Tuesday, August 29, 2017

2017 HERS Leadership Institute: An Inside Look with Dr. Kati Migliaccio

This summer UF-ABE professor Dr. Kati Migliaccio traveled to Pennsylvania for two weeks of intensive training at Bryn Mawr College. Dr. Migliaccio took part in one of HERS' Leadership Institutes for women in higher education. As one training participant shared on Twitter: “There is such a need for leadership and women in leadership in higher ed.” IrriGator approached Dr. Migliaccio to speak about her experience at #HERSBrynMawr17 and she kindly agreed.

Image via @HERSInstitutes
Can you tell us about your two week training experience at Bryn Mawr?
KM: The event was the 2017 HERS Training at Bryn Mawr. There are 3 locations for the training each year. One is at Wellesley, one is in Denver, and one is in Bryn Mawr. Three other UF women will attend HERS in 2017. The two weeks are focused on providing women in academics with different experiences to help them excel in their careers. Topics focus on basic knowledge skills such as accounting, but also include professional development skills such as speaking, dealing with difficult situations, and negotiating.

Dr. Kati Migliaccio
How does one get invited or become eligible for this training?
KM: Every institution does it differently. There’s a history with some institutions and their relationship with HERS. UF has a long history and the Provost Office has supported women attending HERS for many years (thank you!). Your supervisor or your dean can nominate you, or you can self-nominate when the call for nominations is released. Nominations are reviewed at the UF level; candidates are selected to apply to HERS for acceptance into the program.

What academic disciplines would you say were represented in your training?
KM: The majority of people at Bryn Mawr 2017 were from small liberal arts colleges, but there were also several people from large land-grant institutions. This year they had a STEM program and about half of the Bryn Mawr women were in STEM disciplines. The STEM program within HERS included special breakouts for STEM attendees where STEM issues and speakers were highlighted.
Specifically, were there topics covered that you felt you can immediately apply in your academic work?
KM: There were many topics! We focus so much on our science, or our discipline, that we don’t think about some of the other pieces that could help us do a better job. Examples are basic negotiation strategies, forming working partnerships, and reframing. Also, there were personal discussions on how to manage your time: how to create enough time and not feel guilty about taking time off work for a vacation or for family needs. We also covered how to get your point across through what you say - how to take your value system and move your value system into your conversations so people understand where you’re coming from and the reasoning behind your decisions.

There was also really good advice on finances. How to manage for retirement. And, how universities are being funded and how that’s likely to change. Some topics were really outside of the scope of your disciple but more those pieces that surround it and can either enhance your program or create more of a struggle for your program. 

One of the things that I hope to start to do is to allocate time on my calendar to look at bigger picture issues. For example looking at what’s happening nationally as far as education – and what the research funding future may be. I also hope to spend more time learning about the university system to better engage in activities that interest me such as improving graduate education.
Having attended a HERS training is it something you would recommend to women in academia eligible to attend?
KM: HERS is very specific for women and half of our curriculum was based on inclusive excellence. Whether or not other women would benefit from attending would depend on their future goals. Women interested in learning about or becoming involved in inclusive excellence would greatly benefit from this program. If you’re more interested in maybe going into the budget part of the university, or some other very specialized part, then there might be another training that’s better. If you’re interested in inclusive excellence and some of the unspoken issues and some of the more challenging social elements that are happening in society today, then it’s a really good place for you to go.
Can you elaborate on inclusive excellence?
KM: Inclusive excellence at the university is inclusion of all types of diversity across all aspects of the institution.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you about your HERS experience that you feel we should know?
KM: One of the things that I really liked about the program is that it made a point to say that it’s really easy in academics to get frustrated and get overwhelmed with everything you have to do, but to remember that you come to work, you do your best, and you go home. You’re not supposed to be everything to everybody and you’re not supposed to save the world. You’re supposed to do your job - that reinforcement of: it’s OK if you are sick a day. It’s OK if you don’t apply for every grant. 

The other thing I think we overlook especially as STEM people is that we get really focused on science and then we lose sight of our core values. And are our core values really playing out in our actions with our students, in how we teach, in how we do our research? I was reminded to keep my core values in place so they will help me be a better professor, mentor, and role model.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Joe Sagues and the 2017 ASABE Boyd-Scott Graduate Research Award

Each year at the Annual International Meeting, ASABE recognizes student excellence in the conduct and presentation of research with the Boyd-Scott Graduate Research Award. The competition consists of a written portion and an oral portion. For 2017, UF-ABE’s Joe Sagues, PhD Candidate in Biomass Conversion, placed first in the PhD competition. Fresh off his victory in Spokane, Mr. Sagues agreed to speak with IrriGator about the work he presented in competition and the focus of his current research.

