Research Experience for Undergraduates/Research Experience for Future Farmers

Students conducting research in an agricultural field

Program Description

STEPS will support 15 students for ten weeks during the Summer 2022 through a multi-institutional Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Students will work on independent research projects within the Center under the mentorship of STEPS Scholars and faculty. Students will be placed on projects that align with their research and career interests at one of the eight STEPS academic institutions.

Considering the long-term nature of the “25-in-25” vision, at least five REU positions are targeted for applicants who indicate future career plans in farming or related agricultural professions, forming a Research Experience for Future Farmers (REF) track within the program. REF-track participants will be placed in labs/projects supportive of their interests, be co-mentored by a research mentor and an agricultural extension faculty member, and be provided opportunities to present farmer perspectives to the REU cohort.

In addition to research projects in STEPS laboratories, all REU participants will learn skills in convergence research. Each REU student will be paired with another REU student working on a complementary project anchored in a different theme. The students will meet (in person and/or virtually) throughout the summer to help foster community building and convergence thinking. All participants will have opportunities to present to the broader STEPS cohort during the STEPS seminar series. 

Program Details

  • Program Dates: tentatively May 31, 2022 – August 5, 2022
  • Stipend: $6,000 in addition to on-campus housing at host institution and travel to STEPS institutions.
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in an undergraduate degree program and be a US Citizen or permanent resident. We encourage applicants from a variety of disciplines including but not limited to chemistry, environmental engineering, materials science, computer science, plant sciences, biochemistry, economics, sociology, and biology. Students from underrepresented groups in STEM fields are strongly encouraged to apply.
  • Applications open: November 29, 2021
  • Applicants notified by March 15, 2022
  • The priority deadline for applying to the program was February 4, 2022, and we are currently reviewing applications. We are still accepting applications to the program and will review applications received after February 4th if opportunities become available. Please contact STEPS ( with any questions.

Apply to the REU Program

Program Requirements

  • Participants must be available to begin the program on the start date and are required to attend the entire ten-week program. Any proposed conflicts should be included on the application.

  • Participants must be enrolled in an accredited college or university with at least one remaining semester before graduation. (Graduating seniors are not eligible.)

  • Participants are prohibited from other employment while participating in the program.

Potential Research Projects

The below projects describe research that REU/REF students can expect to participate in during the program.

Bio-inspired phosphorus removal and recovery (Faculty mentor: Brooke Mayer)

To stimulate phosphorus removal and recovery from complex water matrices, soluble phosphorus must be extracted in a pure form, which requires a highly selective, sensitive, and efficient capture and release mechanism. This project seeks to design and evaluate improved protein-based biosorbents suitable for capturing and recovering pure, concentrated phosphorus from complex water matrices. Toward this aim, we will integrate in-silico materials informatics models and experimental methods (e.g., protein engineering and immobilization strategies) to understand and improve the protein’s ability to selectively and reversibly capture phosphorus.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Engineering (particularly environmental, civil, materials science, chemical, agricultural), chemistry, materials science, agricultural science, and other related majors

Chemical and Biological Transformations of Non-Reactive Phosphorus (Faculty mentor: Brooke Mayer)

The form of phosphorus dictates its environmental significance and removal/recovery efficiency in engineered processes. Yet, most techniques to remove and recover phosphorus target soluble reactive phosphorus, and are likely not suitable for soluble nonreactive phosphorus such as organic phosphorus. Deeper understanding of the underlying basis and the extent of phosphorus transformations (e.g., between reactive and nonreactive species) would boost phosphorus removal and recovery efforts. Specifically, transformation of soluble nonreactive phosphorus to the more readily removable/recoverable soluble reactive form may offer a feasible approach. We propose to develop and test a new approach to assess the feasibility of phosphorus-transformation processes using mechanistic and energy-based comparisons (e.g., kWh/g-P transformed).

