This summer, 90 students from across the nation participated in WSU’s Summer Undergraduate Research program where they worked with award-winning professors in cutting-edge facilities. For many, the experience opened their eyes to the world of possibilities research offers.

A research opportunity

Excited to participate in the opportunities a university can offer, Raquel Murillo transferred to WSU in summer 2016 after earning an associate’s degree from Tacoma Community College.

Raquel Murillo conducting bacteria research
Raquel Murillo conducting bacteria research

“At a community college there aren’t many research opportunities, so I couldn’t wait for the university experience,” she said.

Murillo, a junior in chemical engineering worked with Nehal Abu-Lail, a professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering to study a multi-drug resistant strain of Escherichia coli (E.coli). The research project focused on how the bacteria’s cell membrane interacts with antibiotics at a nanoscale level.

The researchers also tested the antimicrobial ability of plant extracts commonly used in home remedies such as: garlic, turmeric, apple cider vinegar, and cranberries.

“Professor Abu-Lail is known around the world for her research,” said Murillo. “There is nothing like the experience of being around someone who can truly mentor you. She is a great mentor and is constantly provided me with information and resources that helped with my research.

“You are working with Ph.D. students and amazing researchers, a lot of great mentors who want to teach you,” she added. “This was a great learning experience.”

“Raquel has shown great work ethic. She is reliable, persistent, inquisitive, and disciplined,” said Abu-Lail. “It has been great to have her as part of our laboratory team.”

Never too early to start

Lucy Ward is one of a handful of recent high school graduates who participated in WSU’s Summer Undergraduate Research program. With a mother as a professor, Lucy Ward grew up surrounded by academics. So it’s no surprise that a week after graduating high school, Ward began her research project.

Lucy Ward tests her robot program
Lucy Ward tests her robot program

Ward, an incoming freshman at the University of Wyoming, worked with Diane Cook, a professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science to build a robot that can work with Cook’s smart home system to assist older residents.

The current smart home system is able to detect habits and routine activities, but it can do little to assist someone who is struggling. However, the robot will be able to tell if a resident has skipped one of their routine activities, approach the resident and remind them to complete it, and provide assistance with completing the task if necessary. Ward tested the capabilities of the robotic arm, evaluated the accuracy of the visualization software that generates a map of the smart home, and checked the accuracy of the odometer readings from the robot.

“I worked with a lot of smart people and we worked together to create something that will help others,” said Ward. “The idea of taking real data and applying it to answer a question is really cool.”

At the beginning of the year, the Office of Undergraduate Research holds information sessions to introduce students to the research opportunities available to them on campus.

Kristian Gubsch has been interested in research since he was a freshman. A sophomore chemical engineering major, Gubsch helped Candis Claiborn and Von Walden, professors in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, build a network of inexpensive air quality sensors to monitor Spokane’s air quality in real-time. The project was in collaboration with Urbanova, a smart city living laboratory in the Spokane University District that is testing solutions to address urban challenges in new ways. The air quality sensors measure temperature, pressure, humidity, carbon dioxide and particulate matters.

“I really enjoyed the hands on experience from this research project,” said Gubsch. “Figuring out how things work is fun.”

Research is for everyone

Sophomore biochemistry major Yoni Rodriguez also worked with Walden to create an interactive laboratory module to introduce undergraduate students to environmental engineering using sensors modeled after the air quality sensors being used in Urbanova. The lab module will provide students with hands-on engineering, computer programming, and research development skills as they develop their own experiments using the real-time data collected by the air quality sensors.

Yoni Rodriguez and Kristian Gusch create an interactive laboratory module sensor
Yoni Rodriguez and Kristian Gusch create an interactive laboratory module sensor

“My researching experience has made me realize that anybody can do research, as long as you know what you want to do and you work for it,” said Rodriguez.

“I went through a big learning curve with this research project. I didn’t have a background in computer science or engineering so everything I was doing was new to me, but I overcame that by asking a lot of questions and trying it.”

“I have been really impressed by the amount and the quality of the research performed by Kristian and Yoni this summer,” said Walden. “As their mentor, I just pointed in the direction that they should go, but they really pushed this research project forward. Their work this summer will allow us to deploy more sensors in Spokane this fall.”

Poster symposium

Shelley Pressley, director of WSU’s Office of Undergraduate Research, has worked with the students since day one, helping with workshops and information sessions.

“Summer research opportunities, like the ones provided at WSU, allow students to try research and explore career options on a full-time basis,” she said. “They can become fully immersed in a project, compared with doing research during the academic year when they are busy keeping up with their classes.”

The students completed the research program by presenting their findings to the public at the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium.