plant uptake of targeted contaminants selected from the data obtained for the commercial biosolids particularly those derived from municipal wastewater treatment processes.


Evaluating the Maintenance and Diffusion of Water Conservation Best Management Practices in the Great Bend of the Wabash River Watershed

Research categories:  Agricultural, Educational Research/Social Science, Environmental Science
School/Dept.: Forestry and Natural Resources
Professor: Linda Prokopy
Preferred major(s): no strong preference
Desired experience:   Prior experience with or knowledge of appropriate and sustainable water resource best management practices (BMPs) such as rain gardens and rain barrels a plus. Experience with outdoor field work also a plus.
Number of positions: 1

This project will characterize the adoption, maintenance and diffusion of water quality and climate change BMPs in the Region of the Great Bend of the Wabash River Watershed (Tippecanoe County). The project has three primary objectives. First, it will determine what motivates urban and suburban landowners to adopt and maintain stormwater conservation BMPs. Second, it will identify how stormwater conservation BMPs spread or diffuse throughout a community. Third, it will determine specific watershed management planning recommendations for setting adoption goals and reaching potential adopters for the Wabash River Enhancement Corporation (WREC), an environmental non-profit organization working in the Region of the Great Bend of the Wabash River Watershed.

To understand what motivates the adoption and maintenance of these BMPs in this watershed, an assessment of both the property owner/manager and the actual practice will be conducted. The SURF student will aid in the assessments of the actual practices. Implemented projects will be photo-monitored by the student to document project maintenance and physical assessments of the BMP will be conducted. These physical assessments will include the quality of practice implementation, plant growth and cover assessment, erosion or compaction issue identification, and notation of any issues or problems with the BMP that may reduce its effectiveness.


Real-time Lake Michigan buoy research

Research categories:  Civil and Construction, Computer Engineering and Computer Science, Environmental Science, Physical Science
School/Dept.: School of Civil Engineering
Professor: Cary Troy
Preferred major(s): CE, ECE, or ME
Desired experience:   Experience using Matlab is required; student should have some hands-on experience with tools; student should have strong written communication skills; student should like water (boat experience is a plus).
Number of positions: 1

The student will be working on a Lake Michigan buoy that transmits data in real-time on lake water temperatures and meteorological conditions. This buoy is an important source of information for boaters, anglers, and beachgoers along Lake Michigan's southern coast. In particular, the student will work on developing real-time visualizations of lake subsurface water temperatures on a buoy website. In addition, the student will utilize recently-collected buoy data to characterize lake water temperatures, their seasonal variability, and potentially their forecasted changes under various climate change scenarios.


Single Particle Studies of Metal-Oxide Enhanced Biomass Gasification

Research categories:  Agricultural, Chemical, Environmental Science
School/Dept.: Mechanical Engineering
Professor: Jay Gore
Preferred major(s): Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Desired experience:   Software: LabVIEW, Matlab, Microsoft Excel GPA: >3.5 preferred Experience: 1) hands-on experience in laboratory settings preferred, 2) ability to commute to Zucrow Laboratories required
Number of positions: 1

Biomass gasification is a potential renewable energy technology for production of synthetic fuels. The gasification process, depicted below, converts solid biomass feed-stock into gaseous products by partial oxidation with CO2/H2O/O2 gas mixtures at high temperatures and pressures. An environmental benefit of biomass gasification is possible through recycling of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning power plants using the biomass gasification process. The drawbacks of biomass gasification as currently practiced in industry include: 1. intensive thermal energy requirements resulting in low process efficiency (<40%) and 2. unpredictable reaction rates attributed to the variation in chemical composition, particularly ash, of biomass feed-stock.

Ash is a trace (< 1 weight %) material consisting of minerals and metal oxides contained in biomass feed-stock. Prior studies have shown that trace quantities of mineral/metal-oxides can change the biomass gasification rates by orders of magnitude. Formation of a layer of ash and the concentrations of encapsulated catalytic minerals significantly impacts the gasification rates.

The proposed Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project involves controlled experiments and modeling of the resulting data for future gasifier designs. The SURF student will contribute to the design of an experiment to study the effect of mineral/metal-oxides on the gasification reaction rate for biomass feed-stock. The student will acquire the knowledge to utilize laser absorption spectroscopy and gas chromatography for measurements of gas phase concentrations of major products that will enable calculation of reaction rates. The student will have the opportunity to learn data acquisition, control, and data processing tools along with hands on assembly, dis-assembly, and alignment work that would enrich his/her practical knowledge. The SURF student will work closely with a graduate student on all aspects of the project. Prior knowledge of software such as LabVIEW, MATLAB, and Microsoft Excel is desired.


Using Stable Isotopes to Quantify Nitrogen Fates in Container Plant Production Systems

Research categories:  Agricultural, Environmental Science
School/Dept.: Horticulture & Earth, atmospheric, and planetary science
Professor: Greg Michalski
Preferred major(s): Any
Desired experience:   Strong background in chemistry and math is important. Background in environmental science, ecology, and/or biology is beneficial.
Number of positions: 1

Nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) is increasingly important in the production of container plants as awareness of the environmental consequences of nitrogen (N) leaching increases and as regulations on nitrogen losses from nurseries tighten. Furthermore, N lost to the environment reduces the economic efficiency of container production. While N leaching is relatively easy to measure, losses due to nitrification have been difficult to quantify. The goal of this research is to demonstrate that fertilizer with unique stable isotope signatures of oxygen and N can be used to accurately quantify N fate following application. To quantify N uptake and loss, fertilizer containing 15N- and 17O-labeled ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) and potassium nitrate (KNO3), respectively, will be applied to red maple (Acer rubrum) plants growing in 2-L containers. Mass balance equations will be used to quantify N conversions and losses in the system.

Students participating in this project will learn analytical techniques in chemistry, mass spectrometry, plant physiology, and some basic horticulture skills. Students will also have the opportunity to visit commercial production facilities that this work will ultimately impact.

This is a joint project between Greg Michalski (Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences) and Mike Mickelbart (Horticulture). Students will work in and interact with other students in both labs.