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Engineering (particularly environmental, civil, materials science, chemical, agricultural), chemistry, materials science, and other related majors

Soil test phosphorus calibration for corn in the Tidewater region of North Carolina (Faculty mentor: Luke Gatiboni)

The undergrad will be involved with soil and corn tissue sampling in a long-term trial at Tidewater Research Station. The candidate will be instructed on how the soil test correlation and calibration procedures are conducted and will be responsible for data management and analysis of correlation between soil and plant data. The student will also participate in laboratory, greenhouse, and field activities of other projects related to soil fertility/phosphorus.

Open to students from all STEM majors, especially those related to agriculture and life sciences.

Phosphite Soil Biogeochemistry (Faculty mentor: Owen Duckworth)

The REU student will conduct experiments to help understand the sorption of phosphite to soil minerals. The candidate will conduct laboratory experiments and conduct analytical experiments, as well as assist in presentations, reports, and papers.

The project is open to students majoring in Chemistry, Environmental Science or Engineering, Soil Science, and closely related disciplines.

Fate and Transport of Phosphorus in Soils from Tidewater TBL (Faculty mentor: Aziz Amoozegar)

The REU student will be directly involved with all aspects of the experimental study, including collection of soil materials from the top layer (A horizon) and subsoil (around rooting depth) at two of the long-term research plots, one with no fertilizer and one with the highest fertilizer application.

Soil material from each plot will be packed in columns at their respective natural bulk density. The high P soil columns will be leached with deionized water at a pH corresponding to the natural rainfall or irrigation water and the outflow will be collected and analyzed with time to develop P breakthrough curves. Three replications will be used for each treatment. Diammonium phosphate (DAP) fertilizer grains will be applied to the top of the low P soil columns at a rate equivalent to the rate used for high P treatment plots and leached with deionized water.  The outflow will be collected and analyzed with time to develop breakthrough curves.  Three replications will be used for each treatment. A simple mathematical model for solute transport will be used to determine the diffusion/dispersion coefficient and retardation factor for each treatment.

The project is open to students majoring in Chemistry, Environmental Science or Engineering, Soil Science, and closely related disciplines.

Solar distillation of human urine to produce water and fertilizer (Faculty mentor: Treavor Boyer)

This project will evaluate changes in urine chemistry as water is evaporated from human urine. The project will evaluate the impact of pretreatment, such as pH adjustment, on the mineral phases that form as the urine becomes more concentrated due to evaporation of water. This project will also evaluate the quality of the water that can be recovered from urine during evaporation/distillation process.

Open to students from all STEM majors.

A key part of this research is collecting human urine. We have a urinal-on-wheels that can be moved to public restrooms to facilitate the collection of urine for experiments.

Characterizing Phosphorus After Anaerobic Treatment of High-Strength Organic Waste Streams (Faculty mentor: Bruce Rittmann)

Working in concert with the project’s PhD student, the REU student will carry out special batch experiments to track transitions in P speciation.  The goal will be to distinguish P species that are rapidly adsorbed versus P species that are incorporated into biomass.  This project will take advantage of methods already in place (by the PhD student) and will provide input to the team’s mathematical modeling effort.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Environmental, Chemical, or Civil Engineering; Microbiology; Chemistry

This will be experimental, and the REU student will need to complete safety trainings before beginning experiments.  It will be valuable for the REU student to do background reading and communicating with the PhD student in advance.

Development of National Phosphorus Flows (Faculty mentor: Dan Obenour)

An undergraduate student will work with the project team to develop critical components of a national phosphorus (P) budget.  Activities will likely include compiling national data on phosphorus (in waters and/or soils), analyzing data to explore major drivers of P variability across space and time, and developing reports and presentations to visualize the data and study findings.

Open to students from all STEM majors; experience in coding or GIS is a plus.

Additional Information:  Scope of work is flexible based on student’s interest and project needs.  The student will work with Dr. Dan Obenour (civil and environmental engineering) and may also receive guidance from Dr. Natalie Nelson (Biological and Agricultural Engineering), Dr. Owen Duckworth (soil science), and project graduate students and post-docs.

Recovering Phosphorus from Food Waste (Faculty mentor: Doug Call)

This project will focus on biological and non-biological methods to recover phosphorus from food waste. In the US, over 30% (~1.3 billion tons) of food produced is wasted each year. This project will study how a variety of food waste collection, processing, and storage strategies impact the “release” of phosphorus from food waste into forms that can be readily captured and reused. The work will consist of bench-scale experiments in which food waste is subjected to incubations and the products analyzed for phosphorus speciation and concentration using a range of analytical techniques.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Environmental Engineering, Chemical Engineering, or other related engineering fields.

Elucidating the composition and structure of phosphorus storage compounds inside bacteria (Faculty mentor: Doug Call)

Many bacteria can hyperaccumulate phosphorus inside their cells as phosphorus-rich granules. Wastewater treatment facilities leverage these bacteria to remove dissolved phosphorus by enriching them through process controls. Important knowledge gaps surrounding these bacteria include the mechanisms of phosphorus granule formation, the structure and composition of the granules, and the impact of solution chemistry on granule formation and stability.  This project will focus on developing a workflow to culture these bacteria in the lab and then extract the phosphorus granules from the cells.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Environmental engineering, Microbiologyor other related engineering/science fields.

Computational enzyme engineering for phosphate capture (Faculty mentor: Yara Yingling)

Proteins’ ability to recognize, capture and release phosphate makes them an ideal sustainable material for use in wastewater cleaning and agricultural systems. However, a deep understanding of the mechanisms of phosphate recognition and capture followed by the optimization of enzyme functions is needed for the use of proteins as synthetic materials. In this project the student will use computational tools for evolutionary conservation analysis, mutant structure modeling and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to accelerate the optimization of enzyme function. The results of this work will enable new protein based materials that can efficiently and effectively remove phosphate from solutions.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Biochemistry, Chemistry, Physics, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering

Molecular simulations of removal and recovery of phosphate from wastewater using temperature swing solvent extraction (TSSE) method (Faculty mentor: Yara Yingling)

Temperature swing solvent extraction (TSSE) is a membrane-less technology for water cleanup that is more cost-effective than traditional methods. TSSE utilizes solvent with temperature-dependent water solubility for the selective extraction of water from high salinity brines at ambient pressures and low-grade heat. TSSE method can be used not only for the desalination but also for the efficient removal and recovery of phosphate from waste water. However, the choice of solvent determines the efficiency of phosphate removal. Here we will use all-atom molecular dynamics simulations to examine several solvent and design a mixture of solvents capable of removal and recovery of phosphate from waste water.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds:  STEM majors

Improving efforts to map animal feeding operations and their manure (Faculty mentor: Rebecca Muenich)

Students will work on downloading and processing data useful for large-scale mapping of animal feeding operations in the U.S. Their project will be focused on smaller case studies to test out large-scale applications.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: engineering, geography, geosciences

Experience coding and using GIS software preferred, but not required, and will be learned or expanded through this project.

Novel analytical strategies to measure organic-phosphorus in wastewaters (Faculty mentor: Paul Westerhoff)

Seeking an undergraduate student excited about helping develop and applying analytical chemistry tools to better understand the chemical composition of organic phosphorus in wastewater, and how ozone treatment of the water can transform the chemical structure.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Chemistry, Environmental Science or Engineering, Biology

Should be willing to live in Arizona for the summer; should be willing to do some field sampling; most the research will be in a laboratory.

Big data – mining and using data to estimate how much phosphorus enters rivers and oceans from all the wastewater treatment plants across the USA (Faculty mentor: Paul Westerhoff)

Our group already have large datasets with over 15,000 wastewater treatment plants (location, size, types of treatment processes) and we are seeking a motivated undergraduate to aid in using ArcGIS, Python and statistical software (including Machine learning and artificial intelligence based) to predict phosphorus contributions from these plants into our nations rivers, lakes and oceans.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: statistics, computer science, environmental science/engineering, geography, electrical engineering

Should be willing to live in Arizona for the summer; project is primarily computational based.

Metal Cations for Phosphorus Recovery (Faculty mentor: Chris Muhich)

A student working on this project would use computational methodology to calculate P adsorption on various surfaces. They would learn to use high performance computers, density functional theory and some surface science.

