Hannah Bruce, a junior in environmental engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, is one of 15 students nationally to receive an Environmental Protection Agency fellowship to support her studies.
The EPA’s two-year Greater Research Opportunities Research Fellowship will contribute $41,500 to help defray the cost of Bruce’s education and future work researching a new method for detecting pollution in groundwater. The fellowship also includes an EPA internship, which has not yet been determined.
Bruce, from Saltillo, Miss., first attended UMR’s Jackling Introduction to Engineering camp while in high school. During the camp, she learned about “phytoremediation,” a technique that uses plants to clean up pollutants, from Dr. Joel Burken, associate professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at UMR.
“Dr. Burken told us about how trees could be used to clean up contaminants,” Bruce says. “I was intrigued, and during my college search, I focused mainly on applying to schools that had an environmental engineering undergraduate degree.”
UMR’s undergraduate program in environmental engineering, established in 2002, was accredited this semester by ABET Inc. It’s the state’s first environmental engineering undergraduate program and one of the few in the Midwest.
Bruce chose to research solid phase microextraction and how the technique can be used to identify groundwater pollutants. Using this method, a core sample from a tree in an area of contamination is removed and placed into a vial. Then a very thin needle is inserted into the container and comes into contact with the gas that surrounds the sample. The needle is then injected into the inlet of a gas chromatograph to get a reading of contaminant levels. A patent application has been filed for this method, which is only being developed at UMR.
“I’m incredibly excited about being a part of the development of this method for pollution detection,” Bruce says. “It’s much cheaper than traditional methods. It provides a lot of data, and it can be used to detect even very low concentrations of pollutants.”
Bruce’s plans for the future include pursing a graduate degree and having some role in education.
“I’m very interested in public education,” Bruce says. “Wherever I go, I would like to be very involved in decision-making for my community.”
Burken, who first met Bruce during the summer camp at UMR, describes her as a delight to work with. “In addition to being very intelligent, she has a great sense of humor and an inquisitive side, which is very important in research activities,” says Burken, who is also UMR’s environmental engineering program coordinator. “She is a very deserving recipient and will be a great representative for the EPA fellowship program and for UMR.”