Topsy-Turfy: Research Partnership Begins Early for CEAS Student

By:    Brandon Pytel
Date: March 20, 2018

Chelsea Ker researched the toxicity of turf with UC faculty and students while still in high school. She now studies chemical engineering at CEAS. 

Ker, wearing a white lab coat and goggles, uses a gas chromatograph.

Ker studies the chemicals released from athletic turf in UC's lab.

You don’t have to wait until college to do research at the university level. One student at the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) collaborated with University of Cincinnati (UC) faculty to complete a research project while she was still in high school.

As a senior at Gahanna Lincoln High School, Chelsea Ker (chemical engineering ’22) conducted a research project on the toxicity of synthetic athletic turf. “I was interested in turf because I had heard a correlational study linking turf to cancer, and I wanted to investigate that further,” says Ker.

Ker determined that the turf she was studying was releasing zinc into simulated rainwater. But she wanted to further study the gasses associated with this release. She reached out to UC and eventually connected with chemistry professor Anne Vonderheide, PhD, microelectronics engineer Jeff Simkins and graduate student Ashkan Tirgar to complete her research.

At UC, Ker worked in the microelectronics lab with a gas chromatograph to analyze the chemicals released from the turf at high temperatures. She sampled the turf crumb rubber pellets, placing them in a closed vial and heating the vial in an oven. She then injected the gas released from these heated pellets into the gas chromatograph and studied the results.

Ker presented her research just before she graduated high school during the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at Bowling Green State University.

But Ker didn't stop there—she knew this research had real-world implications. Before concluding the project, she contacted Gahanna Lincoln’s athletic director, who was planning to redo the high school football field’s turf. She recommended he allow the turf to weather before students played on it, reducing their exposure to potential volatile organic compounds (VOC) that could be linked to cancer.

Though the research she conducted at UC was inconclusive, it made for a great learning experience. In the competitive age of college admissions, prospective engineering students are constantly looking for ways to stand out. Ker’s research project gave her a perfect experience to write about on her college application. It also gave her a sneak peek into life at UC.

“I was able to connect with faculty here at UC while I was still in high school,” says Ker. “Because I could do research here as a senior, I felt a strong connection to the school and the people.”

Now that she’s enrolled at UC, Ker is using that experience when speaking to potential cooperative education (co-op) employers. “My research project is the first thing I talk about in interviews,” says Ker. “Because many people don’t have experience in the field before their first co-op, this project lets me stand out.”

Ker is just finishing her first year as a chemical engineering student at UC. She hopes to work as a chemical engineer in the cosmetics or household products field someday. If Ker’s work so far is any indication of the future, her prospects look bright.