McNair Scholar researches sustainability abroad, inspires children locally

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Amina Grant has spent much of her time as a Penn State undergraduate studying sustainability in the U.S., Jamaica and Peru, and using that research to make a positive impact on communities. And, other times, she has made a difference just by dressing as a superhero.

Researching water resource management during LEAP

Grant first became interested in water resource management and sustainability through Penn State’s Learning Edge Academic Program (LEAP), which helps first-year students in their transition to University Park by providing academic support and enriching social activities.

“Our group focused on global perspectives on sustainability and developing teamwork,” said Grant, an environmental systems engineering student in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

To do this, the group traveled to Jamaica for nine days to observe how different socioeconomic communities implemented sustainability practices.

“It was fascinating to see how some of the wealthier communities had already developed sustainability practices, like using only locally caught fish as food,” Grant said. “One community also had an ultraviolet light-powered automatic cleaner for its pool.”

Some of the low-income communities, Grant explained, focused primarily on water management because of an impending drought.

“One of these areas was trying to use a hydroponics system, which would allow them to grow plants without the necessary soil,” she said. “We also got a hands-on experience in one of the communities by designing and creating a garden. We split into groups and found ways to collect storm water, plant seeds, and organize an effective layout for the garden.”

Sustainability in Peru through the GREEN Program

Grant studied sustainability again during summer 2016 when she participated in the GREEN Program, which exposes students to sustainability challenges and initiatives around the world.

Grant traveled to Cusco, Peru, to explore sustainability challenges in the area. She specifically completed a capstone project that addressed some of the challenges faced by a wastewater treatment plant in the area.

“The wastewater plant uses a chlorination process to clean the combination of Cusco’s sewage and storm water,” she explained. “Unfortunately, the plant can’t handle this much and uses too much chlorine during the disinfection process, which can lead to the creation of dangerous byproducts. My group sought to split the systems to make the loads easier on the plant.”

Amina Grant stands with group at Machu Picchu

Amina Grant, front right, an environmental systems engineering student in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, visits Machu Picchu, Peru, with other members of the GREEN Program, which exposes students to sustainability challenges and initiatives around the world. During the program, the students visited the ancient ruins seen in the background.

Image: Amina Grant

In addition to her research, Grant took courses at Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola (USIL) on water management. When she finished her capstone project, she presented it to students and teachers at USIL.

During her experiences in both Jamaica and Peru, Grant was able to take the environmental issues she’s interested in and address them in in specific communities.

“I really enjoy helping communities address things like these water management issues,” said Grant. “It’s great to be able to give back in a field that I love.”

Exploring fracking fluid-rock interactions as a McNair Scholar

As a junior, Grant researched the Marcellus and Utica Shale as part of Penn State’s McNair Scholars Program, which is a federal program designed to prepare low-income and first-generation undergraduates in building the skills and confidence required to pursue a doctoral degree.

Specifically, Grant worked with William Burgos, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and focused on the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process. They wanted to understand why the flow back, or water returned after the process is finished, is often contaminated with elements like barium and radium.

“Within the field, the most accepted hypothesis for how these contaminants are released is that the fracking fluid mixes with brine (salt water) that originated in the rock beneath the Marcellus Shale, and this releases the elements,” said Grant. “I looked at how the shale rock itself could be one of the reaction mechanisms for releasing these contaminants.”

Grant said that while her research was not the first to discover shale rock as being partly responsible for leeching some of these contaminants, previous studies had only focused on the Marcellus Shale. In comparison, Grant explained, the Utica Shale has been found to harbor even more of these contaminants.

“Now that we know that there are more reaction mechanisms than just the brine, we need to start thinking about how we can map out where these contaminants are highly concentrated so that we avoid fracking there,” she said. “It will also allow us to start thinking about how to treat these waste fluids.”

amina grant poses at research conference

Amina Grant, an environmental systems engineering student in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, poses in front of a sign at the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Tampa, Florida, during the fall 2016 semester. At the conference, Grant attended workshops on professional graduate development, mentoring, and scientific research. In addition, she presented research on reaction mechanisms during hydraulic fracturing (fracking), for which she won a presentation award.

Image: Amina Grant

Grant presented her research at the annual McNair Scholars Symposium, as well as the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, where she received an award for her presentation.

“The presentations were nerve-wracking, but they really helped to prepare me for when I move on to pursue my doctorate,” she said.

Dressing as a superhero for local children

A presentation that Grant finds a little less nerve-wracking is when she reads to children and conducts literacy programs with them — this might have something to do with the fact that she’s dressed as Princess Tiana, from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.”

When she was a sophomore, Grant joined a club called "Superheroes for Kids," which has its members dress up in superhero costumes and go to local schools to participate in different activities with kids.

“We’ve done reading programs, created comic books with kids and conducted activities with balloons,” said Grant.

The club has also visited the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to encourage and motivate cancer patients. It became so successful that it eventually turned into a local non-profit in State College.

“I spend most of my time researching the environment and sustainability and focusing on my studies, which I really enjoy. But it’s also nice to do something a little more laid-back and still be able to inspire children,” she said.

Grant has also promoted diversity and multiculturalism on campus, for which she recently received the 2017 Multicultural Resource Center Academic Scholarship.

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Last Updated April 20, 2017