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NSF Grant to Help Grad Students Find Solutions to Environmental Challenges

November 1, 2021
From left, professors Tom Harmon, David Strubbe, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Michael Scheibner, Sayantani Ghosh and Mehmet Baykara

Graduate students and a convergence of physics, engineering and environmental science could result in not only the next generation of solutions to pressing environmental challenges, but a new group of diverse and globally competitive nano-engineers, as well.

A nearly $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will train about 200 graduate students over the next five years as they learn and work to develop nano-sensors to better manage resources.

“Right now, nano-sensors are underused because there’s a disconnect between users and creators,” said physics Professor Sayantani Ghosh, the principal investigator on the grant. “What we’re aiming for is to create user-driven technology that is cheap, easy to use and easily customizable.”

Effective monitoring of the factors affecting soil, water and air quality requires new and highly sensitive technology. Nanomaterials are ideal because nano-engineering allows the tuning of material properties at the atomic scale, enabling highly specialized platforms for targeted applications — in this case, specific environmental problems.

The program is called Convergence of Nano-engineered Devices for Environmental and Sustainability Applications (CONDESA) and is designed to provide extensive training, both research and professional development, for graduate students. As proposed, CONDESA has a central team of nine faculty members: Ghosh, engineering professors Tom Harmon and Mehmet Baykara, soil science Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe , physics professors Michael Scheibner and David Strubbe, environmental physicist Professor Teamrat Ghezzehei, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) researchers Tiziana Bond and Jennifer Pett-Ridge, who will work with graduate students on related LLNL projects. In addition, six other faculty members and three staff members will be active in the program.

Professor Teamrat Ghezzehei  

“It’s intensely collaborative,” Ghosh said. “I’m really excited because this is the first program to blend these disciplines.”

Strubbe is working on enhancing the pipeline to national labs for students and said the LLNL connection provides even more research and career preparation, as well as the possibility for internships and other opportunities.

“They have great facilities for manufacturing sensors, so that’s another aspect of this that will help students,” he said. Strubbe was part of an NSF research and training program as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and said it helped his career and came in handy when participating in putting together the proposal for CONDESA because he could offer feedback from his own experiences.

Each faculty member’s lab will play an integral role in developing the nano-sensors. For example, Baykara’s lab will create sensors based on two-dimensional (2D) materials to detect contaminants in water, such as heavy metals and bacteria. Strubbe’s lab will calculate how the electrical resistance of 2D materials can change in the presence of different molecules, including pollutants. In this way, his lab will help optimize nano-sensors, helping make them as sensitive as possible to the substances they are supposed to detect in soil and water.

“Combining all these different approaches should give students a well-rounded view of the field, including simulations and design,” Strubbe said.

The CONDESA team hopes that through new courses and cross-training students in physics, chemistry, materials science, environmental science and sustainable systems, the students will come away with well-rounded research experiences that will benefit them in the future, whether they end up in academia or industry.

“This kind of program helps us support new ideas and gives students a much broader look at what they can use their research for,” Scheibner said. “We’re trying to address needs in the environment, but we’re also hoping the students get new ideas about their own work by working with others.”

Scheibner’s lab will use quantum tunneling and quantum entanglement to enhance the detectors’ magnetic and mass sensitivities to study water retention in soils and clays.

“The idea is to use cutting-edge research to give the students inspiration as to how it might be applied, especially in this region, with such severe droughts,” he said. “It’s a little bit out there, but that’s where the breakthroughs happen.”

CONDESA leaders plan to use the campus’s developing smart farm to test many of the sensors, but want to make sure the community, including farmers and other potential stakeholders are involved to help make technology that is more readily adopted.

Besides research and training, the core team members also have responsibility for helping develop curriculum — including two new courses, Nano-fabrication for Interdisciplinary Materials Sciences and Nano-sensing for Environmental Applications — and recruiting students. The grant’s funding starts in spring 2022, and the first cohort will be gathered from among current graduate students, but CONDESA will recruit new students yearly after that.

“CONDESA’s topic is extremely appropriate for UC Merced because of our strong focus on the environment and sustainability, not just because we are located here in the Valley, but because we have top-notch faculty, especially in environmental systems,” Baykara said. “But the best part of this project is that it gives our grad students, many of whom are from underrepresented communities, the opportunity to do this kind of leading-edge research.”