Washington State University Tri-Cities Tag

RICHLAND, Wash. – Five local freshman at Washington State University Tri-Cities are among the university’s latest class of STEM Scholars.

As part of earning the distinction, where STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the students are honored with a $8,400 per year scholarship and will join the university’s STEM Learning Community. The community consists of a cohort of students that pursue a range of extracurricular opportunities and activities in the STEM fields.

WSU Tri-Cities STEM Scholars – (from left) Louis Theriault, Aaron Engebretson, Jared Johnson, Destiny Ledesma and Diamond Madden

The students awarded include:

  • Aaron Engebretson – Liberty Christian High School
  • Jared Johnson – Richland High School
  • Destiny Ledesma – Hanford High School
  • Diamond Madden – Southridge High School
  • Louis Theriault – Mid-Columbia Partnership

In order to be eligible for the program, students must have a minimum high school grade-point average of 3.75 based on a 4.0-scale, officially pursue a STEM-based major available at WSU Tri-Cities, be enrolled as a full-time student at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as actively participate in STEM Learning Community activities offered through the campus. Undergraduate majors eligible include: civil engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, environmental sciences, general biological science, general mathematics and general physical sciences.

“The students selected display an incredible work-ethic and strong potential for careers in the STEM fields,” WSU Tri-Cities Chancellor Keith Moo-Young said. “We’re excited to offer them a variety of resources to propel them into their respective STEM majors, which will encourage them to lead their fellow students within those majors, pursue prominent research at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as inspire future students to follow in their footsteps.”

Kate McAteer, WSU Tri-Cities assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs, said the research component of the experience will provide the students with a solid foundation for their academic futures.

“These STEM Scholars have the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research right from the beginning of their academic careers,” she said. “It provides them with an early start on building a solid foundation of skills required to be successful scientists and engineers.”

Aaron Engebretson

Aaron Engebretson

Engebretson

Engebretson plans to major in engineering. In high school, he served as class president during his senior year and was his class valedictorian. He was a member of Key Club where he served as the vice president of the club. He received the Northwest Nazarene Bridge Academy Scholar Award for taking 15 or more college credits while in high school and maintaining a 3.5 or higher GPA. He also received the Essence of Liberty Scholarship from Liberty Christian School. He hopes to one-day join Engineers Without Borders, which works with developing countries to find solutions for water supply, sanitation, agriculture and civil works. He also hopes to explore research in nuclear science while attending WSU Tri-Cities.

“The STEM Scholars program is very important to me,” he said. “It will surround me with fellow students that are driven, intelligent and interested in STEM … STEM careers are on the forefront of modern-day advancements and research. From the future of cars, to the future of modern medicine, STEM Careers provide solutions to a variety of different problems and challenges.”

Johnson

Jared Johnson

Jared Johnson

Johnson plans to major in electrical engineering. He is currently finishing his associate’s degree through Columbia Basin College’s running start program where he continues to receive high honors and is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. At Richland High School, he earned Summa Cum Laude. Additionally, Johnson gives back to the community through his role with the National Honor Society, as well as helping with Second Harvest food distribution, tutoring high school math and assisting with various elementary school functions. He said he is looking forward to exploring the variety of research opportunities at WSU Tri-Cities.

“With a STEM education, there will be many job opportunities and career advancements,” he said. “STEM subjects have always been interesting to me in school. WSU Tri-Cities provides a wonderful university experience, while still having small classrooms for personalized education. WSU Tri-Cities is also a high-ranking STEM university.”

Destiny Ledesma

Destiny Ledesma

Ledesma

Ledesma plans to major in biology. In high school, she participated in the running start program at WSU Tri-Cities, in addition to serving as her class senator during her junior and senior years. It is with that role that she and her fellow peers brought back the “Every 15 Minutes Program,” a two-day event that sheds light on drinking and driving. Ledesma also gives back to the community by volunteering every year with the Tri-Cities Union Gospel Mission where she makes dinner boxes for the homeless with her family. She also volunteers at the Tri-Cities Water Follies, where she has served in various roles throughout the last few years. She hopes to attend medical school and pursue either a career as a reconstructive surgeon or dermatologist. She looks forward to pursuing research opportunities at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as getting involved with campus student government.

“It’s been such an honor and a blessing to have been able to receive such a prestigious scholarship,” she said. “I have been truly blessed with this opportunity to further my education … It will help prepare me to take on professional life after college and into the workforce. This program has truly changed my life.”

Madden

Diamond Madden

Diamond Madden

Madden plans to major in the physical sciences, with possibly an emphasis in chemistry. She earned 38 credits from Central Washington University’s running start program while she played softball, basketball and track and field for Southridge High School. Additionally, she played cello, violin and piano with the school’s orchestra, served in the school debate club, worked part-time for Tropical Sno and participated in the school’s Ignite program, which helps incoming freshmen transition to high school. She also volunteers occasionally with a local food bank. She hopes to pursue a career as a research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which has been a dream of hers for years.

“Words can’t even describe how much the STEM Scholars program means to me and my family,” she said. “Being the second youngest of seven children in a single-income family, this gives me the assurance that I can continue and complete my education for a degree in the sciences … I believe WSU is a remarkable college, with Tri-Cities being the perfect location for me and given the fact that the university partners with PNNL.”

Louis Theriault

Louis Theriault

Theriault

Theriault plans to major in civil engineering. In high school, as a home-schooled student, he participated in the WSU Tri-Cities running start program, which is what helped him decide on attending WSU Tri-Cities for his undergraduate degree. Over the years, he volunteered to help the Academy of Children’s theater put on its summer camps, helped at his home school program’s “Camp Invention” and continues to serve as a camp counselor for numerous camps, including for the upcoming STEM Camps at WSU Tri-Cities this July. He hopes to participate in WSU’s engineering study abroad opportunity at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences while earning his undergraduate degree at WSU Tri-Cities. After graduation, he hopes to serve as a civil engineer, working possibly around the United States or for an international engineering firm.

“The STEM Scholars Award means the world to me,” he said. “I didn’t believe that I would be one of the chosen people when I signed up. It is going to help me pay for almost all of my college and help me save money for my future … I want to pursue a career in the STEM fields because I want to be able to make a difference in the world.”

By Maegan Murray

RICHLAND, Wash. – Jonah Firestone, an education professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities, knows that technology is the future of education, which is why he is researching the use of virtual and augmented reality as tools for not only the general classroom, but specifically with special education in the kindergarten through 12th-grade setting.

Virtual reality in the classroom

A student tries out a virtual reality headset as part of research being completed by Jonah Firestone, a professor of education at WSU Tri-Cities. Firestone will complete a study on how the technology may be used in special education.

“With regular video games, you’re looking at a flat screen,” he said. “But with virtual reality, you wear a head set and you can look all around. It’s a 360-degree view up and down and you can see this complete world around you. As kids get more used to using this type of technology and as the price goes down, schools are going to start adopting these because you can now send an entire classroom on a field trip to The Louvre without leaving the classroom.”

Firestone said for subjects like science and history, teachers rely on textbook and stationary images to give students a picture of what they’re talking about as it is expensive to take students to laboratories and settings that are referenced in those lessons. With virtual and augmented reality, however, teachers can bring those settings and projects to the students in the virtual sphere.

“We can use this technology to put children and adults into complete virtual worlds where they can be a cell in the human body, or students can do experiments in physics and chemistry that they couldn’t normally safely do in the classroom setting,” he said. “You can then repeat those over and over again.”

Overcoming learning disabilities

Firestone said virtual and augmented reality have different purposes, but both can be applied as additional tools in the classroom, which could help students who struggle with traditional learning methods.

“We used to talk about this thing called learning theories where certain people were characterized as different types of learners, but that’s not really true,” he said. “We all learn in a variety of different ways. But with the more modes in which we learn, whether it be oral, visual or tactile, the more we’re readily going to learn.”

Virtual reality controllers

Controllers for the HTC Vive virtual reality technology.

Some students may have problems processing information that is given to them orally, or students may have visual disabilities where they have difficulty processing static information like documents with lots of text, he said. Students also may have issues holding their attention for an extended period of time.

“So what virtual and augmented reality do is reinforce learning in ways that helps from a variety of different vectors,” he said. “And realistically, strategies used in special education are good practices for any education setting. We can translate what we learn about these tools into the general classroom setting, as well.”

With virtual reality, students wear a head set where it provides them with a complete 360-degree view of a setting or project that the students can interact with. With augmented reality, students use a device like a tablet or a headset where the device projects an image into the real-world setting. Firestone said a good example of augmented reality is Pokemon Go, where the image of a Pokemon is projected through a screen into the real world.

“We’ve all taken classes where we’ve aced the class, but we have no idea what we’ve learned,” he said. “What we want to accomplish with virtual and augmented reality is a more organic method of learning. This organic method of learning is accomplished through learning by doing.”

Research results so far

Firestone worked with Don McMahon on the WSU Pullman campus to run a study with special education students at the college level who studied bones and skeletons using augmented reality with the help of iPad Minis. They compared what the students learned and absorbed with augmented reality to what they learned and observed from textbooks and the team got great results.

Firestone is now taking that research a step further by applying the same tools to kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms.

Students test out virtual reality

A group of students test out virtual reality headsets. WSU Tri-Cities professor Jonah Firestone will complete a study on how the technology may be used in special education.

“College kids are great, but I am very much interested in how these technologies can be applied to the k-12 setting,” he said. “What we’re currently doing is taking this same process and we’re modifying it for fifth-graders. Then, we’re going to modify it for middle school and high school.”

Firestone said he is using augmented reality to supplement different school lessons, including science where students observe and learn about the human body.

“Imagine looking at a picture of a femur, but with augmented reality, not only do you see a picture of a femur, but it has a voice that defines it for you and then shows you where it is on the human body,” he said.

Firestone is also looking into using virtual reality to immerse the kindergarten through 12th-grade students in an underwater experience called “The Blue.”

“It’s an underwater application where you see whales and you’re in a reef,” he said. “I’m then comparing that to the same information that the students glean from a text.”

Firestone said he’s had great results with the technology so far and that blending the virtual experiences with what students are presented with in a textbook is a winning combination.

“There is no one magic solution for learning, but the more things we can put together, the more kids are going to end up learning,” he said.

RICHLAND, Wash. – Registration is now open for employers to sign up for a booth at the 2017 Washington State University Tri-Cities Career Fair, which will be held from 8 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Sept. 28 in the Student Union Building and Consolidated Information Center building on campus.

WSU Tri-Cities career fair, 2016

WSU Tri-Cities career fair, 2016

Held each fall, the career fair is open to WSU Tri-Cities students, alumni and the general public. The career fair offers employers an opportunity to reach its staffing goals while allowing WSU Tri-Cities students to search for and connect with potential employment and internships.

Employers can register for the event until Sept. 15. The cost is $100. Online registration is open until Sept. 15 and only to employers paying with a credit card.  Employers paying by check may download a printable registration form at http://tricities.wsu.edu/careerdev/careerfair.

Late registration costs $150 and is subject to space availability. For late registration availability, employers should contact Eadie Balint, career fair coordinator, at 509-372-7214 or ebalint@tricity.wsu.edu.

The career fair provides employers access to more than 1,800 students, local alumni and public job seekers. Career fair also features a student spotlight program where select students present a one-minute resume pitch to assembled employers, an on-site job board to post job and internship openings and access to interview rooms.

Additionally, the fair will include a new discussion panel focusing on the “State of the Tri-Cities Work Force.” The panel will feature local professionals from various backgrounds and businesses discussing future staffing goals and needs, preparing students to enter the workforce and the economic vitality of the community. The program is open to all registered employers and includes a complimentary breakfast.

For information about the WSU Tri-Cities Career Fair, visit http://tricities.wsu.edu/careerdev/careerfair.

RICHLAND, Wash. – Washington State University Tri-Cities signed a memorandum of understanding today to partner with Vanwest College from Vancouver, British Columbia, and Mahasarakham University from Talat, Thailand, for a language and cultural exchange program that will benefit students from each of the three campuses and countries.

Christ Meiers, WSU Tri-Cities vice chancellor of enrollment management and student services, and Nitiphong Songsrirote, dean of the Mahasarakham University Business School, sign an MOU for a language and cultural exchange partnership.

The purpose of the partnership is to deliver programs that promote academics and cultural understanding between the three institutions and countries associated. VanWest will be responsible for delivering an English as a second language program, academic workshops and sightseeing at its campus. WSU Tri-Cities will be responsible for cultural exchange activities at its campus, which may include select lectures and presentations, tours and friendship exchange meetings with local organizations. The Mahasarakham University will be responsible for facilitating study abroad opportunities for WSU Tri-Cities students.

“This is a valuable experience both for our students and from those students from Thailand and British Columbia,” said Chris Meiers, WSU Tri-Cities vice chancellor of enrollment management and student services. “The students will benefit from the language exploration and competency experiences at VanWest and at Mahasarakham, in addition to learning about the cultural components, networking and more through WSU Tri-Cities and the regional community.”

Administrators from Mahasarakham University said they were excited to be partnering with both WSU Tri-Cities and Vanwest College.

(Left to right) Yujin Song, VanWest admission and marketing manager; Yawittha Daroth, Mahasarakham student; Mullika Yothikha, Mahasarakham student; and Kornuma Laphanuphat, Mahasarakham international affairs officer.

“Coming to Canada and the United States is a great experience for us,” said Pornlapas Suwannarat, associate dean for research and international affairs at Mahasarakham University. “We are hopeful for a fruitful collaboration to take place between VanWest and Washington State University Tri-Cities.”

A group of students and administrators from VanWest College and Mahasarakham University spent the last couple of days learning about the educational and business opportunities at WSU Tri-Cities, touring the Tri-Cities region, as well as networking with local businesses.

“It’s been a fun and enlightening past few days for all institutions,” Meiers said. “We have a lot to share and learn from one another. We’re excited about this partnership and the educational and cultural opportunities that will enrich the student experience for all three institutions and countries.”

RICHLAND, Wash. – A team from Washington State University recently took home top honors in the research poster competition at the Worldwide Distilled Spirits Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, for research on a technique typically used to evaluate the characteristics of wine.

To determine the characteristics and compounds in wine, researchers combine a wine sample with a mixture of water and octanol, which is a fatty alcohol. As a result, different compounds from the wine separate and enter into two phases: octanol and water. The relative separation of the compounds into the two phases is known as the beverage’s hydrophobicity.

These two phases are then analyzed using mass spectrometry, a sophisticated technique that identifies the individual compounds within those phases. The identified compounds can help determine the astringency, or mouth feel, of the wine as well as the color and other sensory factors.

Wine scientists expand applications

WSU distilled spirits evaluation research team
Jim Harbertson, Caroline Merrell and Tom Collins (l-r) display some of their major findings in distilled spirit analysis application.

The WSU Tri-Cities team, which consisted of wine science postdoctoral researcher Caroline Merrell, associate professor of enology Jim Harbertson, and assistant professor of wine science Tom Collins, decided to analyze distilled spirits using the same process.

“It started off as ‘let’s see what happens when we apply this technique to a product other than wine,’” Collins said. “Spirits make sense for this analysis not only because of their similarities to wine, but also their differences. We expected to extract different things from the barrels for spirits than for wine, and I think we clearly see that with our findings.”

A measurement in wine is used primarily to evaluate phenolic composition, Harbertson said. The phenolic composition, derived from the grapes and barrels, affects the taste, color and mouthfeel of wine.

“But in spirits, the phenolics are only derived from the barrel, so the process provides an interesting piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Whiskey, tequila, rum, cognac

In their research, team members examined a range of distilled spirits including American whiskey (bourbon), Scotch whiskey, Irish whiskey, tequila, rum, cognac and Armagnac. The barrel type used in the aging process for these spirits significantly impacted the identified compounds, Merrell said.

“For instance, all the bourbons separated out together as part of the statistical analysis,” she said. “Bourbon is made in new, heavily charred barrels. Because bourbons use newly charred barrels, there is more extraction of different phenolic and flavor compounds during aging. All the other spirit types age in previously used barrels, which have already had substantial amounts of phenolic and flavor compounds extracted.”

Barrel selection insights

Their initial research shows the importance of barrel selection in making distilled spirits. The hope is that it will give the industry more tools for making alcohol, Merrell said.

“Our research gives the industry more insight into the effects of barrel selection for different types of spirits,” Collins said. “We had a fair amount of interest from distilleries after the presentation, and we look forward to opportunities to collaborate and explore these effects in more detail.”

The team hopes to expand their research beyond commercially available products. The plan is to acquire distillation equipment at the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center to prepare, develop and analyze their own spirits.

To his knowledge, this is the first time anyone has used the hydrophobicity technique to examine the components of distilled spirits, Collins said.

 

Media Contacts:

RICHLAND, Wash – WSU Tri-Cities is launching a series of workshops to prepare engineers for the professional engineering exam.

Participants choose their engineering discipline – chemical, civil, electrical or mechanical. They then receive 42 hours of classroom-based exam review focused on solving theory and high-probability practice problems. Participants also learn exam day techniques, strategies and complete a simulated practice exam.

The first two workshops are:

  • Civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, June 22-Oct. 19
  • Chemical engineering, Oct. 12 – Feb. 16

The workshop costs $975. To register and for more information, visit https://tricities.wsu.edu/pdce/peprepworkshop. Individuals can also contact the Professional Development and Community Education office at 509-372-7174 or pdce@tricity.wsu.edu.

RICHLAND, Wash. – David Isley, a recent Washington State University Tri-Cities alumnus (education, ‘17), received a rare opportunity in his beginnings as a teacher this year — the opportunity to student teach with his own first-grade teacher.

