Major Insight Episode 18 Engineering a Cleaner, Safer World

Emily Kuehl

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As an aspiring Chemical Engineer, with a concentration in Environmental Engineering, Emily Kuehl is using her time as a college student to make our world a cleaner, safer place to live. Her projects involve the detection of arsenic in water and soil samples, as well as research designed to remove other dangerous chemicals from drinking water.

Emily is also a rock climber, trombone player, and a math and music minor. And on this episode, she also talks about her role in designing university classes and how to find a balance between the personal and academic sides of college life.

Featured Majors:

Chemical Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Mathematics, Music Performance

Featured Organizations & Internships:

Miami Climbing Club

American Institute of Chemical Engineers

Wright Patterson Air Force Base Toxicology and Inhalation Lab 

Schneider Electric

Career Clusters:

Engineering and Technology

Full Episode Also Available on YouTube

Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

James Loy: Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research and its relevance in our world.

James Loy: As an aspiring Chemical Engineer, with a concentration in Environmental Engineering, Emily Kuehl is already using her time as a college student to make our world a cleaner, safer place to live.

Her projects involve the detection of arsenic in water and soil samples, as well as research designed to find new ways to remove other dangerous chemicals from drinking water.

Emily is also an avid rock climber and trombone player, and on this episode she also talks to Major Insight Host Peter Everett about her role in designing university classes, how to find a good balance between the personal and academic sides of college life, and more.

Peter Everett: So, hi Emily, welcome to the podcast.

Emily Kuehl: Hi, thanks for having me.

Peter Everett: Of course. So if you could just tell us what your major is and generally what your research direction is.

Emily Kuehl: All right, sure. Well, I am going into my last semester of chemical engineering. I have an environmental concentration as well. My research has been focused on environmental engineering. I had two main projects, and I can go into those a little more if you want me to.

Peter Everett: Of course. What were those projects?

Emily Kuehl: Okay so first, I believe I started at the end of my sophomore year, the project was on arsenic and arsenic pollution. Arsenic can be a really big problem for people who have well water or people who are around industrial or brown field areas, and currently the only way to figure out how much arsenic that you have in the water if you were concerned is to send that off to a laboratory, which takes a lot of time. Takes a lot of money. Not feasible for a lot of people. So, the main idea of it was to create kind of, you know those diabetic test strips where they're-

Peter Everett: Yeah.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah. So you can just take a sample, dip it in, and then some kind of reader will indicate to you what it was. That's kind of hard for arsenic, especially because it's if I want to remember maybe parts per billion range that you're not supposed to have. So, a little more sensitive than your diabetic test strips, but we were using an enzyme inhibition reaction, which in the presence of arsenic would theoretically get a reading within that range for a cheap cost.

Peter Everett: Oh, wow. Okay. So, was the strip actually successful? Were you able to create one?

Emily Kuehl: So, we never got to the point where we were transducing onto a strip, unfortunately. I mean it was an ongoing project that wasn't started with us. We were just looking in a different route. We did get into maybe parts per million range, so we did get a little miniature publication on that to talk about how it could possibly be used.

Peter Everett: That's awesome.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, so hopefully future teams will pick that research up for us.

Peter Everett: Yeah. The second project, what's the second project?

Emily Kuehl: Second project is my most recent one. That was my senior design, also just finished last semester, which was awesome to get that done. Learned a lot. If you ever heard of, it's called PFAS's. They're kind of a hot button issue right now. Stands for poly or perfluoroalkyl substances.

Peter Everett: Okay. So, what are those?

Emily Kuehl: The most common thing that you would think of, maybe you don't know that word per se, but you probably heard of Teflon before.

Peter Everett: Yeah.

Emily Kuehl: Nonstick cookware.

Peter Everett: Oh yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Emily Kuehl: So, yeah. The thing that makes them nonstick is that coating of PFASs, which are for one thing they've been linked to cancer, so not a great thing.

Peter Everett: Oh, okay. So don't buy nonstick pans, is that-

Emily Kuehl: No, no, no. If you see Teflon, don't buy that anymore.

Peter Everett: Oh, okay. That's good for everyone to know now.

Emily Kuehl: No, the market is moving towards the point where they're not going to be selling them anymore, which is good, but a lot of people don't know they're in a lot of other things like if you use wax floss, they're usually in that, and that goes right in your mouth. So, that's not ideal. The other one is maybe waterproof clothing, and firefighting foams are a big one. That's contributed to a lot of water pollution. There's a lot of these chemicals in the water, especially around the Wright-Patt area that we are. So for one thing, they're carcinogenic. They're in a lot of different things, and unfortunately the thing that makes them really good for nonstick and a good surfactant are the same things that make them really stable so they don't break down over time. So even if you're consuming a very small amount of them in your water source, probably too small to detect, they can bioaccumulate in the body which makes it pretty harmful.

Peter Everett: Oh wow.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, so.

Peter Everett: So, how's the tap water around here?

Emily Kuehl: Tap water around here, I don't know if we have any numbers about that. It's kind of an unknown, because it's a wide class. They're most likely there.

Peter Everett: Okay, so. Good thing I have a water filter at home.

Emily Kuehl: Right, and a water filter probably does some good for that, but our research was more finding a solution to tackle this problem at the water treatment level, at a municipal-

Peter Everett: Okay, at a plant or something.

Emily Kuehl: Yes, at a plant. So, we're working with the chemistry department, with Dr. Neil Danielson. My research professor who I've worked with both projects is Jason Berberich, Dr. Jason Berberich.

Peter Everett: So, shout out.

Emily Kuehl: Shout out.

Peter Everett: Wherever you are.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah. So, the idea was to use, it was a multimodal approach to try to combat this with an adsorption process.

Peter Everett: Multimodal just means many different types of [crosstalk 00:04:09].

Emily Kuehl: Yes. So, the particular one that we did, it had a hydrophobic effect and it also had an ion exchange effect, which that's getting a little technical, but basically we have a powder that will hopefully attract these compounds, which really don't like anything else. A good example would be-

Peter Everett: So, would that pull them out of the water if you put [crosstalk 00:04:22]-

Emily Kuehl: Yes. That's the idea, and when you're looking at water treatment plants, they're trying to filter out a lot of stuff. They're trying to filter out probably everything before this compound. Your classic oil and water experiment. They don't mix, right?

Peter Everett: Yes.

Emily Kuehl: Well truly, it's three phases. There's a water phase, an oil phase, and then there's a fluoro phase, which these compounds are. They don't like anything else. They don't want to attract to anything, so when you're trying to clean waste water, the first things to come out are not these. They're something else. So, we tried to make a powder that would specifically aim for these toxins.

Peter Everett: [inaudible 00:04:59].

Emily Kuehl: A very hard thing to do.

Peter Everett: Yes.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah.

Peter Everett: Were you guys getting anything published or any kind of recognition on this powder on this research for the water treatment plant? Was that happening?

Emily Kuehl: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Unfortunately, no publications. Bummer, but we did present our research at the AICHE, which is the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' national conference, which was down in Florida. That was a good time.

Peter Everett: Okay, because I know you had some EPA funding for this, or for your specific research project.

Emily Kuehl: We did, yes.

Peter Everett: I wasn't sure what kind of, oh if the government is involved, or anything like that.

Emily Kuehl: Mm-hmm (affirmative), which was kind of cool because we got the grant right around the time that I was thinking about, oh, what will I do for my senior design? So, those went hand in hand.

Peter Everett: Awesome.

Emily Kuehl: Yes, we did get government funding for that.

Peter Everett: Always good to have the government help out every now and then, right?

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, it is. It's nice.

Peter Everett: Speaking of that, what was it like? I know I saw you interned with the US Navy medical team or medical center.

Emily Kuehl: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Peter Everett: What was that like working with them?

Emily Kuehl: At the time, wow. Very intimidating. Everyone is in uniform.

Peter Everett: What year were you at? What were you in?

Emily Kuehl: That was after my freshman year.

Peter Everett: Oh, wow. So, this is early on.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah.

Peter Everett: Past the initial intimidation, what was that experience like or what'd you learn while you were there?

Emily Kuehl: They were doing some really cool research in that the toxicology lab mostly aimed toward, at least my lab, was looking at what kind of compounds that pilots are exposed to when they're at crazy altitudes.

Peter Everett: Oh, wow.

Emily Kuehl: So, a little beyond my skill level at the time, but it was really cool to just observe and watch people.

Peter Everett: Yeah. Well, I'm sure. I guess, were you guys trying to develop any kind of medicine or injection that the pilots could take to maybe survive better or fight those toxins off, or just studying what happened to them at high [crosstalk 00:06:37]?

Emily Kuehl: I think the first, I mean, there were a couple of cases where pilots would pass out at those high altitudes, and they weren't sure what was causing it. So, it was more of an investigative. Why are these here? What could we change about our engines or about our filtration systems up there? Mostly understanding what's there before.

Peter Everett: Sure.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah.

Peter Everett: So, all right. You interned with the government, with the US medical lab, and then there was another internship you had.

Emily Kuehl: Schneider Electric?

Peter Everett: Yes. That's what it was.

Emily Kuehl: Yes, yes. I still work there now.

Peter Everett: Oh, okay. So, this is a career now for you almost.

Emily Kuehl: It could be a career. We're talking about it. It's an option. We'll see.

Peter Everett: Yeah.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, that is a manufacturing plant. They make parts that go into transformers. Busway is the heavy duty in the place of many wires. They have very thick sheets of metal, and they design those electrical systems for large corporations and hospitals, and that kind of thing. Everything is custom order. It's a really big plant that I didn't even know was here in Oxford.

Peter Everett: Yeah, that's spectacular right there.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah.

Peter Everett: It's cool to have maybe an internship and have your research and your academic life actually build into, even if not your career, a possible career.

Emily Kuehl: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Peter Everett: That must be really awesome.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, I'm really fortunate because I had a position where I was at, an actual research lab, a government lab, which is not a thing that a lot of students get to do. Then I did research for a while, which was totally different as well, and then I worked in a real manufacturing plant which I learned more about processes.

Peter Everett: Absolutely.

Emily Kuehl: Which is definitely engineering.

Peter Everett: Just a large diversity of experience there you can apply to anything for a resume.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, yeah. I had fun, so. It was different every time too.

Peter Everett: So, how'd you balance more of your student life, personal life, with this academic life and with these high intensity classes, high intensity situations?

Emily Kuehl: Yes. Well, high intensity is a good word. Especially my freshman year. I think I came in with a focus that I knew I wanted to do really well, and like a lot of kids do when they come to college, they're very afraid of what those classes are going to be like. Are they going to be completely different than high school? Am I going to fail?

Peter Everett: Which they will, by the way.

Emily Kuehl: They will be different, and that's true, but you can also underrate yourself, which is what I think I did. My whole first year was just study all the time, not really take a lot of time for myself or to seek out relationships. I mean, I looked for friends and made some friends, but it wasn't as high of a priority as it should be. So, I think after that first year I kind of figured out, I can study a little less and do just as well. Kind of like that bell curve. You can fall on either side. Do too little and you won't do so well.

Peter Everett: The scientific approach to how much to study.

Emily Kuehl: Exactly, yeah. You'll know. You'll know if it's too much or too little that is resulting in your grade. So the second year, I definitely figured it out. Woke up and took some time for myself, and started doing some different things.

Peter Everett: Like what? What would you do outside of school, on campus?

Emily Kuehl: The first thing. Well, I started rock climbing. That was probably the best decision in my time here, is rock climbing. I met some of my very best friends, and then three years later now I'm vice president for them. We go on all kinds of trips. I've probably been to a half dozen different states, and it's just something that's-

Peter Everett: That's awesome.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, it's good to get your mind off-

Peter Everett: The university funds all that stuff, right?

Emily Kuehl: Big funding.

Peter Everett: Yes.

Emily Kuehl: Yes. Thank you, Miami.

Peter Everett: Clubs, people. All right.

Emily Kuehl: We appreciate that, but it's good. It's good to move your body, and then it's a problem too. It's problem solving, but it's not school. So, it's good to take a break from school. Then I guess my most recent impulse buy was getting a mountain bike. I got a mountain bike last April.

Peter Everett: Oh, wow.

Emily Kuehl: That's a different group of people. So, learn how to take time for yourself is a really big thing, and juggle that with school, because that's a different task.

Peter Everett: Yeah.

Emily Kuehl: You don't learn much about time management when you're just working on school. I should mention though, probably the most important factor that changed my sophomore year was also looking at religion, which is something that maybe people wouldn't talk about too often or think about too often as a college thing. That's not your thing going into it, but I really rediscovered that for myself and I think that's probably what propelled me to look for rock climbing, look for mountain biking, look for people who share my interests.

Peter Everett: That's awesome.

Emily Kuehl: I go to Cobblestone Church. I have a little-

Peter Everett: Yeah. I know a lot of people at Cobblestone.

