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REU at Clemson University: Phosphorus Sensing and Food Sovereignty

In our fourth installment featuring the STEPS Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, we are excited to showcase scholars at Clemson University. This summer, REU scholars Kimberly Nelson and Alex Shaw are working with Dr. Eric McLamore, BP Co-Director and Theme 2 PI. Nelson and McLamore are investigating the psychological aspects of sustainability and food sovereignty from the perspective of the community of El Tiple, Colombia. Shaw has been working with Dr. Geisianny Moreira and McLamore to explore hybrid nanoparticle combinations as a phosphorus sensing material.

What’s it like to be an REU Scholar at Clemson University? Kimberly Nelson, rising junior at The University of North Carolina-Charlotte, describes that she provides a weekly report to all mentors, including McLamore, Moreira, Dr. David Pinzon, and Dr. Diana Vanegas. Additionally, twice a week, Nelson visits the lab and office space to work with mentors who assist her with those weekly deliverables. Right now, Nelson is working on qualitative research techniques and coding a video interview with El Tiple’s community leaders.

REU scholar Kimberly Nelson hard at work coding her interview data. Photo courtesy Kimberly Nelson.

The second REU scholar, Alex Shaw from Phoenix College, typically starts his day in the lab working on experimentation related to his project. His week can also include meetings with Clemson and NC State staff to support his research. Shaw has also enjoyed the opportunities he’s able to do with his lab group outside of the lab, including venturing to the Georgia Aquarium and participating in a Culture Competence seminar.

REU scholar Alex Shaw in the lab working on hybrid nanoparticle combinations as a phosphorus sensing material. Photo courtesy Alex Shaw.

Nelson comes into the REU program with a unique perspective as a social science major. She says this unique experience having an engineering faculty mentor has increased her knowledge despite not having taken engineering coursework prior to the REU. Nelson recognizes that her approach from a social science perspective makes her a valuable resource for other cohort members who aren’t as familiar with the social sciences. Nelson says this experience has given her a chance to consider all career options because of how inspiring and motivating it has been to network with other professionals in related fields.

Shaw’s research into hybrid nanoparticle combinations as a phosphorus sensing material recently wrapped up. After data analysis, the team hypothesized that an increase in layering nanoparticles correlated to a decrease in electrical response, meaning that there was a linear relationship between layering and response. Shaw hopes his research will add to the potential effectiveness of in-field testing and make it more tangible for minority communities and farmers to regulate nutrient pollution.

Nelson was inspired to apply for the REU program because she wanted to immerse herself in an experience that would give her the chance to learn more about research, become an even better scholar, and prepare her for her future career. Shaw was inspired to apply for the REU program based on his desire to learn something new, and he says, “cultivate a deeper understanding of the human condition and what we might be able to do  alternatively to be better.”

So far, Shaw has learned about the impact of phosphorus on the environment and now has a better understanding of what a “wicked problem” phosphorus sustainability is. Nelson has learned how imperative communication is in a group setting and in science. Specifically, Nelson has learned how crucial presentations are when sharing ideas and knowledge, as well as how important it is to be a good public speaker in general.

In the future, Nelson hopes to apply everything she learned through the STEPS REU and reach her goal of becoming a psychiatrist. Shaw plans to continue his education and pursue a Master’s or Ph.D. degree in the biological sciences.

Garden harvesting. Photo courtesy Alex Shaw.

To follow along with our series on the REU program, see