Open to students from all STEM majors.

Convergence Education for Sustainability (Faculty mentor: Gail Jones)

This study examines the challenges and barriers that STEPS students experience as they work in
the STEPS convergent science environment. Research includes measuring changes in science
self-efficacy and academic self-concept experienced by STEPS students. Other factors to be
examined include equity issues for students from diverse backgrounds. The study will contribute
to new forms of educational programs designed to address societal “wicked problems.”

Open to students from all STEM majors including psychology and sociology.

Development of carbon nanosensors for measuring phosphate in water (Faculty mentor: Eric McLamore)

Using materials under development by theme 1 researchers in STEPS, we will develop fluorescent carbon-based nanoparticles (also known as carbon dots) for sensing phosphorus in water samples. We will test the particles using a suite of different analytical techniques in the lab, and also prototype a mobile phone-based decision support tool (app). At the end of the summer project, we will work with STEPS researchers in them 3 to test the nanosensors in the field and compare to standard analytical instruments (North Carolina and Florida).

Open to students from any STEAM major (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics). The term “art” is intended to be general/inclusive, we have had successful dance majors, photographers, and anthropology majors in our summer REU programs in the past:-) Anyone may apply, even if the STEAM concept does not fit your major!

This project requires a willingness to conduct “wet chemistry” work in the laboratory (approximately 3-5 weeks), analyze data and perform calculations (entire project), and also work outside in the hot summer sun for a few hours per day (1-2 weeks). We have weekly student meetings (regular reporting required), and all participants are expected to engage in research and social activities designed by our group as well as those developed by STEPS.

Conceptual Model of Phosphorus Sustainability (Faculty mentor: John Classen)

The goal of this project is to further develop an operational mental model of sustainable swine production in North Carolina. The initial model was created to give a broad perspective of the system, one of which is simply “nutrient recovery”. The undergraduate student will assist our team’s next step to separate this concept to include specific details of nitrogen and phosphorus as well as adding new concepts as needed and connecting to existing concepts. The student will then help test the expanded model and analyze impacts of various scenarios related to improving recovery, reuse, and sustainability of phosphorus.

Open to students from all majors. Interest in mental models and fuzzy cognitive map techniques is more important than a specific academic background.

High-throughput compound screening towards an increased phosphorus availability for plants (Faculty mentor: Ross Sozzani)

Only a small amount of the phosphorus in soil is available for uptake by plants. Increasing the release of phosphorus is thus one method to increase phosphorus uptake and reduce the need for fertilization. In this project, we will screen the response of plant cells to several compounds that affect phosphorus availability and biocompatibility in a high-throughput manner using 3D bioprinting. The participating scholar will get training in 3D bioprinting of plant cells, will learn to design and conduct experiments, and will perform data analysis. Using a 3D bioprinter the student will precisely and accurately deposit plant cells in a well-defined microenvironment substituted with different phosphorus forms, apply compound treatments, and track the deposited cells. This project might lead to the discovery of novel methods to increase phosphorus availability for plants.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Plant Biology, Biochemistry, Environmental engineering, Soil Science, Materials Science and Engineering, Electrical Engineering

Decomposition of model orthophosphates using hydroxamic acids (Faculty mentors: Jan Genzer and Owen Duckworth)

Degradation of organophosphorus species is important for the detoxification of synthetic compounds (such as pesticides and nerve agents) as well as for promoting capture of phosphate for resource reuse. In this project, the student will study the decomposition of dimethyl nitrophenyl phosphate (DMNP), a model organophosphate compound, using chemical agents bearing hydroxamic acids (i.e., deferoxamine). The goal is to establish decomposition kinetics as a function of solution pH, the concentration of hydroxamic acid, etc. In addition to using free hydroxamic acids units solution, we will anchor them to polymer hydrogels and perform the same degradation studies using DMNP. We will compare the performance of free and gel-bound hydroxamic acids.

Open to students from the following majors/backgrounds: Biochemistry, Environmental engineering, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering,  or other related engineering/science fields.