Janelle Rehberg (right) and David Isley

Janelle Rehberg (right) and David Isley

At WSU Tri-Cities, students are required to complete a number of volunteer hours in a classroom setting before being admitted into the undergraduate education degree program. Isley decided to seek out his own first-grade teacher, Janelle Rehberg, to complete his volunteer work at Cottonwood Elementary School. After the experience, Rehberg invited Isley to complete his student teaching in her classroom during his senior year at WSU Tri-Cities.

“We hit it off right away, although it did take him a long time to get him to call me Janelle, instead of Mrs. Rehberg,” she said with a laugh. “David is a natural in the classroom. He’s great with the kids and it’s obvious that he loves teaching.”

Rehberg said she has never heard of another teacher and former student working together years later as a mentor and mentee in student teaching.

“It really is rare, but that made it all the more special,” she said.

From student to teacher

As a first-grade student, Rehberg said she never imagined Isley would become a teacher. Isley was an outgoing, passionate young student who had a passion for science and dinosaurs, she said.

“I would have thought he’d go on to be a scientist,” she said.

Isley said even to this day, he still thinks dinosaurs are the greatest, but instead of studying their history as a career, he plans on using them to educate a new generation of students.

“I’m excited to introduce them to my own students,” he said. “I do plan to feature dinosaurs in some of my lessons.”

Since his own days as first-grade student, Isley said the grade level has seen a lot of changes. For one, technology has advanced rapidly, and students use iPads, advanced computers and more to complete their work, innovate and create, he said. Rehberg said students are also expected to know a lot more.

“When I was in the first-grade, we learned the alphabet,” Rehberg said. “Now, that is usually learned in Preschool before they get to kindergarten. From the public’s point of view, I’m not sure people realize the amazing achievements of young little kids these days. Every generation seems to move along more rapidly than the previous one. The reading performance of today’s first graders is impressive.”

Isley said he’s up to the challenge for educating the talented youngsters.

“I’m excited to jump in and work with these amazing kids,” he said. “One of the best things I’ve learned from Janelle is that you have to know your kids and meet them where they are. That’s something I plan to use in my own career as a teacher. That, and you have to make learning fun.”

Foundational learning for use in the real-world

Isley said he appreciates that WSU Tri-Cities requires so much real-world work in the classroom, as that’s the business that teachers are in – working with children and inspiring in them a passion for knowledge.

“Being able to apply what I’ve learned through my professors and textbooks at WSU to the real-world setting in the elementary school classrooms is invaluable,” he said. Rehberg agreed.

“You don’t learn nearly as much as when you are right here in the trenches,” she said. “That first-hand experience is the best.”

Looking toward the future, Isley said he plans to take what he learned through both his coursework and professors at WSU Tri-Cities, and what he learned from Rehberg, to educate a whole new generation of students.

Isley recently accepted a kindergarten teaching position at Washington Elementary School in the Kennewick School District. He’ll also have a piece of Rehberg in his future classroom to remember his student teaching experience with his first-grade teacher, mentor and now colleague. Rehberg said she made a giant sculpted dinosaur for a class project and plans to give it to David to hang in his future classroom.

“It really has all come full-circle,” Isley said.

Rehberg said she’ll miss Isley teaching alongside in her classroom, but that she’s excited for his future.

“Since I had David in my classroom, I’ve missed him terribly,” she said. “I loved having David student teach in my class. But I know he’ll be successful wherever he goes.”

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

The United States power grid is connected by more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines to provide electricity to more than 300 million people. But as the saying goes, with great power, comes great responsibility.

Yousu Chen – PNNL

With the increase of renewable energy sources, the growth of the increasingly complex system and increases in terrorist threats, engineers have to come up with new methods to protect the power grid.

Yousu Chen (WSU Tri-Cities MS, environmental engineering), staff research engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is using high-performance computing techniques to safeguard the electrical grid against potential threats and outages.

“The power grid is the largest man-made machine in the world,” he said. “It is the most important infrastructure, and we need it daily for almost all of our daily activities. I’m always eager to know what I can do in this fast-growing area to solve new problems.”

During his time as a student at WSU Tri-Cities, Chen got his first internship at PNNL. He also learned skills in simulation and modeling that have proven invaluable to his career.

He has been involved in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, increasing opportunities for current students.

Solving problems before they happen

Chen‘s work focuses primarily on modern computing techniques that both simulate potential hazards and provide ways for monitoring information within the grid. Through the advancement of high-performing computing techniques, he and his team at PNNL are developing simulations to predict and combat problems before they occur.

Chen’s computing systems utilize complex algorithms to measure power flow, identify potential problem areas, simulate possible outcomes if there were to be an outage or a catastrophic event, as well as provide solutions in how to deal with those potential problem areas.Power pole

“For example, if we want to evaluate the impact of newer smart grid technologies on the power grid, we use our simulation techniques to prepare for the event before we apply those new technologies to the grid,” he said. “Using our simulation, we could determine how that issue would impact the grid, and as a result, how we can prevent that from occurring.”