Emily Kuehl: Yes, Cobblestone is a great place, and they gave me a peace that makes me where I am today. I don't think I would be able to be doing all of the things that I do, juggling all the things I do without it. So, that's an important shout out.

Peter Everett: So, you've got the work/life balance. You've got every aspect, spiritual, recreational, academic. So, what specifically about Miami about your academic experience, how were you able to reach that point? Because I know you said at the beginning it was very much school heavy, studying heavy, so what really I guess enabled you to really achieve all of this?

Emily Kuehl: I think some of it is Miami's structure. They really let you get involved in a lot of different activities and things that are outside of your major. I have for one thing my two minors that are outside of that, trombone and math. That's not something that you could do at a lot of school, is be super involved in a music minor, a math minor, and a chemical engineering minor. A lot of schools just don't let you do music minors. So, some of it is the structure of Miami. Some of it was just me realizing that I wasn't very happy just doing school all the time. Something felt like it was missing, so that's something else I'm sure.

Peter Everett: So, listen to yourself. Listen to your own heart, for lack of a better word.

Emily Kuehl: Mm-hmm (affirmative), no. It's a great word. I mean, you come to college to grow, and that's not only just academically but that's as a person.

Peter Everett: Sure.

Emily Kuehl: There's a lot that goes into that too, so you have to definitely explore, and I think you'll know when you're going down the right path and when you're not. I like to think that college is full of a lot of really good choices. I've heard this from a very wise person once. College is full of many good choices, but there's one great choice. There's one best choice, and you have to look at all the goods before you know what's the best, so.

Peter Everett: Couldn't agree more myself. I've had a very up and down journey myself. It's really, I think for me, it's been about prioritizing the right things and making sure, like with you, when I first came here, I was very much school all the time, 100% all. Then I had to maybe cut back on that, add some other things in. I started going to Crossroads actually.

Emily Kuehl: Oh, awesome. Cool.

Peter Everett: Very similar type of thing there, but adding another aspect in.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, and then cutting back when you know you need to cut back.

Peter Everett: Yeah. Yeah, I joined up with the Medieval Sword Fighting Club.

Emily Kuehl: That's fun.

Peter Everett: You know the one where they have all the metal armor on and everything. I don't know, it ended up being way too time consuming so I had to pull out, but I'm just saying. It's always good to take a chance and explore something, really, I think is what we're learning from this.

Emily Kuehl: Yes, definitely. Don't be afraid either. I mean, rock climbing especially, that's the one that comes to my mind, is so intimidating.

Peter Everett: Yeah how so?

Emily Kuehl: So intimidating. Well, you look around and everyone knows what they're doing, everyone's been doing this much longer than you and everyone is judging you if you're not doing well, but that's never the case. Almost never. They're usually worried about themselves not looking bad, and they're not even paying attention to anyone else.

Peter Everett: Yeah.

Emily Kuehl: Takes a leap of faith for sure.

Peter Everett: So I guess if you had to pick maybe a favorite research experience or something very specific that stood out to you, maybe even a relationship with a professor or something that happened in one of the labs, or a breakthrough, or something like that. If you could recount that for everybody.

Emily Kuehl: The one that comes to my mind is Dr. Olga Brezhneva. She was my differential equations professor, and I think it was around that time. It would have been the middle of her class. I was taking chemistry, my first chemistry class on the side, and I remember getting bored in class. At the time, we were doing kinetics. So we were learning about if you're familiar with integrated rate law or differential rate law. I thought, "Wow. I think I finally know differential equations. I'm going to connect the two," and I thought I was so smart, which if you take diff eq, it's not too hard but anyway.

Emily Kuehl: I wrote it down while I was in class and then I brought it to her later and I said, "Thanks for showing me this connection. It's really cool that I could take your math class and apply it to a different course. I feel like there's not usually a lot of overlap between my courses." She saved that piece of paper. I mean, we had some contact between that and two years later. She kept pushing me to take more math classes, which eventually led me to my math minor, but she remembered that piece of paper. Took it out and two years later she says, "Emily, there is going to be a new course that I'm designing, and I'd really love it if you would help me co-design it."

Peter Everett: Oh, wow.

Emily Kuehl: At the time I thought, "What does that mean? I am just an undergrad. I really don't know what that's about." She said, "No. You made a connection in one class to math, and I'd really think that that's valuable for designing this new class." So, that's what I'm doing right now.

