On the Summer Research Menu at NJIT: Amazonian Electric Fish, Chinese Eco-Villages, Air-Breathing Fuel Cells

Atam Dhawan, executive director of Undergraduate Research and Innovation at NJIT, with some of the students who presented their research projects at the July 31 Summer Research Symposium.

NJIT’s Undergraduate Summer Research Program Brings More than 100 Students Back to Campus

The opportunity to conduct high-level research in campus laboratories, working alongside world experts in fields ranging from biology to biomedical engineering to architecture, defines an NJIT education. These experiences don’t stop in the summer. Shortly after graduation this year, more than 100 students and 75 faculty advisors and mentors dove into projects that took some students off campus to academic conferences, professional offices, and even other countries. The students presented their projects at a July 31 Summer Research Symposium on campus.

For one incoming freshman, introduction to life at NJIT began on a research team intent on solving an urgent problem facing U.S. soldiers. For two biology majors, summer research on Amazonian electric fish was directly preceded by a field trip to a research site in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. For a sophomore mathematician, the challenge to conduct research at a professional level will likely result in his name appearing on any paper that results from it.

For an architecture student, work on site at her advisor’s downtown firm plunged her into the world of professional planners and designers. A senior mechanical engineer presented his work on fuel cells this summer at an academic conference in Boston, ably fielding tough questions from some of the field’s prominent researchers. As the university’s research program expands into other countries with student exchanges, Colombians from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota and NJIT engineers got to experience both research and culture in each other’s countries.

“The Undergraduate Research and Innovation program evolved this summer with impressive synergies within and across disciplines. We saw all-time-high participation,” said Atam Dhawan, executive director of Undergraduate Research and Innovation at NJIT, who noted that the Provost’s Summer Research Program alone provided more than $100,000 to support 31 research projects, the largest number ever funded. “These unique opportunities allow our students to develop and enrich the research skills critical to future success and leadership roles in society. By expanding into other countries, we are building a knowledge base that will prepare them to address science and technology challenges across the globe.”

Fish Stories From the Amazonian Basin to Custom-Built Lab Tanks

Andrea Roeser ‘15, a math and biology major from West Milford, studied neurosignaling in the brains of tiny Eigenmannia virescens, fish that live in the Amazonian basin and communicate with each other by generating an electric field around their bodies. “Each individual fish has its own unique frequency and they communicate by raising and lowering them. We pick up these “chirps” with electrodes in the tank,” says Roeser, who recorded their mating signals so she could play them back to the fish and decode the brain mechanisms that produced their responses. “We’re pretending we’re fish!” Her lab partner, Monica Khattak ’16, a biology major from South Amboy, is also interested in how the brain directs behavior. She looked at chemical compounds that transmit the neuron signals that code social interactions among fish. For both students, work in the lab offered a sharp contrast with their recent field research in Ecuador with NJIT biologist Eric Fortune. "I found it extremely interesting to discover the differences between how animals behave in the wild versus the laboratory setting,” Roeser says.  Khattak, who wants to be a surgeon, also takes pride in the pair’s lab skills back on campus. “Research isn’t just biology,” she notes. “We construct a lot of the apparatus for our experiments. We built these fish tanks.”

From Dirt Bikes to Fuel Cells

Stephen Harris ’15, a mechanical engineer from Hamburg, spent his summer working on an air-breathing fuel cell – an electrochemical device that produces electricity – he believes to be “the future of science and engineering.” With the encouragement of his advisor, Eon Soo Lee, the director of NJIT’s Advanced Energy Systems and Micro Devices Laboratory, he presented his work in Boston earlier this year at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) 8th International Conference on Energy Sustainability. “The conference was an incredible experience where the best of the best exchanged innovative ideas for the future of green energy,” Harris recounted, noting that his only prior experience at the podium was delivering a speech to 200 other enthusiasts at a dirt bike championship banquet. “I was prepared. I definitely didn’t want to make a mistake!”

From High School Engineering Experiments to Work on Military Safety Devices

What brought Theresa Wagner ’18, of Morris Hills, to campus weeks before she would join her fellow freshmen at the Albert Dorman Honors College was the chance to work on a device called a Vibration-Powered Impact Recorder (VPIR) that NJIT is developing with the U.S. Army to monitor damage to ammunition rounds during transportation. The device is urgently needed as munitions subject to vibrations and blunt impacts can become unstable and explode while soldiers are handling them. Her task as a member of physicist Gordon Thomas’s team was to make the device more durable by creating padding that would prevent the VPIR chip from being damaged without, however, dulling its sensitivity. Her qualifications? “I love working on circuitry. I’ve been ripping up computers since I can remember. This was right up my alley,” says Wagner, who was the first girl to take her high school’s electrical engineering class and is undaunted by a challenge. NJIT provided one. “We needed a device with unusual properties – one with no battery that can be stored for up to 10 years,” says Thomas.

From a Campus Studio to a Downtown Manhattan Architecture Firm

Sabrina Raia ‘15, an architecture and civil engineering major from Farmingdale, worked off campus over the summer at advisor Richard Garber’s architecture firm in downtown Manhattan helping design a pilot project for a sustainable, semi-rural community on a newly cleared 60-acre site in a region outside of the Wuhan metropolitan area in Hubei, China. The project, jointly conducted by NJIT and the Wuhan Planning & Design Institute in China, incorporated sustainable land-use features such as constructed wetlands, green roofs, and rain gardens, among others. Its aim, Raia says, is to produce new ideas about sustainable living and green infrastructure that can in turn be applied to existing higher density areas of the country. “We were able to finish all of the necessary drawings and our Chinese partners say they are going to move forward with construction,” she says, calling her summer stint in Manhattan horizon-expanding. “It was really motivating to be working on this research project in a professional setting. Getting a sense of what real architects do was also a great learning experience."

From Ambitious Freshman to Aspiring Co-Author

Josef Mohrenweiser ‘17, a computational math major from West Milford, modeled precise methods for delivering drug therapies to cancer sites through a process called magnetic drug targeting in which cancer drugs are attached to highly magnetic nanoparticles and injected near the cancer site to flow towards the tumor. A magnet of high field strength traps the nanoparticles near the tumor, allowing them to release the drug only at the cancer site. “We’re trying to more accurately model the blood’s viscosity, taking into account the collisions between the red blood cells and the magnetic particles, to better assess the rate at which the drug hits its target – the cancer cell.” Mohrenreiser, who aspires to be a research professor to “figure out things no one else has known,” was also given the task of supervising some of the work conducted by Iris Rukshin and Farris Ahmed, high school students from Holmdel and South Brunswick, respectively, who earned a spot in mathematician Shahriar Afkhami’s lab through the Liberty Science Center’s Partners in Science program.

From Newark, New Jersey to Bogota, Colombia

Juan Sebastian Adame and Juan Manuel Vasquez, students from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia, spent several weeks this summer living on campus working closely with NJIT professors. Vasquez studied brain activation in younger and older subjects through functional magnetic resonance imaging with Bharat Biswal, chairman of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Adame worked with Richard Foulds, also a professor of biomedical engineering, on a movement device for people recovering from strokes. “This was interesting for us because the research we do is typically more theoretical,” said Vasquez. “We also don’t live on campus.”Adame noted, “It was exciting to work on rehabilitation engineering to see research enacted.” Three NJIT engineers,  Jessica  Marfo ’15, of Teaneck, Karen Garcia ’15, of Elmwood Park,  and Stevi Guzman ’15, of Perth Amboy, in turn worked on research projects at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana this summer.