Sharon Walker is passionate about opening doors to the future in her research laboratory.
If you want to visit one place on campus that shows the essence of UC Riverside, you might step into Sharon Walker’s water-quality research lab in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering.
Here you can find UCR’s own definition of itself — and its visions for the future, a university that:
- Breaks ground, taking science and engineering doctoral research in new directions.
- Explores ways to improve life in Inland Southern California, the nation and the world.
- Reflects California’s diverse cultures.
- Reaches out to the nation’s future scientists and engineers, especially those faces not usually found in laboratories.
- Mentors at all levels, keeping a small-school feel in a campus that is rapidly expanding.
- Is actively shaping the region’s future.
Walker, an assistant professor and the John Babbage Chair in Environmental Engineering, has been combining high-level grant research with outreach programs to achieve new successes. Just ask the undergraduate and two-year college students who have been doing ground-breaking research in her bacterial adhesion research laboratory.
They get hooked on science and engineering. When the students hold test tubes in the lab, they also hold the promise of a vibrant and diverse future national work force.
Jose Avila, a 2006-07 participant of the Building Bridges Across Riverside program now studying industrial engineering at Cal Poly Pomona, wrote in his diary: “The working experience that I gained has changed my perspective of life.”
The projects of these students are not just smoke and mirrors; they’re real. And they’re big.
Recent outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella sickened hundreds of people, grabbed national headlines, and set new worries about safe food and drinking water on American dinner tables. The water-quality research projects in Walker’s laboratory are helping to seek answers that will better protect the nation’s food and water supplies. Most work is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other water-quality research grants.
As Walker gave a tour of her laboratory, she said the work focuses on two types of particles that can be public health hazards. These are bacterial pathogens (specifically, E. coli and Salmonella) and nanoparticles, which she explained are an emerging contaminant — and a challenging one — since they are smaller than bacteria and more difficult to detect.
Improving Public Health
While most people may envision incubators as a medical tool for good health, these incubators grow bacteria for experiments. The laboratory sleuths explore how these particles behave and how they travel through water, soil and the environment.
For example, bottles of mixed water and sediment fuel experiments that mimic groundwater. How do the particles behave when beset by certain obstacles? How do they change and adapt? How do they interact with different types of surfaces? How fast can they travel under different temperatures and conditions? What kills them? The pathogens’ fate is measured by machines that include a sophisticated centrifuge bigger than some microwave ovens.
Once the researchers better understand pathogens and nanoparticles, they can figure out how to safely remove them, Walker said. This would apply to wherever the particles are, such as in groundwater or wastewater treatment systems — or before they reach someone’s dinner plate.
When Walker first came to UC Riverside in 2005, she said she was the first and only woman in her department. Her background includes two Bachelor of Science degrees, in environmental engineering and environmental sciences, received in 1998 from the University of Southern California, and a Master of Science degree in chemical engineering and Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Yale University.
She has served as a role model while she has been busy bringing in students with faces traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering labs.
Walker said she came to UCR for that combination of high-quality research and outreach. A study published by the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., found that UCR is one of America’s most successful institutions for graduating underrepresented minorities.
Last year more than 10 nations were represented in the lab.
Science and Engineering Indicators, 2004, a joint report of the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation, reported that women make up nearly half of the college-degree work force in America, but less than 25 percent of the science and engineering work force. African-Americans account for less than 7 percent. Hispanics have one of the smallest numbers, 3.2 percent.
Several UC Riverside programs are working to change those numbers.
The programs include:
Mentoring at All Levels
- Building Bridges Across Riverside Through Water Quality Research, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Riverside Community College students spend the summer in dormitories and receive a salary for their research work in a UCR laboratory. The $294,000 three-year program began its third year over the summer with 2008-09 participants Melissa Reimer, whose interest in biology is accompanied by a strong passion for horses, and Karynn Kirby, who is focused on public health issues. They are working on USDA-funded research that Walker began last fall with Assistant Professor Jane Hill of the University of Vermont. They are studying how pathogens can swim and move in water. Walker and Heather Smith, Riverside Community College (RCC) professor of life sciences, are the students’ mentors and role models. More coaching comes from members of the UCR chapter of the Society of Hispanic and Professional Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers, as well as UCR Ph.D. students.
- MY BEST @ UCR, funded with a $561,000 year-round mentoring grant from the National Science Foundation. It is based on the model of the Building Bridges program. It recently began with three UCR undergraduate students and two RCC students teamed with mentoring faculty.
- BRITE, a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program introducing undergraduates from around the country to bioengineering research at UCR, for which Walker is a student mentor. James Gutierrez of Moreno Valley, transferring this fall from RCC to UCR to pursue studies in environmental engineering, is one student who already seems addicted to the Bacterial Adhesion Research Laboratory. The BRITE program introduced him to research and opportunities in engineering.
- UC Leads, a University of California systemwide program, which pairs graduate-student mentors with undergraduates. UC Leads is directed by the Graduate Division. Berat Haznedaroglu, a Ph.D. student in the UCR Bacterial Adhesion Research Laboratory, directly mentors students in UC Leads and the other programs mentioned.
Pausing from his laboratory work, Haznedaroglu said, “The idea is to expose them to this field, so they are doing it. It’s totally hands-on. They can feel that fun.”
A beeping alarm from an experiment took him away temporarily. He returned to say that students also learn how to manage their time and their work. In mentoring them, so does he.
And, said Haznedaroglu, who wants to pursue an academic career, they ask good questions that sometimes prompt him to look for answers in new directions.
Students gets individual attention and also meet regularly with Walker.
Shaping the Region’s Future
The students also deliver papers at conferences.
“They learn how not to just do research but also how to explain what they’re doing in a meaningful way,” said Walker.
Troy Ezeh agrees. Wearing a shirt with the logo of the National Society of Black Engineers, Ezeh said that when he first came to UC Riverside to study science, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay with it.”
He found the water-quality lab a bit overwhelming. But as he collected samples and measured results, he began enjoying the different techniques he learned from his mentors.
His turning point came the first time they analyzed his data. Interpreting the results, and understanding them, gave him the joy of scientific discovery. His work was making a difference. The research became exciting, said Ezeh, and he saw nothing but possibilities ahead.
Now in his fifth and last year in environmental engineering studies, Ezeh is applying to several graduate schools. He came to the lab to discuss with Walker where his research work will take him this year.
When asked what he would tell others, he said: “This research experience is one of the best experiences to ever have.”
And that’s the goal, Walker said: To help the students continue to graduate school, and then beyond.
Eventually, she said, they will enhance the national work force of scientists and engineers, adding the creativity that diversity brings.
Consider Juan Lucio of Hemet. The first member of his extended family to attend a university, he came from RCC through the 2007-08 Bridges Across Riverside program and found himself working long, extra hours in the lab. He’s now transferred to UC Irvine, where he will double-major in chemical engineering and materials science engineering.
After presenting his research in Washington, D.C., at the Hispanic Serving Institutions Student Leadership Conference in January this year, Lucio wrote, “I am extremely focused on leading the way for Hispanic people in science-related fields. … I’ve learned that through hard work and determination anything is possible. I hope that through my direction I can set an example for others to follow so that we may better our society and our future.”
To view a video of Sharon Walker's work visit www.ucop.edu/sciencetoday/article/18429