Joe Sagues, PhD Candidate, UF-ABE
What is the focus of your PhD research?
JS: My research is focused on converting agro-industrial residues – low-value, sustainable sources of biomass – into valued products, particularly valuable chemicals. These biomass sources are composed of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin - 3 different polymers that are interwoven within each other. We’re selectively targeting the lignin, and we’re depolymerizing it into its different monomers. Those monomers have high-value applications in human nutrition. They can be used as anti-oxidants, used in sunscreens, used as food preservatives and things like that.

You mentioned low-value biomass. Can you give us an example?
JS: Sugarcane bagasse in the state of Florida is the most abundant agro-industrial residue. After the sugar and juice is squeezed from the cane you’re left with this fibrous material which is called bagasse and they just burn it right now. Thousands of tons a year burned for heat and power. We’re trying to take that and make something a bit more valuable.
Flashback to the Boyd-Scott Award competition at ASABE AIM - what research did you present in the competition?
JS: I focused on the first project I completed around the end of year one of my PhD, which looked at sweet sorghum bagasse. It’s almost identical to sugarcane bagasse but instead of sugarcane we’re using sweet sorghum. It’s bigger in Louisiana than Florida, but it’s an emerging crop in Florida. We took that bagasse and used ethanol in the supercritical state along with some catalysts to depolymerize the lignin into these various valuable chemicals.

One noteworthy component of this process is that the hemicellulose and cellulose (2 of the 3 polymers that make up the bagasse), they remain untouched during the process so that they can be used for other valuable applications afterwards. One of the big issues with lignin is that when you try to depolymerize the lignin you end up degrading the other two components. We’ve kind of avoided that. The catalyst was an iron catalyst - low cost, abundant, non-toxic.

Does the value of this research lie in the novelty and real world applications?
JS: As of right now what we’re doing is too costly, but the approach is new to bio-refining. The last 15 years or so everyone has been focusing on the cellulose mainly to make ethanol fuels and the lignin has been discarded because it’s just really hard to work with. But we’ve found a way to work with it more easily and in doing so keep the cellulose in pristine form so it can still be converted to ethanol. We’re creating more value from the feedstock.

What can you tell us about the research you’re working on currently?
JS: The project I presented at ASABE taught me the fundamentals of this new approach which we call selective lignin depolymerization. But there were some drawbacks, which I’ve moved past. I’ve modified the process. I’m using a copper catalyst now for various reasons. But I’m still sticking to using ethanol in the supercritical state because that’s kind of the special ingredient. I’m still building upon it. Eventually, the most important part that needs to be done is a techno-economic analysis to really figure out how expensive this process is. It seems like it will be expensive but then again we’re making these valuable products that would otherwise be burned or land-filled.

The format of the student awards at ASABE AIM didn’t really allow for acknowledgements. Who would you have acknowledged given the chance?
JS: Definitely my advisor Dr. Tong because of the freedom she gives me. Most research with lignin has focused on these lignin residues from current bio-refining processing and the pulp and paper industry. They generate massive quantities of lignin. So lots of scientists have focused on how do we create high-value chemicals from this lignin residue? But obviously it hasn’t succeeded because there’s nothing commercial yet - the yields are low, super harsh processes.  I came from a different approach. I want to take the lignin from the whole biomass but keep the cellulose pristine so you can still do what you want with it. At first Dr. Tong was kind of hesitant but then was like just go for it. And it ended up working really well. Aside from my advisor, I’d thank Dr. Haman also, who ultimately gave me the fellowship, which gave me the freedom.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you feel our readers should know?
JS: Something people in the biofuel realm, or in the ag and bio realm more broadly, should think about regarding biofuels in my opinion is airplanes and ships. We need to really focus in on those two forms of transportation because light-duty vehicles, even semi-trucks and larger road vehicles will most likely be electric. The technology costs are coming down and there is a lot of momentum right now. I think we’re wasting time making ethanol. Ethanol can only be used in light-duty vehicles. We should be looking at jet fuel and shipping fuel. They may become electric someday but that’s many decades into the future. There’s really not enough sustainable biomass to power the entire light-duty fleet anyway, but there is to power the planes in the sky and the ships in the ocean.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Research and Communications with Dr. Natalie Nelson

One of this summer’s highlights at UF-ABE was celebrating the successful PhD defense of graduate student Natalie Nelson. An NSF Graduate Research Fellow, a U.S. Presidential Management Fellows Program finalist, Dr. Nelson’s accolades go on and on. But we at IrriGator know her as an enthusiastic collaborator whose blog contributions were always illuminating, audience favorites. Before moving on to the next stage in her research career, Dr. Nelson agreed to share some insight about her work, interests, and future endeavors.

