Above and beyond: Undergrad researchers encourage early go-getter attitude


Since receiving a middle school invitation to participate in the Science Olympiad, civil engineering major Ren Gibbons has been mesmerized by structures. Through funding as an Undergraduate Research Fellow, Gibbons has participated in several research projects.

Gibbons initial project was the development of an optical turbidity sensor for measuring the particle size and distribution of fine particles, particularly clay. The sensor is a helpful tool for answering a common geotechnical engineering question: are certain soils strong enough to support a building, bridge or damn?

The sensor consisted of a transparent plastic tube containing an infrared sensor and space for a prepared solution of your soil sample and water.

“Over time these particles are going to settle,” Gibbons said. “Then light is shone directly through the particles and the sensors measure the amount of scattered and attenuated light. This and different known equations allow you to figure out what the particle size would be.”

After experiencing some setbacks with the sensor development, Gibbons has transitioned to new research that better suits his long-term interests.

Gibbons’ current project utilizes finite element modeling to better understand the stresses and responses of a distressed segmental box girder bridge.

Previous tests on the bridge revealed a weak point manifested as a crack. In the process of testing different scenarios the bridge might experiences—varying temperatures, winds, and traffic patterns—researchers found that under some conditions the crack could expand up to 1/32 of an inch. Though this does not pose a structural threat, better understanding this bridge could help prevent similar problems in the future.

Using a finite element analysis program called SAP 2000, Gibbons is creating a model that yields identical results to the data collected by previous researchers.

“When we drive a virtual truck across the bridge it will deflect in the same way that we’ve noticed,” he said. “Then we can figure out different scenarios and be reasonably confident in extrapolating certain situations.”

Following his graduation this year, Gibbons hopes to continue with this line of research in a graduate program. He spoke praises of his experiences at Utah State.

“I think that if I had gone to a school with a bigger name, I would not have had the opportunity to get involved hands-on with undergraduate research,” Gibbons said. “There are three structural engineering professors on faculty and I know each one of them quite well, which is something that would not have happened had I gone another school.”


Grant Holyoak, a junior majoring in sociology and economics with a minor in statistics, has big dreams. With plans to someday work for the United Nations in social and economical development, he counts himself lucky that he has been able to be involved in a variety of different projects as a URF.

“There is so much to be learned,” Holyoak said. “I’ve been able to work with some really great advisors and mentors and get my hand in a whole bunch of pies.”

Holyoak’s biggest current project is studying social service organizations in the Utah and the way they provide service to the unauthorized immigrant population. Last summer he conducted 35 phone interviews with leaders of these organizations in the state, and asked them about what kind of constraints they see and gaps in service for immigrants. Holyoak is currently writing paper on these findings for major sociological journal.

“We are noticing how the cultural aspects of the state are contributing to a lack of diversity on the boards of many of these organizations,” Holyoak said. “We are also interested in organizational isomorphism, or how the social services organizations are tending to become more alike, over time, in the services they offer.”

Holyoak is also working with iUTAH on a project gauging attitudes and perceptions of water use, conservation and legislation among Utah residents. Holyoak and other researchers went door-to-door last summer and interviewed more than 1500 people.

“We asked questions about farming, participation in water related activities, like owning a hot tub, waterskiing and hunting waterfowl, and their opinions and worries about climate change,” he said.

Holyoak said that through the iUTAH project, they hope to understand patterns and correlations that exist between people’s opinion about climate change and their usage of water, with the goal of hopefully informing behavior in the future.

He said that being proactive and getting involved wherever they can is the best thing an undergraduate can do to participate in research and build a professional portfolio.

“Find out what you are interested—what excites you—find out who is researching it, and do what you need to do to get involved in their research,” Holyoak said. “They’ll show you how professionals do it in the field, and pretty soon you will be one of those professionals.”


For biological engineering student Zak Fica, getting down and dirty is just part of a days work, as his research on algal biomass grown in dairy waste water takes him to some wet, and often smelly, places.

“It’s not a very flashy,” Fica said. “It’s not very exciting, but it’s a big, noble source of energy or product that we could have access to.”

Dairy waste water—a plethora of which exists in Cache Valley—has high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorous and other compounds. Algae feed on these nutrients, thereby reducing the amount of time and chemicals that would be needed to treat the wastewater, while in turn generating biomass for the production of renewable bioproducts. This proves very economically and environmentally advantageous.

Fica monitors what are called rotating algal biofilm reactors (RABRs), cylinders that slowly rotate within a tank of dairy waste water and grow a film of algae. The RABR allows for much easier collection of algae than other methods. Fica takes the algae that grows and tests it with various temperatures and nutrients to see if it grows faster or slower under different conditions. His studies also extend to human waste water collected by the City of Logan and stored west of town.

“The implications of using algae as a biomass are numerous,” Fica said. “They can be turned into proteins to be fed to cattle, used in smoothies and more as options for vegans, and potentially be used to clean water used in fracking, which is a hot-button issue right now. Water cleaned by algae can also be recycled instead of sitting stagnant in a pool.”

Fica elaborated on other impacts algae can have in the environment.

“Having dark, algae ridden rivers doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize that fish can’t eat algae; they need to eat the bugs in the water, but those bugs die when algae block out their sunlight. So if we can get the algae out, then we can have those clear waters that all the fly fisherman like to fish in.”

In his project, Fica has the opportunity to share finding and connect with many other students studying different aspects of algal biomass. He said that URF and URCO funds have allowed him to stretch his dollars and maximize the impact his research could have. He credits beginning bio-engineering classes for getting him excited in this field.

“I like this because it is so green and environmentally friendly,” Fica said. “I’m not a hippie, ‘Recycle,’ ‘Save The Trees’ person, either. But we are coming up with real solutions to real problems.”