Meet Ashish: the Top Graduate Student of the Year

NCE's Outstanding Graduate student Ashish Borgaonkar

Ashish Borgaonkar was recently named the Outstanding Graduate Student of the year. Each year, the Newark College of Engineering’s (NCE) gives that award to a graduate student who has excelled. And Ashish, who is doing a doctorate in environmental engineering, has excelled on several academic fronts.

As a student, he’s near to perfect, with a 3.93 grade point average. As a teaching assistant, he’s twice been nominated for an Excellence in Instruction Award.  And as a researcher, his environmental studies are helping scientists understand what effect nano-particles, commonly used in cosmetics and sunscreens, have on drinking water. 

“My research has given me immense pleasure,” says Ashish, a civil and environmental engineering major.  “Someday I hope to make a significant contribution to environmental engineering and leave a lasting impact on society.”

Cosmetic companies add nano-particles to their products, Ashish says, because the particles block out ultraviolet light. That’s good, since exposure to UV rays causes skin cancer.  But what’s potentially hazardous about the widespread use of nano-particles, Ashish adds, is this: Oftentimes people wash the products down the drain while showering or washing. As a result, the infinitesimally small particles, which are 1/5,000th the diameter of a human hair, end up in sewage treatment plants – and, more ominously, in drinking water supplies.

In his research, Ashish is evaluating whether current water-treatment processes remove nano-particles from drinking water. Working out of an environmental research lab at NJIT, he’s found that a small amount of nano-particles remain in tap water.  And since studies show that nano-particles can be toxic -- potentially damaging cell membranes in humans -- Ashish is developing a method to remove nano-particles from water.

Nano-particles, his research shows, have small surface electrical charges and are thus slightly magnetic in water.  So if you insert magnetic particles, known as magnetites, into water, the nano- particles could attach to the magnetite particles.  Once the two particles have combined, you could then use a magnetic field to remove them from water. 

Ashish hasn’t made this method work yet, but he’s among the first to test it. The areas he’s studying -- the effect of nano-technology on drinking water -- is an emerging field of research that still requires much scientific research; Ashish is contributing what he can to that body of scientific knowledge.  He’s also testing to see if the magnetite particles, the magnetites, can be reused. If so, that would make removing nano-particles from water more efficient and economical.

Ashish intends to publish two journal papers on his research. He’s already published one peer-reviewed paper in the field, contributed to two book chapters and has given many presentations at engineering and environmental conferences.  At NJIT, he’s also recently been elected as Vice President of General Affairs for the Graduate Student Association.

He first took an interest in environmental engineering while a student at Stony Brook University, N.Y., where he received a master’s in environmental and waste management.  But it was at NJIT that his environmental research reached a higher level. After he gets his doctorate next year, Ashish wants to work as a research scientist for a national lab or a university. In that way, he’ll be able to continue his pioneering research – his life’s work. 

“I want to devote my life to researching technologies that will make our drinking water cheap and safe,” he says. “That for me will make for a meaningful life.  I’m inspired by President Obama, who has made green engineering a national priority.  And in the end I believe that humanity must be environmentally responsible: We created this environmental mess. We must be the ones to clean it up.”

 (By Robert Florida, University Web Services)