Dr. Natalie Nelson of NC State BAE
What was the focus of your graduate studies?
NN: At ABE my studies focused on hydrologic sciences, but then my research was really focused on specifically water quality and more specifically cyanobacteria and phytoplankton in freshwater and brackish systems – using data analytics and models to study long-term monitoring data sets that exist from a few different systems in Florida to try and infer what types of patterns we could detect between these different types of phytoplankton (such as cyanobacteria) and environmental conditions.

Did you always know you were going to pursue a STEM career?
NN: Yes. In high school I remember giving a presentation in my English class explaining that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I’m not sure exactly why I transitioned away from that but I decided that I was really interested in engineering and the applied sciences. It’s kind of interesting to see how things have evolved, where now I’m obviously not a marine biologist but I’ve incorporated some of those interests by focusing on phytoplankton in these estuarine systems but with more of an engineering perspective. I didn’t know that this is where I would end up, but I always was really interested in math and science and I definitely knew I’d be in a STEM field.

You’ve been one of our more popular guest authors on IrriGator, contributing some of the most viewed entries on the blog in 2016. Do you have any tips for graduate students on perfecting writing/ communication skills?
NN: Everything with communication, it takes practice and there are a lot of opportunities that are really easy to access - in terms of different opportunities to present your work in all sorts of different media, whether it be social media or different presentations. There are all these opportunities, but you have to take advantage of them. No one is going to force you into it.
Ultimately, the way in which I’ve been trying to develop my communication skills is just by prioritizing communication and trying to pursue these different opportunities as they arise. So take advantage of opportunities! Don’t let them pass you by. Especially because it does take time so you have to prioritize it. It’s very easy to prioritize research over everything.

You’re active on Twitter. Can you talk about how maintaining this digital presence has been useful to you?
NN: I have learned a lot about various research activities through Twitter that I would not have discovered otherwise. If you’re rather selective in who you choose to follow you can really gain a tremendous amount of information about different initiatives that are being created. Just the other day I learned about this great collaborative research institute that’s being created. It’s right up my alley, so I get to have easy and quick access to this developing group.
In terms of presenting myself and showing some of what I’ve been doing, it’s really easy and very effective. For example, when I posted about the article that I had published in January/February a friend who I know just personally and through courses saw that tweet and then went and looked at the paper and discovered that the method I use was really relevant to what he was working on. Then a bunch of conversations started from there and we’ve been collaborating a bit on a project he’s currently working on. Twitter allows for you to communicate with people quickly and easily who you might not necessarily discuss research with. It has been really practical.

Can you tell us about your new position at North Carolina State University?
NN: I’ve been hired as an assistant professor at NC State to work primarily in research and also in teaching in the area of data analytics and integrated modeling, but as applied to questions that fall within the scope of biological and agricultural engineering. This would span from bio processing to agricultural systems analysis, but then also some of what I’ve done in the past such as water quality evaluations and ecological evaluations. The scope is really broad. The idea with this position is to bring in someone who can work across disciplines within biological and agricultural engineering through the use of a common set of tools such as data analytics and some of these machine learning tools I’ve been using.
In addition, I will also be pursuing projects related to various aspects of estuarine ecology, but from an engineering perspective – looking at how different global and local modes of change might impact estuaries and what does that mean for the people that rely on estuaries.

I’ll be looking for students starting in 2018 so anyone who’s interested in a funded PhD or Masters should contact me!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Spokane Report Back: ASABE AIM 2017

Last month I attended ASABE’s Annual International Meeting in Spokane, WA. Along with hundreds of students, researchers, and experts, I had the opportunity to catch up with colleagues from around the country and see some of the latest research in ag & bio engineering topics.

ABE and the Future
One of the themes of AIM was what role engineers might play in ensuring a sustainable future for an ever-expanding population and its food, water and energy requirements. World Food Prize Foundation President, and keynote speaker, Dr. Kenneth M. Quinn addressed the concern at length. 
And later a distinguished panel on Opportunities in the Food/Water/Energy Nexus got into specifics about research, policy and collaboration. 
There were hundreds of additional presentations at AIM. Peruse the library of technical papers presented at AIM here.

Accolades for UF
UF ABE was a presence at both the student awards breakfast and the awards luncheon at AIM. Dr. Michael Dukes was formally inducted as an ASABE Fellow. In addition, Dr. Kati Migliaccio was named the G.B. Gunlogson Countryside Engineering Award recipient for 2017. 
Among the students, Biomass Conversion PhD candidate Joe Sagues took first place in the Boyd-Scott Graduate Research Competition. And in the robotics design competition the AggreGators surprised everyone with a 4th place finish among 13 teams.

Stay Tuned
Speaking of robotics, my role at AIM involved both social media and digital media work. Watch for short videos summarizing the student robotics and fountain wars design competitions in the months ahead.