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Environmental research takes second, third at forum

Two women in lab coats stand in a lab.

Jiangyun Zhu (left) and Jing Wang stand before their lab work.

In the inaugural year of a new category at the 30th annual Research and Creative Activities Forum, two MU chemical engineering students won second and third place in the Engineering/Computer & Information Sciences category.

Jing Wang, who won second place, and Jiangyun Zhu, who took third, are graduate students from China. Both said they practiced a lot for the presentation, which gave them a chance to share their research with others.

“It’s a very good opportunity to show my research,” Wang said. “It’s very important for engineers to do the oral presentations and writing to share our ideas.”

“It was my first time to do a presentation before some professionals and professors,” Zhu said. “I was a little nervous. I did a lot of preparation.”

Zhu’s research is focused on understanding and improving materials used to capture carbon dioxide and remove the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. She said her main foci are on the mechanism by which the solid sorbents used to absorb carbon have such a high selectivity for that molecule and the regeneration of materials so they can be reused.

“The biggest drawback for the industrial method used today is the high regeneration energy costs,” Zhu said.

Zhu said she has been enjoying the parks and outdoors in Columbia, which is so different from the city of Shanghai where she studied before. Her passion for the outdoors carries over into her research interests, which is one reason she decided to focus on carbon capture.

“It’s totally different here. You don’t have that many people here, so you have nature,” Zhu said. “I think this research makes some difference to protect the Earth.”

Zhu said two previous graduate students in chemical engineering Assistant Professor Sheila Baker’s lab had worked in the same area of carbon capture, which made her want to continue in the same area.

“I already had some research experience on carbon capture in China,” Zhu said.

Both graduate students work in Baker’s lab. Her research focuses on clean energy applications.

Wang’s research involves ionic liquids, another interest of Baker’s. Her presentation at the forum focused on just one of the many potential applications for ionic liquids: the extraction at the molecular level of dangerous chemicals from water. Specifically, ionic liquids that can be used for the microextraction of pyrethroids, which are a major ingredient in insecticides.

Pyrethroids are toxic to fish and other aquatic animals. Because they can be lethal for invertebrates that form the base of the food chain in most aquatic ecosystems, creating an ionic liquid to safely remove them from the environment has many useful applications.

Wang said she has long been interested in ionic liquids and enjoys the excitement of combining different anions and cations to design new ionic liquids.

“It’s really interesting to do the combination,” Wang said. “Suddenly, by accident or from some ideas, you find something new or you find some interesting stuff. The process to explore is very interesting to me.

“I really think Dr. Baker is a great advisor,” Wang said. “She gives us lots of opportunities to show ourselves and improve.”

Zhu agreed and said that Baker has always been helpful and available to answer questions about any research.

“She’s such a kind person. She is smiling all the time so you don’t need to be stressed when you are talking to her,” Zhu said. “She has a passion for research and science. It inspires me to do more.”

Baker said she was pleased that two of her students placed at the forum. She said Wang and Zhu took the initiative to participate in the forum on their own.

“Jing and Julie approached me wanting to participate in this event and put together their talks on their own,” Baker said. “I just got to see their slides right before they left.”

Zhu said she wanted to participate in the forum because of the opportunity to share her research.

“I think research is not only about doing the experiments and data, it’s also about telling other people,” Zhu said.

Wang agreed and said that it’s important for researchers to collaborate and share ideas.

“If you always work alone you will not get new ideas or know about other people’s work,” she said. “If you share ideas, that is the way to make breakthroughs and advance the research.”