September 4, 2007

Student Travels from Ecuador to Join Collaborative Perchlorate Research Project

Nadia Cumbal joins Lafayette students for ongoing research on contaminated groundwater and hopes to help other students do the same

Nadia Cumbal, a biotechnology engineering major from Polytechnic School of Army in Quito, Ecuador, is spending nine weeks at Lafayette to participate in an ongoing research project on Perchlorate reduction.

According to Arthur Kney, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, Cumbal will be taking over the duties of civil engineering major Katie Merriam ’08 (Hillsborough, NJ.).

“Nadia will be evaluating several perchlorate-selective ion exchange materials that we have been working with over the last few years,” Kney explains. “The research is funded by an National Science Foundation grant. Specifically Nadia will be running bench scale equilibrium and kinetic studies.”

Cumbal is using various kinds of resins to remove the perchlorate ion from groundwater and evaluating which resins work the best. Perchlorate is a harmful contaminant that, if consumed, causes thyroid dysfunction and has been linked to certain cancers. It is used in the manufacturing of propellants such as rocket fuel, munitions, and fireworks. The EPA has placed perchlorate on its Contaminant Candidate List, which means that it is a potential candidate for regulation.

“I’m in charge of doing equilibrium and kinetic tests to determine which resin works more efficiently, as well as to find out the pH conditions that are better for removal and the most appropriate amount of resin that needs to be used depending on the concentrations of the perchlorate in water,” Cumbal explains. “Once I get the data, I’ll examine the effect of the different resins on lower concentrations of perchlorate and compare equilibrium tests versus kinetic tests. The data obtained can also be used to model the adsorption of the perchlorate on the resin.”

Steven Mylon, assistant professor of chemistry; Javad Tavakoli, professor of chemical engineering; and Laurie Caslake, associate professor and acting head of biology, are also involved with different aspects of the research.

Mylon says he is excited about the doors recruiting a foreign research student will potentially open in the future.

“Art had the idea to extend our mission to support research opportunities for undergraduates to those beyond the Lafayette Community,” says Mylon. “It was a great idea and the folks at NSF were behind it as well. We are an institution fortunate to have the resources to carry out high caliber research and in much the same way that our students may spend some time at other institutions; we are able to offer Nadia similar opportunities.”

Cumbal could not agree more.

“As a new field, [biotechnology engineering] can be applied to an unlimited number of fields, the environment being one of them,” Cumbal explains. “Lafayette is known for its engineering and for giving students the chance to work on important projects that would usually only be open to graduate students. After being invited to participate in this project, there was no doubt in my mind that I had to make this trip.”

According to Kney, Cumbal’s home school requires students to perform a specific number of internship hours for various fields within their majors. The nine weeks she will be working with Lafayette will contribute significantly to the number of required hours for the environmental science component of her major.

Cumbal says that she also intends to use this experience to develop her skills as a researcher.

“My first goal is to acquire different skills involving the manipulation of equipment and designing actual experiments,” she says.

She also believes it will help prepare her for graduate school, which she hopes to attend in the United States.

“I also like the fact that I get to practice my English every day and at the same time I learn from people’s experiences on campus – not only experiences from American students, but also from other international students,” she says.

Mylon explains that it is important to make international and domestic intercollegiate opportunities like this available to students. Both he and Kney hope to use Cumbal’s experience to further develop this vision.

“Advances in science are generally made through collaborative efforts and having Nadia working on this project is one more example of this,” says Mylon. “Lafayette students will learn from her and her from them, future collaborations will develop and, who knows, maybe she and one of our students will be collaborating on their own in the future. This is really something we should be doing more of.”

Cumbal believes that she has already learned quite a bit in just the short time she’s been here.

“In the past three weeks I’ve learned how to work equipment that I had never had the opportunity to work with,” she says. “The equilibrium and kinetic tests were very new methods that I quickly learned during the first days. I’ve also learned how to address some issues that the equipment may present. Most important, I’ve learned to keep clean vials available everyday and work with gloves on at all times. The lab can be a very interesting place, but a dangerous one too.”

Cumbal’s experience has proven to be invaluable in many other aspects besides research.

“Working and living with Katie during my first three days in the United States was a pleasant experience. She’s very sweet, patient and friendly,” Cumbal says. “Besides the training, she also showed me around campus and a few other places that are key elements in a Lafayette student’s life. Her hospitality and diligence have made her one of the most special people I’ve had the pleasure to meet in this short period of time.”

“Katie and Nadia hit it off very well,” says Kney, “therefore adding to the overall experience for both students in both an academic and cultural sense.”

Kney also says that Cumbal will have many more opportunities to get to know the community. She her first few weeks this summer living with host families and she will continue to spend a few weekends with various faculty members. Cumbal is also staying in on-campus housing, allowing her to truly experience the institution from a student’s perspective.

Cumbal is being supported by funds from her country, the NSF grant and SEES (Society of Environmental Engineers and Scientists), the environmental research group on campus. SEES was recently awarded significant funds from Air Products & Chemicals, Inc. and Environ, chemical companies with the mission of supporting various research activities.

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