MIT PhD students shed light on important water and food research | MIT News

A glance at recent news will reveal countless headlines about the dire state of global water and food security. Pollution, supply chain disruptions and war in Ukraine threaten all water and food systems, compounding the climate change impacts of heat waves, drought, floods and wildfires.

Each year, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT offers scholarships to outstanding graduate students at MIT who are working on innovative ways to secure water and food supplies in light of these urgent global threats. J-WAFS announced this year’s scholarship recipients last April. Aditya Ghodgaonkar and Devashish Gokhale were awarded Rasikbhai L. Meswani Scholarships for Water Solutions, which is made possible by a generous donation from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and their family. James Zhang, Katharina Fransen, and Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang received J-WAFS Water and Food Solutions Fellowships. The J-WAFS Water and Food Solutions Fellowship is funded in part by J-WAFS Research Affiliates: Xylem, Inc.a water technology company, and GoAiguaa leading company in the digital transformation of the water industry.

The five scholarship recipients each received a stipend and full tuition for one semester. They also benefit from mentorship, networking and opportunities to present their research.

“This year’s cohort of J-WAFS Fellows show a tireless drive to explore, create, and push boundaries,” says John H. Lienhard, Director of J-WAFS. “Their passion and determination to create positive change for humanity is evident in these unique video portraits, which depict their solution-focused research in water and food,” adds Lienhard.

Funder J-WAFS Jameel from the community recently commissioned video portraits of each student that showcase their work and inspiration in solving water and food issues. More information about each J-WAFS Fellow and their research follows.

Catherine Fransen

In Professor Bradley Olsen’s laboratory in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Katharina Fransen is working on the development of bio-based biodegradable plastics that can be used for food packaging without polluting the environment. Fransen, a third-year doctoral student, is driven by the challenge of protecting the world’s most vulnerable communities from the waste generated by the materials essential to connect them to the global food supply. “We can’t guarantee that all of our plastic waste is recycled or reused, and so we want to make sure that if it does escape into the environment, it can degrade, and that’s sort of where a lot of my research really kicks in,” says Fransen. Most of his work involves creating polymers, or “really long chains of chemicals,” much like the rings of paper that many of us have strung together in chains when they were kids,” says Fransen. The polymers are optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresh longer, preventing food waste. Fransen says she finds the work “really interesting from a science as well as the idea that [she’s] going to make the world a little better with these new materials. She adds, “I think it’s both really fulfilling and really exciting and engaging.”

Aditya Ghodgaonkar

“When I went to Kenya during the spring break, I had the opportunity to meet many farmers and talk to them about the type of maintenance problems they face,” says Aditya Ghodgaonkar, a doctoral student in the Department of mechanical Engineering. Ghodgaonkar works with Associate Professor Amos Winter in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) lab, where he designs hydraulic components for drip irrigation systems to make them water-efficient, off-grid, low-cost and low-requisite. maintenance. During his trip to Kenya, Ghodgaonkar gained first-hand knowledge from farmers about a common problem they face: clogging of drip irrigation emitters. He learned that clogging can be an expensive engineering challenge to diagnose, mitigate and fix. He decided to focus his attention on designing clog-resistant emitters, testing with sand, and passive hydrodynamic filtration in the MIT lab. “I entered this field from an academic point of view,” says Ghodgaonkar. “It wasn’t until I started working on the transmitters, that I talked with industry partners who make these transmitters, that I talked with farmers, that I really, really enjoyed the impact of what we do.”

Devashish Gokhale

Devashish Gokhale is a PhD student advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stems from growing up in Pune, India, where floods and droughts can occur depending on the time of year. “I had these experiences where there was too much water and also too little water,” he recalls. At MIT, Gokhale develops cost-effective, durable, and reusable materials for water treatment with a focus on removing emerging contaminants and low-level pollutants like heavy metals. More specifically, he is working on the fabrication and optimization of polymer hydrogel microparticles capable of absorbing micropollutants. “I know how important it is to do something that’s not just scientifically interesting, but has real impact,” Gokhale says. Before starting a research project, he asks himself: “Are people going to be able to afford it? Will it really reach the people who need it most? Adding these constraints early in the research process sometimes makes the problem harder to solve, but Gokhale notes that in the end, the solution is much more promising.

James Zhang

“We don’t really think about it, it’s transparent, odorless, we just turn on our sink in many parts of the world and it flows through it,” James Zhang says of the water. Yet he notes that “many other parts of the world are facing water scarcity and it will only get worse due to global climate change.” A doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Zhang works in the Nano-Engineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen. Zhang is working on a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light at different wavelengths interacts with surface liquids, particularly brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical and experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in energy-efficient water desalination. Zhang hopes the technology can one day “produce lots of clean water for communities around the world that currently don’t have access to fresh water,” and create a new appreciation for this common liquid that many of us might not think about a day to day.

Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang

“Globally, around 2 billion people are currently suffering from micronutrient deficiency because they do not have access to very healthy and very fresh foods,” says Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang, PhD candidate in chemical engineering. . This fact led Zhang to develop a micronutrient delivery platform that enriches food with essential vitamins and nutrients. Along with his advisors, Professor Robert Langer and research scientist Ana Jaklenec, Zhang brings biomedical engineering approaches to global health issues. Zhang says that “one of the most serious problems is vitamin A deficiency, because vitamin A is not very stable.” She goes on to explain that although vitamin A is present in different vegetables, when vegetables are cooked, vitamin A can easily break down. Zhang helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers capable of stabilizing micronutrients under cooking and storage conditions. Using this technology, vitamin A, for example, could be encapsulated and effectively stabilized under boiling water. The platform also showed effective release in a simulated stomach environment. Zhang says it’s “the small, tiny daily steps that push us towards the impactful end product.”

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