Carnegie Mellon University
April 17, 2017

Undergraduate Research: Being Part of a Team

Undergraduate Research: Being Part of a Team The United States set the first federal limits on toxic metal levels in wastewater produced by steam electric power plants in 2015. More than 100 of approximately 1100 plants in the country are under deadline to comply and must weigh the costs and benefits of expensive investments to meet the new effluent limitation guidelines (ELGs).

CMU's Water and Energy Efficiency for the Environment (WE3 Lab) is working to advise the industry with recommendations, led by CEE/EPP Professor Meagan Mauter, with courtesy appointments in chemical engineering and materials science and engineering.

Mauter advises Daniel Gingerich, an EPP graduate student, who is examining how different treatment systems affect both air and water. When Gingerich needed help with modeling metal removal in wastewater treatment, Mauter made a connection to a CEE undergraduate student, Jonathan Ying.

Ying, a junior, completed Mauter's introductory-level course on environmental engineering and is now contributing to help plants comply to the EPA guidelines.

"Professor Mauter saw that I had the potential to do more," Ying said.

“Undergraduate research is important to the mission of Carnegie Mellon, and my lab group, in particular,” says Mauter. “Students can experience the challenges of applying well established concepts introduced in the classroom to real world problems that are often less structured, more uncertain, and more collaborative than the typical homework or classroom project.”

Gingerich brought Ying onto his team last summer. Treatments they have examined include chemical precipitation, biological and a two-stage zero-liquid discharge process composed of an evaporator and a crystallizer. A new plant collaboration may lead to recommendations on other types as well.  

“Jon’s work lays the groundwork for developing models and tools that will allow power plants to evaluate the options for complying with the ELGs,” said Gingerich.

Having learned all about the steam effluent guidelines, Ying joined Gingerich in talking with middle school and high school students about the work. He is also assisting in getting the work published.

For Ying, the project was a refreshing change from his coursework and gave him leeway to manage his own time and devise solutions for his assigned tasks.

Ying decided to learn the R programming language, having already learned MATLAB last year. He used R to detect trends in the data.

"I am looking into internships that incorporate both structural and environmental engineering. A company that specializes in green design, for example, looks at structural engineering through an environmental lens," Ying said.

The research project involved him closely in a single issue and gave him a new perspective on environmental aspects. Ying, who plans to pursue a master's degree in civil engineering, ultimately gained a deeper understanding of his field.