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CEE PhD Students Receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

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Two Northeastern Civil and Environmental Engineering PhD students, Cassandra Nickles and Katherine Vilardi, received 2019 Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This highly prestigious and selective program has historically awarded only 10% of applicants. According to the NSF, “Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering. These individuals are crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation’s technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large.” The program supports PhD students with a three-year annual stipend. Notably, Cassandra and Katherine are both also Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Cochrane Fellows.

“I love to be challenged and I am often motivated by the societal benefits of any research I perform,” said Cassandra. Her current research offers plenty of applications for helping society. With her advisor, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies Edward Beighley, she is focusing on NASA’s upcoming Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite mission, and discerning how the data may be useful for applications managing the world’s water resources. SWOT, which launches in 2021, will measure surface water slopes, extents, and elevations. It will enable researchers to study how climate change is threating global water resources. “The research has the potential to benefit millions of people worldwide while challenging me to put forth my best work,” she said.

Cassandra plans to create an open-source modeling platform that will incorporate a hydrologic model informed by SWOT data. The platform will help civil engineers, especially those in regions with weak in-situ data, understand the potential for floods and droughts, and thus design more resilient infrastructure. “Benefitting society by advancing our understanding in hydrology and making an impact on the world as a civil engineering professor would be my dream career,” said Cassandra. “Having the privilege to join the NSF GRFP community of scientists who value academics as well as societal impact in research has meant so much to me. This recognition not only will support me for the rest of my time as a PhD student, but it will give me access to a community of like-minded individuals seeking to improve the world through research.”

Cassandra Nickles is from Arcadia, California. She expects to graduate in April of 2022. In her second year of studies at Northeastern University, Cassandra has already presented research at five conferences across the United States and Canada.

As an NSF Graduate Fellow, Katherine Vilardi will continue her research with her advisor, Assistant Professor Ameet Pinto, on the ecophysiology of complete ammonia oxidizing bacteria, also known as comammox. Her investigation focuses on understanding the contribution of comammox to nitrification at drinking and wastewater treatment plants, and understanding its potential capability to optimize nitrogen removal.

Katherine hails from Warwick, Rhode Island. She moved to Boston for her undergraduate degree, where she gained a passion for connecting water quality and molecular microbiology techniques while working in biology and environmental engineering laboratories. “Once I started examining water beyond the equations of treatment design, I became invested in learning more about the microorganisms that carry out the different biological processes to enhance water quality,” she said.

The next steps for her research will be using bioinformatics tools to understand which types of bacteria are present in her bioreactors. The data will help determine what conditions prompt the growth of comammox. “This recognition is very meaningful to me because I get to continue working on an extremely exciting project,” said Katherine. “Complete ammonia oxidizing bacteria are a recent discovery and there is a lot to learn about them.” Her work will provide further insight into how comammox cooperate with other nitrifying bacteria found in engineered ecosystems.

Related Faculty: R. Edward Beighley, Ameet Pinto

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering