Protégé Promises Rising Sophomores Research Opportunities

By: Shannon Frohme
August 11, 2015

In summer 2013, CEAS launched Protégé, an undergraduate research pilot project, providing summer opportunities for students who just completed their freshman year.

The program was launched by a team of three senior faculty, Professors F. James Boerio and Professors Emeriti Ronald Huston and Thomas Mantei, and Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Frank M. Gerner, who all worked together with their colleagues to provide challenging research experiences for promising undergraduate students.

During the summer of 2015, six engineering students worked closely with CEAS faculty mentors on a variety of research projects – from analyzing fatigue patterns in human brainwaves to advancing renewable energy sources.

Alexia Gaines

Alexia Gaines

During her summer research experience, electrical engineering student Alexia Gaines conducted collaborative research on handheld, medical diagnostic sensors with Professor Leyla Esfandiari, PhD, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems (EECS).

Gaines managed the design and development process of handheld sensors that detect and diagnose medical conditions through DNA strand identification. “The affordable sensors identify specific DNA strands that are associated with certain genetic disorders,” Gaines explains, “Essentially the sensors pick up on changes in resistance that occurs as the DNA passes through a pore opening.”

Gaines had many responsibilities during the 12-week program, but one of her main responsibilities, she says, “was the administration of the change in variable resistance equation, in order to obtain and measure the largest probable resistance change.” These measurements are applicable in a variety of parameters, such as-- early cancer detection and genetic disorder diagnoses.

According to Gaines, handheld affordable sensors are also of value outside of the medical field, for example, in the field of forensic science to identify pathogens in our food and water. Multidisciplinary fields such as electrical engineering allow students like Gaines to apply skills in a myriad of situations.

As a Boren Scholarship recipient and 2015 executive board member of UC’s ACM-W (Association for Computing Machinery - Committee on Women) student organization, Gaines says the Protégé experience expanded her connections with STEM faculty and staff while solidifying her goals for future co-op opportunities.

Christina Locasto

Christina Locasto

Christina Locasto, biomedical engineering major and computer science minor, dove deeper into Eccrine Systems’ Sweatronics™ patent-pending technology. The health diagnostics startup company was founded by EECS professor Jason Heikenfeld, PhD, in 2013. Over the summer, Locasto was involved in the manufacturing process of the patent-pending disposable, electronic patches that measure and transmit real-time data about human sweat.

Did you know sweat provides valuable information about physiological performance and dysfunction? Locasto worked alongside Heikenfeld during the process of making the non-invasive sensors extract and analyze sweat biomarkers.1 She found the manufacturing experience to be a very valuable one, “I find this aspect of research very interesting because it’s not necessarily the first thing engineers think about when designing a product to be eventually sold on the market.”

Protégé not only boosted her confidence in the laboratory setting, but she found the allure of working side-by-side with a startup founder to be an inspiration for her own individual research capabilities. Having just finished her first year at UC, Locasto actively involved herself in UC Bearcat Bands and Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity.

Gabrielle Notorgiacomo

Gabrielle Notorgiacomo

During her summer research experience, biomedical engineering honors student Gabrielle Notorgiacomo and Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems professor Fred Beyette, PhD, analyzed methods of measuring human fatigue, a major concern and one of the leading causes of death for safety professions such as firefighting.

Our brains love a steaming cup of morning coffee to jumpstart the day. However, Notorgiacomo says, “It’s necessary to develop a system by which one could detect the onset of critical fatigue levels, and to find effective means to address the exhaustion.”

In her research, Notorgiacomo discovered a deeper understanding of how mental processes are affected by caffeine. Using electroencephalograph (EEG) technology, “We were able to measure the electrical signals produced by subjects’ brains after consumption of a commercially-available caffeine source—the most frequently visited remedy for fatigue,” explains Notorgiacomo. EEG response times show changes in brainwaves before and after consuming a caffeinated drink.

By participating in the Protégé Program, Gabrielle learned first-hand the processes of conducting human research, “from the Institutional Review Board approval, to recruiting subjects and preparing technical presentations. This was an excellent way to experience what a real position will be like should I choose to pursue a career in research.”

Notorgiacomo, recipient of the Cincinnatus Excellence Scholarship, Clair Hulley Scholarship, WACE National Co-op Scholarship and 2014 City of Erlanger Community Achievement Scholarship, was thrilled to accept her invitation to the summer research program as Beyette’s project closely relates to her field of biomedical engineering.

Joseph Speth

Joseph Speth

Joseph Speth, likewise a biomedical engineering student, designed and prototyped “smart chest tubes” with CEAS’ mechanical engineering professor, Mark Schulz. Speth aided in Schulz’s ongoing research to ensure safer, quicker and more effective means of chest tube drainage procedures. Speth reflects, “I worked on designing and prototyping what is most accurately described as a smart medical device for pleural effusions,” in an effort to improve chest tube insertion procedures, a relatively common medical procedure. Mechanical engineering professor John Yin, PhD, and Maham Rahimi, MD, Phd, a UC vascular surgeon, also served as mentors to guide the project toward practical clinical applications.

Speth is a CEAS honors student, a Cincinnatus Excellence Scholarship recipient and was awarded the CEAS incoming freshmen scholarship.

During his summer research experience, Rickey Terrell, chemical engineering sophomore, explored new ways to increase the efficiency of energy-alternative fuel cells through infusion of platinum nanoparticles.

Ricky Terrell

Ricky Terrell

Terrell worked alongside Department of Biomedical, Chemical and Environmental Engineering associate professor, Anastasios Angelopoulos, PhD, to develop his research article, “Characterization of Nano-Particles using Electrochemistry, Calorimetry and Optical Spectroscopy,” which he hopes will be published this year. According to Terrell, the chemical composition of platinum nanoparticles presents many benefits for the advancement of energy alternatives.

Terrell breaks down the principle further, “By characterizing platinum nanoparticle alloys, we can find ways to increase efficiency of fuel cells, making them practical for everyday use—ultimately replacing more inefficient fossil fuels.”

Other practical applications and long-term benefits of this research involve, “using the alloys that are created to contribute to the construction and function of this machine in quantum computers,” explains Terrell.

Terrell, who was awarded the Darwin T. Turner Plus Scholarship and Cincinnatus Excellence Scholarship, says this summer experience allowed him to learn important lab practices and research techniques. In addition to working closely with a field expert, Terrell feels confident in his decision to present at the 2016 UC Undergraduate Research Exposition.

Woeste presenting the partially manufactured hydrofoils he designed

Woeste (right) presenting the partially manufactured hydrofoils he designed

Mechanical engineering student, Jacob Woeste worked with Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics professor Mark Turner, ScD, coupling his love for boating and renewable energy to make positive environmental impacts.

Energy ships are essentially sailboats that drag turbines through the water in order to create a renewable source of electricity. Woeste elaborates, “The idea is to electrolyze the surrounding water in order to create hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be stored on board the ship and later removed to power fuel cells on land.”

Over the summer, Woeste designed, developed and manufactured hydrofoils which lift the sailboat’s hulls out of the water, reducing the drag of the sailboat. Water pollution from nonrenewable resources is a major contributor to environmental issues such as global warming and climate change. Woeste believes this research will make a positive difference since the working hydrofoils, “will be used as a proof-of-concept and allow for preliminary testing of the turbine (see picture).”

Woeste, recipient of the Joseph H. Humpert Robotics Club Scholarship, says his experience in the summer research program opened up multiple doors for him—he even had the opportunity to sail and exchange design ideas with Professor Turner. “I learned what aerodynamics is all about. I took an abstract concept, engineered a tangible design, personally manufactured the final product and tested it. I learned how to take an idea and make it a reality.”

These students can testify that the 12-week summer Protégé program provided them with an invaluable wealth of hands-on research experience and deeper understandings of their own research goals. The College of Engineering and Applied Science proudly applauds these outstanding students in their mission to engineer better.