Third-year Mechanical Engineering student Abigail Stokes never thought she’d find herself working with waste treatment sludge as she had aspired to work in the automotive or biomedical industry. Instead, as she starts her second-semester of third year, Stokes is well-ensconced in waste treatment sludge as an undergraduate researcher at UBC Okanagan’s Bioreactor Technology Group (BTG).
“A couple of years ago, I started working in the waste treatment industry, and by far it is the most exciting research experience I’d had,” says Stokes, who recently completed a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) term at the BTG. “Waste is something that everyone has to deal with, and will become a bigger and bigger issue as we let it go.”
It is hard to miss the smell emanating from the BTG, but Stokes says the impact of the research far outweighs any initial concerns about that.
Inside the lab, bioreactors are continuously churning and mixing waste materials. Stokes works alongside Cigdem Eskicioglu, a Civil Engineering Professor and NSERC/Metro Vancouver Industrial Research Chair (IRC) in Resource Recovery from Wastewater.
“Abby’s work supports our on-going research program with Metro Vancouver where we are investigating the best approaches to convert human waste into transportation fuel,” explains Eskicioglu.
Eskicioglu points to USRA as an invaluable launching pad for undergraduates to explore research opportunities. “For students with a real passion for research, this program provides them mentorship and an opportunity to nurture their passion.”
USRAs are also meant to encourage students to undertake graduate studies in their chosen field by providing research work experience that complements their studies in an academic setting.
Stokes has worked on several projects during her time at BTG through the USRA, and a co-op term. Over the summer, she worked alongside a PhD student to investigate the impacts of biochar amendment on biogas production in anaerobic digestion of municipal sludge. She continued with the lab this term, as a co-op student, where she was part of the hydro-thermal liquefaction team. Using high-temperatures and pressure, the researchers have been working on anaerobic co-digestion for recovering bioenergy.
According to Stokes, the USRA and co-op have had a profound impact on her experience at UBC. “I’ve come to appreciate that it’s not just about the grade in a class but more about a greater vision to make some sort of impact in the world.” She says her grades have improved as a result of these research experiences, and she’s found a cohort of like-minded peers who have the same priorities.
With a focus on applying for graduate studies, Stokes plans on continuing her research with BTG as she completes her undergraduate degree.
For more information about NSERC USRA opportunities, connect with a School of Engineering Academic Services Advisor.