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Students win international research competition

July 15, 2009

KALAMAZOO--A research-project presentation by a trio from Western Michigan University captured first place in a competition held during the International Cultural and Academic Meeting of Engineering Students May 9-16 at Bogazici University in Istanbul.

The annual ICAMES contest draws students and academics from around the world to Istanbul to showcase their research and cultures. This year, 15 projects were presented from 12 countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Macedonia, Russia, Sri Lanka, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, and the United States. Teams from WMU and Purdue University represented the United States.

WMU 2009 ICAMES team

The WMU team was composed of two seniors and a recent graduate. The team won a trophy, and each member received a printer.

  • Brittany Albin, a senior from Grand Rapids, Mich., majoring in chemical engineering
  • Margaret Gerhart, a senior from Montague, Mich., majoring in paper engineering
  • Mallory Good, a December 2008 graduate from Rockford, Mich., who majored in mechanical engineering.

WMU's team members presented nanotechnology research they had been working on that uses titanium dioxide, referred to as TiO2 or simply titania. The project uses titania as a photocatalyst to degrade such organic pollutants as Rhodamine B, which is an industrial dye and a water pollutant.

"Titanium dioxide works as a photocatalyst in UV light, but very little in visible light," Albin says. "However, if TiO2 could be worked within the visible light spectrum, its use could be much more versatile."

For the competition, WMU team members synthesized nano-titania through different methods and used it to degrade Rhodamine B in visible light. They then compared the different synthesis methods and drew conclusions about which method produced the most efficient photocatalyst.

The research that the team presented was conducted last year in Brazil at the Universidade Federal de Sao Carlos as part of joint nanotechnology research involving the trio along with other student and faculty researchers from UFSCar and WMU. Participants from the two institutions conduct some of their research independently, and some alongside each other during campus visits.

The project is being funded by a grant to WMU from the National Science Foundation's Office of International Science and Engineering, which gives students opportunities to obtain cutting-edge research experience while at the same time advancing their global understanding. Dr. Pnina Ari-Gur, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, leads the project at WMU.

"Students who participate in the ICAMES competition are selected based on their academic achievements, research aptitude and overall excellence. Just to be accepted to compete is an honor in itself," Ari-Gur says. "Brittany, Margaret and Mallory performed high-quality research while we were at UFSCar. Due to the high quality of work performed, I encouraged and mentored them through the competitive application process for ICAMES."

The WMU team's travel to Istanbul was made possible thanks to a donation from Lawrence Kopka, a retired Chrysler employee from Suttons Bay, Mich., who earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from WMU in 1963.

"We competed with people who designed military spy robots and portable wind turbines," Gerhart says. "All three of us were definitely not expecting to win. The first thing we did after returning to our hotel that afternoon was to call our counterparts in Brazil. We really couldn't have done it without them."

Gerhart notes that as part of the overall research project, WMU hosted a four-week program in Kalamazoo during the summer of 2008 for four Brazilian research students to learn about nanotechnology and photocatalysis.

"The first four weeks were essential to learning about the research and about Brazilian culture. Our Brazilian counterparts were wonderful. They taught us about their culture, language, music and mostly about the friendliness of Brazilians," Gerhart says. "We tried to show them what life was like in Kalamazoo. The guys really liked shopping at Best Buy and were impressed by the magnitude of products available at Meijer. We also took them camping and to the beach."

When Albin, Gerhart and Good went to Brazil to conduct research, the WMU students were able to travel around that country as well as venture into Turkey.

"We shopped at the grand bazaar in Istanbul," Gerhart says about one of their eye-opening trips. "We were told that it's more than 600 years old. It's so hard to imagine that 600 years ago people were buying and selling things in the same area. It was amazing."

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, (269) 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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