Chen said he and his team are always developing newer computing techniques to run simulations at a faster rate, which will be crucial in the event of a major outage or disruption.

“Some systems will take minutes, depending on the system, to run a limited number of contingencies,” he said. “My code is able to run 1 million contingencies in less than 30 seconds. That is a major achievement.”

With all of the data generated through advanced computing methods, Chen and his team are also always looking take the massive data caches and efficiently turn them into something usable and visual.

“Because high-performance computing systems can create a lot of data, it is challenging to digest that data in the short-term,” he said. “We develop advanced visualization tools, which allow us to view that data in real time and provide a quick response for potential events.”

Giving back to the future of engineering

Even though Chen has achieved much in his career as an engineer, he has used his position to increase opportunities for disseminating knowledge of his field into the community, as well as create pathways for other students to follow in his footsteps.

Chen realized early in his higher education career just how valuable mentorship and extracurricular learning experiences could be to his own growth as an engineer. In addition to utilizing university resources to connect him with an internship at PNNL, he also sought advice for how to improve his resume, his interview skills and more through the university’s career development center. After landing a full-time position of his own at PNNL, he wanted to keep paying forward what he learned, using his connections in engineering and computer science to provide resources and mentoring to aspiring engineering students.

Chen has since volunteered his time through a variety of capacities for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He serves as chair for the IEEE’s distinguished lecture program and formerly served as the regional representative of the IEEE Power & Energy Society and the regional chair for the IEEE Power Energy Society’s scholarship plus program. He also serves as the editor for two professional journals where he helps edit and review articles for publication pertaining to the smart grid.

As a result of his efforts, Chen was recently awarded the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Leadership Award for the contributions he has made to IEEE activities and the leadership he’s displayed through IEEE at the local, regional and national levels. In a congratulatory letter, Wai-Choong Wong, vice president of the member and geographic activities at IEEE, stated that Chen has set a great example in carrying forward the goals and objectives of the IEEE MGA board.

Chen said he is grateful for all he learned in his education at WSU Tri-Cities, as well as what he has been able to accomplish since then by means of his work at PNNL, as well as through his involvement with the IEEE.

“These opportunities changed my life,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to accomplish a lot in my career as an engineer and I believe it is my responsibility to not only increase the capabilities of the power grid, but to also increase the potential for the world’s future engineers who will solve many of these energy-related problems.”

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found a new way to define the molecular structure of cellulose, which could lead to cheaper and more efficient ways to make a variety of crucial bioproducts.

For the first time, researchers revealed the differences between the surface layers and the crystalline core of cellulose by combining spectroscopy processes that use infrared and visible laser beams to analyze the structure of molecular components. The findings appear this month in Scientific Reports, an online open-access journal produced by the Nature Publishing Group (http://www.nature.com/articles/srep44319).

The spectroscopy processes are known as Total Internal Reflection Sum Frequency Generation Vibrational Spectroscopy (TIR-SFG-VS) and conventional SFG-VS.

Making biofuels, bioproducts cost-competitive

Bin Yang, co-author and WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of biological systems engineering, said cellulose is one of the most abundant organic compounds on Earth. Understanding the cellulosic biomass recalcitrance, or resistance to degradation, at the molecular level is a key step toward overcoming the fundamental barrier to making cellulosic biofuels cost-competitive, he said.

“Cellulose is commonly known as a product that is difficult to break down and convert into other useful products,” said co-author Hongfei Wang, former chief scientist in the physical sciences division at PNNL and current professor of chemistry at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Using our nonlinear vibrational spectroscopic technique, we can resolve some questions associated with the recalcitrance of cellulosic biomass and, in turn, more efficiently convert the product into a usable commodity.”

Yang said that although plant cell walls are complex and dynamic, recent advances in analytical chemistry and genomics have substantially enhanced understanding of cellulosic biomass recalcitrance while simultaneously highlighting the remaining knowledge gaps.

Understanding structure opens industrial possibilities

“This discovery is significant because it not only challenges the traditional understanding of cellulose materials, it provides further insight into the surface and bulk chemistry of cellulosic fibers, building on a novel spectroscopic tool to characterize such structural differences,” said Arthur J. Ragauskas, Governor’s Chair in biorefining for Oak Ridge National Laboratory and at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is an expert on the subject, but not involved in the research.

He said the discovery of the nonuniformity and the structure of cellulose in the study can improve the efficiency of industrial application of cellulose.

“The discovery may lead to modification of the current definitions of the different types of cellulose structures,” he said. “This discovery represents yet another instance of the importance of spectroscopic observations in transformative advances to understand the structure of the cellulosic biomass.”

Libing Zhang

Libing Zhang, co-author and postdoctoral researcher at WSU Tri-Cities, called it a privilege to participate in such a significant discovery while utilizing such advanced technology, especially knowing that it could have a profound impact on the advancement of bioproducts.

“We can use the application of this technology to fundamentally understand the conversion process of nearly every cellulose-based product in the future,” she said.

Researchers at WSU and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at PNNL collaborated on the study. Yang’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Young Faculty Award and the SFG capability and expertise at EMSL, an Office of Science user facility of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research of the U.S. Department of Energy, made the study possible. It is DOI:10.1038/srep44319.

Zhang, Yang, Li Fu, a William Wiley Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow formerly at EMSL, and Wang conducted the research.

 

News media contacts:
Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities biological systems engineering, 509-372-640, binyang@tricity.wsu.edu
John Nicksich, EMSL communications, 509-375-7398, john.nicksich@pnnl.gov
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-333, maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu

By Maegan Murray

Stemming from his background growing up in Ethiopia, Yonas Demissie views water as a commodity more valuable than oil.

In the nation of more than 94 million people, just 42 percent have access to clean water in Ethiopia. That is why the WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering has directed his research efforts toward the monitoring, exploration and evaluation of the resource that is vital in sustaining life.

Yonas Demissie, WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, reviews data pertaining to his research in water-related issues.

“Here in the U.S., we take water for granted,” Demissie said. “Our daily water use here is as much as 10 times than that of a person in other countries where water is in limited supply.”

Demissie said he has personally never experienced not having access to clean water, because he grew up in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa where infrastructure is more advanced than other parts of the nation. But that doesn’t mean the issue doesn’t hit close to home.

“I may have grown up in the city, but the water scarcity issue and famine in the country are regular news,” he said. “It always bothered me to see images of starving children. There is no excuse for a child to get hungry. As a society, we should all be responsible for that. I want my research in water to be my contribution to society. Water is a very critical resource that needs to be accessible, protected and properly managed.”

Demissie is currently working on a myriad of research projects at WSU Tri-Cities that focus on various aspects of water-related issues.

“In terms of overall impact, any study on understanding and properly managing water resources is key,” he said.

Climate research on Department of Defense facilities

Demissie is currently half-way through a four-year project studying the impact of climate change on military infrastructure, focusing specifically on whether defense infrastructure and facilities could handle increased flooding and abnormal increases and fluctuations in precipitation. His research is funded as part of a $1 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Yonas Demissie, WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and his research team at WSU Tri-Cities.

“DOD has many facilities across the globe and many of those installations are close to coastal areas,” he said. “They are worried about sea level rise, increased extreme storms and how that will affect their facilities and operations. Our research is to assess flooding risk with the DOD facilities’ existing storm water management system and whether it is sufficient or needs to be upgraded.”

Demissie said when there is an increase in the temperature, there is an increase in the atmosphere’s ability to hold more water, which increases the chance of heavy rainfall. He said he and his team are currently analyzing the historical climate data to see if precipitation has increased over the years, whether storms now last longer and whether there has been an increase in the intensity, frequency and duration of the precipitation.

A change in precipitation caused by climate change and/or other factors, Demissie said, could also have drastic impacts in other areas such as agriculture.

“In our regions, for example, how snowfall on the Cascade Mountains is going to be affected due to climate change will be an important issue in determining future agriculture productions,” he said. “Even though the total amount of annual precipitation may not be affected, there may be a shift in when that precipitation may occur.”

Instead of most of the precipitation occurring in the winter and early spring, as it is now, Demissie said it may occur mostly in winter, or even in the fall. He said farmers may not have the water when they need it for their crops and that the timing shift could have a significant negative effect.

In a similar study funded by the state’s water center, Demissie recently completed evaluating and updating decades-old design standards used to construct water related infrastructure, such as culverts, bridges and dams, for all the counties in Washington state.

Additionally, he and his team were also recently awarded funding from the state’s water center to study drought characteristics in the Yakima basin and to evaluate effectiveness of a $4 billion water management plan currently under consideration for tackling drought in the region.

“Climate change is one of our generation’s major issues that we are going to have to deal with,” he said.

