Summertime Standouts: College of Engineering

Kelsey Bilsback, mechanical engineering, Ph.D.

Colorado State University Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. student Kelsey Bilsback checks readings during a cookstove lab test at the Powerhouse Energy Campus, May 8, 2014.
Kelsey Bilsback tests the performance of an “improved” cookstove in the laboratory.

When considering graduate programs, Kelsey Bilsback wanted to take her physics degree to the next level, and gain a deeper understanding of why science matters.

“While pursuing my undergraduate degree, people would ask me, ‘why are you doing this?’ I wanted a better answer for that question,” she said. While she felt that the theoretical research she conducted as an undergraduate student was interesting for the sake of science, she wanted to work on projects with more practical applications.

The quest for applied research led Kelsey to the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Colorado State University, where she has been studying air pollution in developing countries with Dr. John Volckens since 2013. “Approximately ninety percent of the people in developing countries are using cookstoves for their everyday cooking and energy needs,” said Bilsback, and this reliance on solid fuels is a big concern for human health and the environment.

While household air pollution due to the use of solid fuels is a top-five cause of disease on our planet, Bilsback’s primary research goal is to better quantify cookstove emissions in the developing world. Because people use different stove technologies, fuel types, and cooking practices throughout the globe, Bilsback must gather field data from multiple sites to better understand the problem.

Quantifying cookstove emissions in the developing world
A team from CSU, Carnegie Mellon University, and Sri Ramachandra University measures air pollution from an Indian woman’s cookstove while she prepares dinner.

Funded by the EPA to look at climate impacts, Bilsback visited four different representative field sites to gather data: China, Honduras, Uganda, and just this summer, India.

During her trip to India, Bilsback visited ten different homes and measured the characteristics of emissions coming off their stoves as residents performed their normal cooking practices. One of the unique observations she made of Indian cooking practices as they compared to those in the other three countries she visited was that many people were using animal waste as one of their primary fuel sources, which was not commonly observed in any of the other countries.

Amid gathering data, Bilsback appreciated the openness of the people in the homes she visited. “I feel like if someone knocked on my door and asked, ‘can we measure your cookstove emissions?’ I might not be as enthusiastic. But the people we visited were receptive and curious about the work we were doing,” she said.

Though the health implications of cookstove emissions may be central to the developing world, from a climate standpoint it is a global issue, and therefore one that affects us all. While her doctoral research is focused on better understanding the problem of air pollution due to cookstove emissions, Bilsback hopes her work will facilitate creative solutions to the problem in the future.

Nabila Huq, chemical engineering, Ph.D.

Nabila Huq Graduate students got three minutes to explain their research and scholarly projects as part of the new Vice President for Research Fellowship Challenge Competition. Twelve winners will be chosen and invited to become the inaugural VPR Fellowship Program cohort. Fellows will be eligible to receive up to $4,000 in scholarship and travel support as well as opportunities to participate in professional development workshops, mentorship, leadership and engagement opportunities over the 2016-17 academic year. February 15, 2016

Lower back pain is an all too common experience for adults. Many cases of lower back pain are caused by herniated discs, which is when a damaged spinal disc puts pressure on the spinal cord nerve. Current treatments often do not fully solve the problem, and can even lead to further issues in the future, including collateral degeneration in healthy areas surrounding the site of repair in the spine.

For her doctoral research, chemical engineering student and VPR Fellow Nabila Huq is actively researching an alternative solution to lower back pain. Huq works primarily with a special class of polymers, called hydrogels, which possess high water content. These hydrogels can roughly mimic the biomechanical properties of soft tissues in the body.

“What I’ve done is modified the polymer by adding a molecule to it that makes the material light sensitive. When light is shined on the hydrogel, it becomes a solid, and the longer the light is shined on it, the stiffer it becomes,” said Huq.
Nabila’s light-sensitive hydrogel is molded into the shape of a rectangular prism

Using mild UV irradiation, the light-sensitive hydrogel can be tuned to a desired stiffness and mechanical response – it can be molded and will hold its shape when light is shined on it. Because of its versatility and biocompatible nature, Huq’s goal is to exploit this integrated UV-tunability to demonstrate that the hydrogel’s properties can be tailored directly at the repair site in the spine. This way, the repair material can be more accurately matched to the mechanical characteristics of native tissue, decreasing the likelihood of collateral degeneration.

While this new material is far from being tested in the body, Huq is hoping to make significant progress on the project before she graduates in 2017. In addition to working on this project, she is preparing to be a part of the College of Engineering’s inaugural group of graduate teaching fellows. With nine of her peers, Huq will help facilitate additional active learning opportunities and increased support for freshman classes, aiming to improve the freshman experience in the College overall.