Mentored Research

April 9, 2018

Duke Engineering offers students unparalleled opportunities to conduct original research with faculty advisors. Almost 70 percent of our undergraduates engage in intensive research, with one in five either publishing or presenting a paper off campus before graduating.

Environmental engineering major Karyn Saunders created computational models to understand problems with a greywater treatment system in Honduras—part of her NAE Grand Challenge Scholars project advised by faculty mentor David Schaad.

Environmental engineering major Karyn Saunders created computational models to understand problems with a greywater treatment system in Honduras—part of her NAE Grand Challenge Scholars project advised by faculty mentor David Schaad.

Nothing prepares a student for their future endeavors better than hands-on research.

Almost 70 percent of our undergraduates have some sort of research experience

Beside building a resume and skillset while helping to shape their future careers, students get to work side-by-side with experienced faculty at one of the top 10 engineering schools in research productivity.

Duke Engineering offers two signature opportunities for students to pursue—the Pratt Research Fellows and the Katsouleas NAE Grand Challenge Scholars programs.

Thanks in large part to these programs, almost 70 percent of our undergraduates have some sort of research experience, while one in five either publish or present a paper off campus before graduating.

Karyn Saunders: Grand Challenge Scholar

Improving Water Recycling Designs for Rural Villages

Growing up in southern Florida with two engineers as parents, Karyn Saunders has always been submerged in coastal environmental issues and challenges with water quality.

At Duke, the Katsouleas NAE Grand Challenge Scholars program gave her the opportunity to grapple with the vital problem of ensuring access to clean water through a variety of linked experiences, from coursework to co-leading an entrepreneurial effort to develop cost-effective temporary shelters with water treatment for refugees.

Katsouleas NAE Grand Challenge Scholars

  • Unique educational journey that integrates five key themes: an interdisciplinary curriculum, innovation and entrepreneurship experience, a global experience, service learning, and a research project
  • Prepares well-rounded engineers for leadership roles in addressing the largest global issues of our time
  • Graduates are recognized by the National Academy of Engineering

Learn more about the NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program »

Saunders also traveled to Honduras with Duke Engineers for International Development to help install and then repair a greywater treatment system for a local village. But even after multiple visits, the team’s solution was having trouble.

Saunders made discovering why the focal point of her research for the Grand Challenge Scholars research with faculty mentor David Schaad. She created a computational model of their treatment system complete with complicated fluid dynamics and the details of the specific site. With this new tool in hand, Saunders has incorporated new ideas and emerging technologies into their plans to solve the problems.

“Even though we doubled the size of the system’s grease trap during my second visit, it was still needing emptied daily even though it was only being used by a dozen homes,” said Saunders, who will continue her studies at Duke next year as part of the 4+1 Masters of Engineering program. “They use a lot more oil in their cooking than we do. That’s something I never would have thought of and helped me understand how solutions that work in one community might not work in others due to cultural, political or ethical concerns.”

Harvey Shi: Pratt Research Fellow

Simulating Blood Flow to Support Medical Decisions

Harvey Shi was one of the lucky students who managed to find a laboratory he loved working with even before his junior year. His experience in Pratt Research Fellows program allowed him to spend more time in the laboratory during the school year and provided an entire summer to focus on his project.

Harvey ShiShi works in the laboratory of Amanda Randles, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering with faculty appointments in mechanical engineering, mathematics and computer science. Randles is using advanced parallel processing algorithms and the world’s fastest supercomputers to simulate blood flow. Depending on the project, it can look at an entire person’s vascular system or dig down for a close-up of a specific section on a cellular level.

The goal is to eventually have physicians use this program to help determine the best treatment options for their patients. For example, a simulation could tell if fixing a specific abnormality within a patient’s aorta will help the local blood flow. However, because doctors do not have the time to become experts in using supercomputers, the program needs a more intuitive interface.

Shi designed and developed the software interface over the course of the spring and summer semesters of and following his junior year. He is spending his senior year incorporating virtual reality (VR) support for more immersive display technologies, using the zSpace 3D display and commercial VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

“This project has really helped me build independent skills beyond the research itself, such as working on all the details of my own project while also keeping an eye on the big picture,” said Shi, who plans to take a gap year after graduation before applying for MD/PhD programs. “It has also helped me develop an understanding of the challenges associated with research and how to persevere through them."

Madison Danoff: Pratt Research Fellow

Exposing Links between Environmental Contaminants and Neurological Diseases

Madison Danoff with Lisa SatterwhiteMadison Danoff came to Duke Engineering with the goal of becoming a genomic engineer. Without a ready-made curriculum for such a path, she decided to double major in biomedical engineering and biology with an emphasis on genomics.

Pratt Research Fellows

  • Intensive research program that begins junior year, continues through graduation and can include the summer
  • Competitive program matches students with participating faculty members from each department

Learn more about the Pratt Research Fellows program »

Her Pratt Research Fellows project merged some of these interests, as Danoff learned how to grow human "mini brains" in a laboratory, test their reactions to various common environmental toxicants and then relate what she observed in the lab to what was seen in human populations exposed to the same toxicants.

Danoff also sought to determine if vitamin C or vitamin D protected developing neurons from nicotine-induced damage. Besides her bench work, Danoff also created Python code to analyze how specific work performed by local farmworkers correlated with exposure to neurotoxic pesticides, which led to her being the first author on a journal article.

After spending more than a year on these projects, Danoff came away with two very important discoveries—a mentor and the knowledge that marathon-like bench work simply isn’t for her.

“My faculty mentor, Lisa Satterwhite, has helped me feel empowered as a female engineer and is much more than just a mentor for my research,” said Danoff, who will begin work after graduation as a consulting and execution analyst at Pfizer. “Besides matching me with her, the Pratt Research Fellows was a great experience because it went much more in depth than just a short, one-semester project. It helped me realize that I need a more fast-paced profession.”

Sam Kelly: Grand Challenge Scholar

Making the Ocean a Smaller Place

Sam Kelly with drone teamThe devices used to track marine mammals for long periods of time are part of a niche industry.

Even though the commercially available technology being used today is decades old, it still costs tens of thousands of dollars—but Sam Kelly is using his research experience with the Grand Challenge Scholars program to try to fix this disconnect.

Research Without Borders

Duke Engineering students can take advantage of a rich array of research opportunities across campus. A few examples:

Smart Home Fellows: Project-based design research that addresses the very broad goals of the Duke Smart Home Program to explore smart technology and ideas that enable sustainable living. Students have access to the Duke Engineering-operated Smart Home as a "living laboratory."

Bass Connections: Brings together Duke faculty, graduate and undergraduate students from every corner of campus to explore real-world issues in interdisciplinary research teams.

Independent Study: Many engineering students conduct intensive, hands-on research for academic credit—either in engineering or in Duke's schools of arts & sciences, medicine, environment, and beyond.

“The components needed for these devices only cost around $60, but renting what’s available now can cost $10,000,” said Kelly, who chose to come to Duke from his home country of New Zealand. “That price point is forcing scientists to miss out on a lot of potential uses for it."

Working with Martin Brooke, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, Kelly’s goal is to create an open-source, depth-rated, modular tag that reliably and accurately stores data.

He has tested prototypes on bottlenose dolphins in Hawaii and Atlantic sharpnose sharks on the east coast. The results suggested improvements that could be made, and Kelly has been hard at work implementing them into a new prototype that he hopes to test on mantas in Indonesia and whale sharks in the Philippines.

Outside of the Grand Challenge Scholars program, Kelly is working to create visual barcode-like tags that could be spotted by drones and used on land animals. He is also one of the leaders of Duke’s Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE team, which is developing an autonomous system to map the deep ocean floor using a large flying drone and smaller submersible scanning devices.

“The Grand Challenge Scholars project has tied together a lot of really interesting components that would otherwise be disparate,” said Kelly. “Developing skills outside of mechanical engineering and getting exposure into the world of entrepreneurship helps set me apart from other students while deciding what to do after graduation.”