Real answers to real-world challenges

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Farmers may soon have the ability to attach a sensor to their plants to gauge when they should irrigate, saving crops and livelihoods. There could be mobile devices that, in real time, help stop disease outbreaks. Bananas could be saved from extinction, and new innovations made in affordable energy efficiency.

These ideas are the hard work of future leaders at Penn State.

Five interdisciplinary teams, made up of Penn State graduate students, presented their sustainability-related solutions to world challenges at the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards (SISCA). These students highlighted the connection to their homes and their research, showing why their work matters not just to them, but to those around the world.

“The research being done at Penn State has such deep roots in health and human wellness, a caring for the environment and the tie to people’s economic well-being,” said Alex Novak, communications manager for Office of the Physical Plant. “These roots go back to these students and their homes.”

A sensor to help in times of drought

First place, and the $10,000 award, went to “Leafy: Leaf water content sensor for optimizing irrigation water consumption.” The team, led by Sayed Amin Afzal, a doctoral student in plant science, developed a device for optimizing irrigation scheduling. The small and light leaf sensor attaches to a leaf and accurately measures leaf water content and plant water status for determination of the best time to irrigate. 

Afzal said the idea began more than 11 years ago when he was a student in agricultural machinery at Isfahan University of Technology in Isfahan, Iran. His city, located in the center of Iran, a semi-arid country, has only one water resource, the river Zayandeh-Roud. Population growth and increased food demand created a water shortage issue. “Most of the downstream farms are dry and the natural resources are damaged significantly,” Afzal said. Farmers lost work as a result, and a long-term severe drought has hit that area.

“It was not only a scientific challenge, but also a strong motivation for helping my origin,” Afzal said. “Zayandeh-Roud is only one example, now imagine the crises of many other freshwater resources.”

After developing a concept for the sensor, he tested and modified it through several stages. His cousin, a U.S. citizen who had traveled to Iran, connected him to his current advisor, Sjoerd W. Duiker, associate professor of soil management and applied soil physics. Their shared interest in droughts led to the development of the device that can estimate plant water status.

Team members included Hojjat Sayed Mousavi and Mohammadreza Aminikashani, both doctoral students in electrical engineering, and Sepedeh Kamrava, a doctoral student in computer science and engineering. All hail from Iran.

“[They] have felt the importance of the issue and have the needed specialties,” said Afzal, noting that experience in electronics, wireless communication and software development were critical to their work. The group also won the 2014 Ag Springboard student contest for their research. Currently, they are working on a business plan and patent for Leafy.

Affordable medical treatments in developing countries

Second place, with an award of $2,500, went to a team led by Johnes Obungoloch, a doctoral student in bioengineering, for “Development of sustainable ultra-low, low-cost magnetic resonance imaging system for the developing world.” The aim of the project was to develop an MRI system that could easily be adapted to suit the needs of areas of the world that do not have any way to access a high-cost system. Obungoloch, originally from Uganda, wanted to work on a project that could benefit his home community after his studies. This proposal focused on using the MRI system in treating hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling.

“Hydrocephalus was chosen for the beginning of this research because it is a disease that doesn’t require very high resolution images to make clinical decisions, yet it is largely untreated due to a lack of appropriate imaging modality,” Obungoloch said.

Steven Consevage, a graduate student in physics, was an important addition to the team. Consevage is working to develop shielding and noise cancellation mechanisms. Also on the team were Nishit Goel and Gokhan Hatipoglu, both electrical engineering graduate students, who are working on magnetic sensors and sensitivities that can be used in low-field MRIs.

In addition to the work here at Penn State, Obungoloch has partnered with CURE Children’s Hospital in Uganda. After graduation, he intends to return to Uganda to offer training for its advancement into clinical practice.

Saving the banana

Freddy Magdama and Sarah Eissler teamed up to tackle the problem of diseases killing banana crops. Their presentation, titled “Innovative use and optimization for ethyl pyruvate for biological soil disinfestation: A viable alternative for saving bananas,” addressed the need to help farmers save their livelihoods. Eissler was working on tropical commodity crops. She saw the call for proposals for the Dow SISCA challenge and thought it would be a great opportunity to work with Madgama, who was researching the use of ethyl pyruvate, an alternative for saving bananas. The goal of their research was to develop an effective and ecological-friendly technology to control Panama disease and to prove its suitability for further application in crops.

“Bananas are in danger of disappearing again, due to a new variant of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubensethe causal agent of Panama disease,” said Magdama. The new genotype, referred to as Tropical Race 4, is threatening the production of Cavendish bananas, the variety most often found in supermarkets.

Magdama, born and raised in Equador, said that this hits close to home for him, as bananas are one of the country’s main exports. “As a citizen, I have witnessed the importance of this fruit for our country, for local trade among communities and personal consumption.

"Many years ago the same disease caused the demise of ‘Gros Michel,’ a variety that probably many of you never tasted. We don’t want that to happen again. We are committed to at least try to defeat this disease and secure bananas for future generations.” 

Eissler hails from Philadelphia. Both are currently seeking dual degree titles in the International Agriculture and Development program at Penn State. Faculty advisors were Maria del Mar Jimenez-Gasco, assistant professor and coordinator and advisor of the minor in plant pathology, and Mark Brennan, professor and UNESCO chair in Community, Leadership and Youth Development.

Developments in hydrogen production

Amin Aziz, a doctoral student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering originally from Iran, partnered up with Minh An Nguyen, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and a Pennsylvania native, to focus on developing an economic and efficient technology for storing the electrical energy generated by wind and solar powers. 

The project, titled “Two-dimensional transition metal dichalcogenide crystals as efficient electrocatalysts for hydrogen production,” focuses on making highly efficient hydrogen evolution catalysts from inexpensive materials, composed of earth-abundant elements, through design and application of two-dimensional transition metal dichalcogende crystals.

Detecting pandemic outbreaks in real-time

Another proposal, “Real-time mobile detection of pandemic outbreaks,” dealt with the prevention of infectious disease. The team, consisting of Samarth Rangavittal, a doctoral student in bioinformatics and genomics, and Monika Michalovová, a graduate student in biology, aimed to develop a software suite that analyses the output of a real-tie sequencer and scans for the presence of markers from a wide range of common outbreaks. This system would be plugged into a USB drive of a laptop and would have the ability to return a sequenced genome with an hour. Kateryna Makova, a professor of biology at Penn State, served as faculty advisor for their submission.

About Dow SISCA

Dow SISCA recognizes graduate student research that has potential for solving real world challenges in an innovative and holistic way. Teams must be interdisciplinary to be considered and demonstrate a balance of social, environmental and economic success in their proposals. Universities from all over the world participate; including MIT, Northwestern, Peking University and the University of Cambridge. This is the third year Penn State has participated in the program. For a full list of participating schools and to learn more about Dow SISCA, visit http://www.dow.com/sustainability/studentchallenge/universities.htm

For more about sustainability at Penn State, visit www.sustainability.psu.edu.

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Last Updated August 25, 2016