NSF-funded site at Ohio State prepares future “smart city” leaders

Posted: July 19, 2023
Group photo of the 2023 REU Site students and faculty
The 2023 cohort of the Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructure Systems for Smart Cities REU.

Thanks to an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), The Ohio State University College of Engineering has established a program to build the next generation of leaders in the fields of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering.

The three-year, $435,993 Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site award will fund an annual summer program for 10 students from groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering to work collaboratively on issues facing resilient and smart cities. Participants of the Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructure System in Smart Cities (RSISSC) cohort are paired with graduate student and faculty mentors where they engage in workshops, seminars, field tours and hands-on research. The program culminates with students presenting their research findings to the public.

Professor Allison MacKay, chair of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering (CEGE) and principal investigator on the project, said not only will the program help foster the development of a talented pool of engineering researchers, it will also aid in important advancements in the field.

“Civil and environmental engineers are responsible for the safety and reliability of building, transportation, energy and water systems,” said MacKay. “Right now, large areas of our cities are operating with infrastructure that is past its design lifetime and with increasing population demands and weather-related hazards. The focus of student projects at our REU site is using new materials, sensors, and digital observations to make building, road and water systems more resistant to disruption and faster to recover.”

The project’s co-principal investigator is CEGE Clinical Assistant Professor Jieun Hur, who has been instrumental in engaging regional partners to demonstrate how “smart city” engineering is being applied currently through field tours in the Central Ohio area.

students participate in a field tour at ENGIE
REU students participate in a field tour of ENGIE offices in June

Although students work on individual projects, they are able to witness how the projects are all interconnected through a weekly journal club. Current cohort projects include developing image processing software for disaster recovery, updating utility pole failure models to account for climate change, and improving navigation in GPS-denied environments, among others.

For Elian Pena, a second-year student at Saint Louis University studying biochemistry, the experience at Ohio State has been a transformative one.

“I think the biggest takeaway from this experience is being able to conduct professional research and find out how a scientist works on discovering new grounds and innovations within the field,” he said.

Pena’s research project involves designing a DNA primer—a short sequence of DNA nucleotides—that is highly specific to genes associated with mold growth. “The hope is to find a primer that works so it can be utilized as a testing mechanism for mold growth within homes.”

The most exciting aspect of the REU site, according to MacKay, is seeing the students’ growth and accomplishments over the course of the summer. Along with developing vital problem-solving skills, strategies for managing information and confidence to be curious and persistent, REU students build a strong community to provide support and feedback to one another.

“These are personal attributes for success in any career path and particularly graduate studies,” MacKay said. “I hope that our REU students will consider Ohio State in their graduate school plans—we would love to welcome them back!”

To learn more about Ohio State’s RSISSC REU site, visit the program’s website.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu