RU students present award-winning research at national science festival in D.C.


The team's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's People, Prosperity and Planet design winner

At the USA Science and Engineering Festival April 26-27 in Washington, D.C., the award-winning Radford University interdisciplinary team of science students presented their work on a sustainable water purification project during the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's People, Prosperity and Planet (P3) Sustainable Design session.

Led by Chemistry Professors Cindy Burkhardt and Francis Webster, the RU team includes geology, biology and chemistry students. They received an EPA grant last year to develop their research and work has been ongoing this academic year.

"The team did a fantastic job and the professional manner in which they presented their work to hundreds of students, faculty, kids and parents speaks well of them and RU," said Webster.

The students - Cameron Baumgardner, Angela Gerard, Dennis Godward, Spencer Hayes, Anthony Rhea, Gavin Smith, Matt Sublett and Bekah Webster – are researching and developing a sustainable technology - an inexpensive, absorbent material, or a sugar-based carbon nanoparticle, that will improve existing sand filtration technology- to protect both human health and the environment while promoting economic development.

"We looked at ways to pull contaminants out of the water and we turned to modifying one of the most natural filter materials used in the world, sand," said Dennis Godward, a Spring 2014 chemistry graduate. "Using sand coated with carbon nanoparticles, we were able to remove all the heavy metal pollutants that we studied: cadmium, chromium copper and lead at removal levels nearing 100 percent."

Bekah Webster, another '14 chemistry graduate, spent much of her time on the team refining the sand-coating process. "My main role this year has been to optimize the synthesis of carbon/iron nanoparticles-coated sand to serve as an absorbent for arsenic," she said.

The RU P3 team

Members of the RU P3 team, from left: Angela Gerard, Bekah Webster, Anthony Rhea, Dennis Godward, Matt Sublett and Spencer Hayes.

A new member of the team, Gavin Smith, a senior chemistry and biology double major, approached the research from a different direction - microbial reduction and disruption. He worked to develop an anti-microbial sand coating with a protein extracted from African Moringa tree beans. 

"I was honored to join the team and continue into the second phase of the research project, not only to advance my academic career but to also gain a better understanding of research in general and see how it can be applied to industrial problems," he said.

At the two-day festival, the team shared their work with hundreds of festival attendees and demonstrated the high level of research done by undergraduate students at RU.

Four original members of the team graduated on May 10 as part of RU's Spring Commencement ceremonies: Godward, Webster, Sublett and Maddie Ford. Godward will attend graduate school at Virginia Tech in chemistry and work on a research project related to the development of next-generation solar cells. Webster will attend graduate school at UVA in materials science and engineering and work on development of ceramic materials for use in extreme environments.  Sublett will attend graduate school at Virginia Tech in geology for research related to the study of fluid inclusions in earth materials and samples from outer space. Ford, a double major in chemistry and biology, will attend medical school at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona.

"What an impressive group of students," said Webster. "It just goes to show you what can be accomplished when you bring together a team of highly motivated students and let them solve real-world problems."

RU P3 team graduates

RU P3 team 2014 graduates with Francis Webster, professor of chemistry. From left: Maddie Ford, Bekah Webster, Webster, Dennis Godward, Matt Sublett.

May 13, 2014