Five EMS graduate students win awards at annual Penn State Graduate Exhibition

Ece Alat

April 18, 2017 [Penn State News]

Five graduate students in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences were recognized for their research and presentation skills during the 32nd annual Graduate Exhibition, held March 24 and 26 on Penn State's University Park campus. Xiong Lei, graduate student in the petroleum and natural gas engineering option of energy and mineral engineering, placed second in the engineering category. Geosciences students Joanmarie Del Vecchio, Austin White-Gaynor and Maeva Pourpoint placed first, second, and third, respectively, in the physical sciences and mathematics category. Ece Alat, graduate student in materials science and engineering, received second place in the video category of the exhibition.

Xiong Lei: Second place in engineering category

Lei’s research focuses on gas reservoir characterization, specifically estimating rock properties — including saturation, porosity, permeability and pore pressure — for gas-bearing sediments through seismic approaches. Lei measured seismic wave attributes then mathematically related this data to rock properties, which in turn allowed him to characterize a reservoir’s subsurface properties.

“The Graduate Exhibition is a fantastic event, gathering so many graduate students from different majors. The fun thing is that you could see lots of different researches, meet many professionals from different fields of study, and establish connections with them. It really broadened my horizon,” said Lei, whose faculty adviser is Eugene Morgan, assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering.  “I am so glad that I was awarded a second prize in engineering category for my poster presentation, which greatly encourages me in my academic pursuits.”

Joanmarie Del Vecchio: First place in physical sciences and mathematics category

Del Vecchio’s research project involved mapping a watershed associated with the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory that is underlaid by sandstone bedrock. She and her colleagues wanted to compare processes happening across different rock types. They used mapping data, along with information from special isotopes called cosmogenic radionuclides, to fingerprint the cold-climate processes. They found that the area’s soil and debris dates to before the Last Glacial Maximum, and some of the debris has been buried 300,000 years. This led to Del Vecchio’s interpretation that “freezing and thawing permafrost speeds up the breakdown of bedrock into mobile soil and moves large volumes of debris into the valley, much faster than modern processes can move material,” she said.

“I was grateful for the opportunity to practice communicating my science in a straightforward and engaging way,” said Del Vecchio, whose faculty adviser is Roman Dibiase, assistant professor of geosciences. “I think my award, and the awards of the other geologists, reflects well on my mentors and peers in the Department of Geosciences who are often eager to give feedback and have helped me to hone my science message.”

Austin White-Gaynor: Second place in physical sciences and mathematics category

White-Gaynor’s research involves characterizing the seismic velocity structure of the upper mantle in West Antarctica. Because roughly 97 percent of Antarctica is covered by thick ice sheets, White-Gaynor and his colleagues use seismic tomography — an imaging technique utilizing seismic energy from distant earthquakes — to scan the upper mantle. This allowed them to create a 3D seismic velocity model of the Antarctic upper mantle, from which they could infer upper mantle temperature and past tectonic episodes. Using their model, the team hopes to fill in some of the gaps in the tectonic history of West Antarctica. White-Gaynor’s hope is that their final model will also be used to help reduce some of the uncertainty in predicting how the ice sheets will respond to a warming climate.

"I was really happy to see our department do so well in the Graduate Exhibition. I think that it not only speaks for the scientific merit of the research that we, as a department, are conducting, but also shows how relevant the geosciences are to the broader community,” said White-Gaynor, whose faculty adviser is Andrew Nyblade, professor of geosciences. “I hope that our success is evidence that we are effectively communicating our research, so that people less familiar to earth science can appreciate the integral role it plays in our society."

Maeva Pourpoint: Third place in physical sciences and mathematics category

Pourpoint’s research focuses on imaging the crustal and upper mantle structure beneath Greenland and improving our understanding of how underlying geological and tectonic processes may impact the ice sheet dynamics. Using data from seismic waves, she models variations in seismic velocity and subsurface conditions with depth — for example, temperature and density — which can then be used as input parameters for ice-sheet modeling. The goal of her research is to better constrain the structure underlying Greenland, which will help researchers better model the evolution of the ice sheet and its potential contribution to future sea level changes.

“The Graduate Exhibition is not only a great opportunity to take a step back and think about the significance of our research and why it is interesting but it is also a great place to practice communicating our science to a more general audience,” said Pourpoint, whose faculty adviser is Sridhar Anandakrishnan, professor of geosciences. “Being a recipient of this award is a great honor. It gives me confidence that the work I am doing matters and encourages me to pursue in this research direction.”

Ece Alat – Second place in video category

Alat developed a video about her doctoral research, which focuses on improving existing nuclear energy technology. Specifically, she investigated ways to improve the nuclear fuel cladding, which provides a buffer between the nuclear fuel and the surrounding coolant water in the reactor core. This buffer is necessary because the fuel, uranium dioxide, needs to be isolated to avoid fission product release and prevent contact with the coolant water which is at high temperature and pressure. She and her advisers collaborated with Westinghouse to develop ceramic coatings for cladding, designed to reduce corrosion and maintain safety within the core. Their goal was to improve nuclear cladding performance to allow longer operation under more severe fuel conditions. This would increase the safety and efficiency of nuclear power operations, and reduce accident susceptibility.

“The Graduate Exhibition is a great opportunity to communicate our research to a general audience from different fields in a creative way. Even the preparation process teaches a lot and provides a huge experience,” said Alat, whose faculty advisers are Arthur Motta, professor and chair of the nuclear engineering program in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, and Douglas Wolfe, professor of materials science and engineering and department head of advanced coatings at the Applied Research Laboratory. “I am honored to receive this award, which has not only acknowledged my communication skills but also further encouraged me to continue my academic pursuit."