Researching undergrads

Six students from the University of Maine’s College of Engineering have been awarded Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowships for 2012-13.

The fellowships were developed to enhance and increase undergraduate student involvement in faculty-supervised research, and are supported through a PRE-VUE grant awarded by the University of Maine’s President’s Office. Each fellowship provides a $1,000 award for the student, and up to $1,000 in more funding, if needed, to cover costs associated with the project.

The students’ research areas involve a variety of engineering topics — from studying extreme rainfall and climate change to optimizing power conversion for wave energy converter systems.

Michelle Beauchemin
Graphene potential: A sophomore in engineering physics with a concentration in electrical and computer engineering, Beauchemin is researching a graphene-based electrochemical sensor. Her research focuses on graphene’s electrical characterization and its potential for use in single-molecule sensors. Graphene is a single-layer graphite — a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms — and has properties of high conductivity and strength that give it potential in the area of electronics. Beauchemin has produced graphene, and hopes to identify it optically and electrically. She plans to test its possibility as a sensor for nanopore DNA encoding research by her adviser, electrical and computer engineering professor Rosemary Smith.

Building skills: Beauchemin says the fellowship has given her the opportunity to work in a lab with faculty she admires, and has helped strengthen her research and laboratory skills. “I work in the Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology (LASST) in Barrows, and there is a lot of intimidating equipment there, but Dr. Smith has been there to answer all my questions and assist me when needed,” Beauchemin says. “There are times at which I feel less experienced than the graduate students I work with, but I feel lucky to begin building my skills as an undergrad, so when I go to grad school, I will be well-prepared for research.”

Engineering Expo: Beauchemin, from Saco, Maine, cites UMaine’s annual Engineering Expo in Gorham and Orono as the springboards for deciding to study engineering at UMaine. “It is a great display of the diversity of programs at the school and is a great way to get children interested in science and engineering,” she says. “I have always loved math and science, and engineering is a great way to apply my interests.”

Future plans: Graduate school for electrical engineering is in sight for Beauchemin, who is interested in solid state physics and semiconductors. She hopes to work in the field of semiconductors.

Michael Dandy
Extreme rainfall: A sophomore in civil and environmental engineering, Dandy is working on climate change adaptation for his research project, “Extreme Rainfall in a Changing Climate: Developing New Methodologies to Inform Infrastructure Design.” He is analyzing past extreme precipitation and hurricane data for the East Coast, and is writing computer programs to help predict future extreme flood events to inform better infrastructure design. ~

Challenging himself: The Los Angeles, Calif., native chose engineering because he has always excelled at math and likes a challenge. “I enjoy challenging myself with course material that interests me,” says Dandy, noting that he chose UMaine for its reputation as an engineering school.

Pursuing research: Dandy says the fellowship gives him the opportunity to pursue research in the field that he finds most interesting. “It is very interesting to observe the entire process involved, and see everyone’s input toward a project,” says Dandy, who works with civil and environmental engineering professor Shaleen Jain. Dandy has presented his research at the National Council for Undergraduate Research Conference in LaCrosse, Wis., and published a research article.

Graduate school: Dandy plans to study water resource engineering or hydrology in graduate school.

Kyle Nolan
Genetic sequencing: A sophomore in electrical and computer engineering and a student in the Honors College, Nolan has been working on a nanopore gene sequencing project in the Microinstruments and Systems Laboratory. “Our objective is to translocate single-stranded DNA through a nanopore and electrically identify individual nucleotides as they pass through,” Nolan says. “If we could fine-tune the process well enough, it has potential to replace traditional methods of genetic sequencing, as it is a faster and cheaper alternative to current commercial approaches.” Nolan says the bulk of his research has been in “optimizing the recipe we use to make the carbon nanoelectrodes for our electrical measurements.”

Invaluable asset: Nolan, from Camden, Maine, says he did not imagine that he would have this kind of opportunity to do research as an undergraduate. “I was excited to earn a lab position here at the university, pleased with the cutting-edge facilities and meaningful projects, and thrilled to subsequently receive a research fellowship,” he says. “It has been an invaluable asset to my research, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity.” He says research has been “an enjoyable, meaningful way to work during the summer and supplement coursework during the academic year.”

Combining strengths: When deciding where to attend college, Nolan knew he wanted a school with a solid curriculum and scholarship opportunities. “With UMaine’s renowned engineering program, merit scholarships and research positions, it offers a great balance between quality education, professional opportunity and affordability,” Nolan says. He views engineering as a chance to learn interesting, dynamic material while combining his strengths. “It is a discipline where I can combine my natural creativity with my knack for science and mathematics, and the way engineering continues to be shaped by — and to evolve with — the modern world, ensures that it stays relevant and integral to our society,” he says.

Role models: Nolan says his research would not have been possible without the guidance of Institute for Molecular Biophysics research engineer Justin Millis and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Rosemary Smith. “Justin has shown me the ropes in the clean room and consistently provided great project advice,” Nolan says. “Rosemary always manages to find the time and the patience, despite her busy schedule, to sit down with me and explain the answers to all of my questions.”