Reducing effects of nitrates and phosphors stemming from biofuels industry on Gulf of Mexico

Researchers are making significant strides in the biofuels industry, creating fuels for jet airplanes, cars and more that help reduce the United States’ carbon footprint. WSU is leading the industry in research for biofuels with its Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA). But increases in the crops in the Midwest required to make certain biofuels may be having a damaging effect on ecosystems in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

Sediment in the Gulf of Mexico – Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Demissie is studying the impact of increased nitrates and phosphors from farming practices related to the biofuels industry in Midwest on the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, and how they can minimize those issues.

“In the Midwest, they are making biofuels from corn, which requires increased nitrogen and phosphors applications, which end up in the streams,” he said. “Increased nitrate and phosphors lead to algal bloom, which eventually prevents vegetation and fish from growing in lakes and other water bodies.”

Demissie said increased algae prevents the natural process of photosynthesis from happening in the water as the sun can’t reach the lower levels and life essentially ceases from occurring. Because the Gulf of Mexico is connected to the Midwest through the Mississippi River, those nitrates and phosphors run directly into the gulf, causing algae bloom that currently covers areas as large as Connecticut and Rhode Island, combined.

“The Gulf of Mexico is one of the important regions for fishing,” he said. “We are growing more corn in the Midwest to meet demands of biofuels, but at the same time, we could end up killing an important industry downstream. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Monitoring groundwater contamination at Hanford

Hanford B Reactor building

Hanford B Reactor building

Since he started at WSU Tri-Cities in 2012, Demissie has consistently worked with Hanford Site contractors and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory staff in monitoring and modeling the groundwater flow from the site to ensure there is no radiation and other toxic contamination with vital sources such as aquifers and reservoirs used for human daily water use.

Contamination from the Hanford Site stems back to the facilities’ production of plutonium from World War II and the Cold War. Chemicals were released, both planned and unplanned, into the soil around the site. Scientists have since worked to develop and improve upon models that are used to predict the flow, as well as determine which areas they should treat.

“We are consistently monitoring groundwater contamination for Hanford, using various monitoring and modeling projects to tell where it’s flowing and how fast it is traveling,” he said.

“We’re always working to improve methods and models for doing so,” he said. “We’ve made significant strides in reducing the contamination from those early years.”

Researching means to open access for Nile River

Demissie is presently working with a team of people to examine current flow patterns and allocations of the Nile River, and how they can more effectively be shared by all African countries associated with the river.

Map of the Nile River

Map of the Nile River – Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Nile River is the world’s longest river, flowing 6,700 kilometers through 10 countries in eastern Africa, where water is mostly scarce. Demissie said any water project in the upstream tributaries of the Nile has been under political contention, as countries like Egypt and Sudan use the river as their main source of water and electric power generation.

Ethiopia, where 80-90 percent of the Nile water originates, historically was not using the river despite being hit by regular famines caused by highly variable rainfall in the region. However, Ethiopia is now constructing the largest dam in Africa on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River, for electric power generation. Political officials in Egypt are worried that it would limit their access to the river, which they said they have a natural right to two-thirds of the resource, as indicated in The Nile Waters Agreement that was signed in 1959, which Ethiopia never signed.

Demissie and his colleagues Gabriel Senay, Naga Manohar Velpuri, Stefanie Bohms and Mekonne Gebremichael completed a study in 2014 that integrated satellite data and modeling to detail the variability of water sources in the Nile Basin. Their study revealed that about 85 percent of runoff generated in the equatorial region (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda) is lost along the river pathway that includes the Sudd wetlands, which has an area approximately twice the size of Maryland. This proportion is higher than the literature reported loss of 50 percent.

In addition, their study found that the expected average annual Nile flow at the Aswan Dam in Egypt is 13 cubic kilometers greater than the reported amount of 84 cubic kilometers originally reported. Demissie said that means there is a flow amount that equates to more than half of Colorado River of water each year that was not accounted for during the 1959 water agreement.

Demissie said the loss in runoff and flow volume at different sections of the Nile River, however, tend to be more than what can be explained by evaporation losses, suggesting a potential recharge to deeper aquifers that are not connected to the Nile channel systems. He said the study indicated the need for increased instrumentation detailing the hydrometeorology of the basin.

“Our knowledge regarding water availability in the Nile Basin and how much and where water is lost in the system is limited,” he said. “But our analysis shows that we get more water into the system than what was originally estimated. There is extra water that Ethiopia can use.”

Demissie said he hopes his group’s initial research will lead to bigger developments in assessing the direction, flow and amount of water from the Nile, which could lead to positive legislation among the African countries that may help lead to an agreement that would benefit all.

“Having a good understanding of water as a resource and coming up with a better management strategy I believe is critical for most societies,” he said.