Continuing education: Nolan says he plans to attend graduate school after completing his undergraduate studies. “I strive to become the best engineer I can be, and after graduate school will probably look to move into industry,” he says. Nolan says he is interested by both the electrical and computer aspects of his major, but sees himself leaning toward computer engineering.

Anthony Nuzzo
Power conversion: A senior in electrical engineering, Nuzzo is working on optimizing power conversion for wave energy converter (WEC) systems. He has been designing printed circuit boards that will be used with a mechanical prototype WEC designed by the Mechanical Engineering Department. Nuzzo’s work, which involves converting DC power to AC power using an inverter he designed, will help convert power produced by WEC, as well as control it to optimize system performance. The research is an example of multiple departments at UMaine working together to find new methods for harnessing renewable energy resources, Nuzzo says.

Practical experience: The fellowship has helped Nuzzo gain practical experience in the power electronics field. The Litchfield, Maine, native says, through the fellowship, he has developed significant skills in printed circuit board design that are essential for his engineering work.

Early fascination: Nuzzo says he chose to study engineering because he has always been interested in building. “I’ve known since I was young that I wanted to study electrical engineering because it would allow me to understand how all my toys — that I took apart — worked,” Nuzzo says. He has since become interested in renewable energy and he sees electrical engineering as a key to innovation in that area. He chose to study at UMaine because of its “well-regarded engineering program and its financial benefits for Maine residents.”

Difficult but rewarding: Nuzzo, who has been working with electrical and computer engineering professor Nathan Weise, says research as an undergraduate is a fun, different type of work than what you do in the classroom. “Working on research between classes can be difficult but also rewarding,” Nuzzo says. “I enjoyed working closely with my professor and learning the tricks of the trade rather than working problems from a book.”

Working in the field: After graduation, Nuzzo says he will be working full time at Pika Energy, a start-up company in Gorham, Maine, where he interned last summer and learned about inverter design.

Bipush Osti
Improving usability: Osti, a junior in computer engineering from Kathmandu, Nepal, is researching alternative ways to interact with visualizations walls. Visualization walls are made up of many monitors that act as a single monitor and are usually used to display scientific data. Osti’s research mainly involves using Microsoft’s Kinect to find alternative input devices in place of a mouse or keyboard. “Since the total screen size of visualization walls is big, using a keyboard or mouse would mean that the user would have to stay close to the screen and would not be able to see much because of the size of the wall,” Osti says. “This creates a need for a different kind of input device that allows users to easily navigate the huge screen as would a mouse in a single-monitor screen.” Osti says the plan is to build a wireless device for users to navigate the walls.

Solving problems: Osti says he has long been interested in computer programming and creating things to solve problems. He transferred to UMaine from a Tennessee school during his first year because of the College of Engineering’s well-known academic programs. “I felt that I would get more opportunities and greater exposure here,” Osti says.

Valuable experience: Osti, who has been working with electrical and computer engineering professor Bruce Segee, says the fellowship has allowed him to learn a lot beyond the classroom through research as an undergraduate.

Implementing knowledge: Osti is undecided about his plans after graduation. “I would love to work on something interdisciplinary that requires implementing my knowledge of engineering in a different field like medicine or chemistry,” he says.

Carolyn Pugliano
Detecting explosives: A junior in electrical engineering from Nashua, N.H., Pugliano is researching the optimization of a lateral field excited (LFE) sensor that she hopes will be able to detect peroxide-based explosives. “An LFE sensor is basically a wafer of AT-cut quartz crystal with electrodes deposited on one side, leaving the other side of the crystal bare,” she says. “The electrodes excite the crystal’s transverse shear mode with an electric field. Using equipment like a network analyzer, the crystal’s response can be measured. The response can be affected by the environment, such as gases and liquids that come in contact with the bare surface. This indicates that the LFE device may be sensitive enough to detect the gases emitted by dangerous chemicals.” Pugliano also is working to find a new method for measuring the LFE device’s response.

Strength to persevere: “The fellowship means that other people believe in me and my research, which is encouraging,” she says. “While research can be exciting, it can also be frustrating. When I am frustrated, I remember that there are other people who have faith in me, and it gives me strength to persevere.”

No place like UMaine: The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is what drew Pugliano. “I visited several places and none of them really compared to UMaine,” she says. “UMaine has a lot of great opportunities, a beautiful campus and an impressive College of Engineering.”

Real-world applications: Pugliano chose engineering because it’s a challenging yet rewarding field that gives her the opportunity to solve real problems and improve the lives of others. “Also, I can’t say no to those big engineering paychecks,” she says, adding that undergraduate research “isn’t just about getting paid, it’s about applying knowledge from the classroom to real-world problems.”

Helping hand: Pugliano has been working closely with her adviser, electrical and computer engineering professor John Vetelino. “I started doing research for him in summer 2012 in the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) program,” she says. “Dr. Vetelino has been a wonderful adviser and has given me many opportunities.”

Teaching others: After graduation, Pugliano plans to gain experience by working with companies before returning to school to obtain her doctorate in electrical engineering. Her long-term goal is to become a professor.