Peter Everett: What is this class? Is this the class where it was helping disadvantaged students in math?

Emily Kuehl: Yes.

Peter Everett: Yes.

Emily Kuehl: Yes.

Peter Everett: Oh, tell us about this. Sounds exciting.

Emily Kuehl: It's such an exciting thing. It's definitely my favorite project that I've been a part of. As Miami is growing as a university, we all know the student population has grown. The best part is we have way more diversity in our student backgrounds than before, and it's not for people maybe that are disadvantaged, but the ACT score range especially, and just the backgrounds of where everyone is coming from are a lot larger, and it's making it harder for intro classes to cater to everyone.

Peter Everett: Yeah.

Emily Kuehl: So, there are the people who have seen this class before. Maybe they had an AP class, and then there are the people who maybe didn't have that AP class. This is their first time seeing that material, but everyone is lumped into the same, I don't know, multi hundred person class and a lot of people get lost.

Peter Everett: Yeah, sure.

Emily Kuehl: So, we're not sure completely on the set up.

Peter Everett: That was me in economics. That was me.

Emily Kuehl: So basically this class, I don't know if it'll be a prerequisite or something that you take alongside. I'm not sure about the structure yet, but a lot of the questions have come straight from those intro classes. We've collaborated with a lot of them, and set up by skill level, so each chapter will be a new math skill. Lots of topics, but it'll show right after it teaches the skill the scientific application that you're going to see as a student in a STEM related field a year or two later.

Peter Everett: Oh, wow.

Emily Kuehl: So, it's going to be a great preview for those students who might be worried about that, or who know that they're going to have a challenge going into those classes. So, very exciting class.

Peter Everett: So, what has it been like to work with a professor this closely and really design something like this?

Emily Kuehl: Olga has become my best friend.

Peter Everett: So, another shout out right here.

Emily Kuehl: Yes. We've had a great time. She's such an easy person to work with. She's so great for bouncing ideas off of, and she's just so passionate about what she does. I mean, all of Olga's students rave about her. If you've had her once, you understand that you have to go back, you have to sign up with every class with her. So, working with her in that is just a positive environment, took all of my insecurities about being a course designer, whatever that is. I didn't know that existed, and made it into just such fun, really, because it was cool for me to dig back, because a lot of these kids will take the same classes I took. Go back and refresh and say, "Oh yeah, that was really hard." Some of them I made up myself because I remembered, "Oh, I remember that style of question. That was so confusing. I'm going to help someone so they don't have to struggle with that."

Peter Everett: It must be so rewarding too to be able to share that with a new generation of students. All that struggle you went through as a math minor and all those math classes that were hard. Maybe struggle is too strong of a word. I don't know, maybe you're smart enough. It wasn't [crosstalk 00:18:00].

Emily Kuehl: Oh no, it was a struggle. You're right.

Peter Everett: Being able to take that experience and actually change someone else's life with it. It wasn't just useless struggle. You just made something that maybe didn't seem meaningful at the time, and it's something meaningful.

Emily Kuehl: Definitely. I think people hate math because it does seem meaningless, but to see it side by side with wow, oh people really use this. Or, this is kind of cool that we can figure this out with math stuff. So, that's been so cool. So honorable, or I'm honored at least to be making this kind of impact.

Peter Everett: Yeah. Do you have any final thoughts for us, anything else that I missed?

Emily Kuehl: Let me think.

Peter Everett: Your bio was extensive, so I just cherry picked things. If there's anything else that you are really passionate about, would love to talk about that I didn't ask about, please.

Emily Kuehl: Maybe just music.

Peter Everett:Music.

Emily Kuehl: I haven't talked about trombone too much.

Peter Everett: Oh, yes. All right, well let's talk about-

Emily Kuehl: That's my fun fact.

Peter Everett: I should have seized on that earlier. All right, fun fact.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, that's my fun fact.

Peter Everett: Fun fact, bonus section everybody.

Emily Kuehl: Yes. I've played trombone since I was 11, and I missed it so horribly that first year, so then I got into pep band, which I highly recommend if anybody hasn't done that or if you maybe played an instrument in high school, threw it away, it's in your closet or under your bed or something like that. Pep band is so fun, just to play some cool, easy music, play at a hockey game. It's such a cool environment, so I have to rep the Miami music program and if you are a trombone player in particular, Dr. Jaime Morales-Matos is amazing. That's my third shout out. He's incredible, but yeah. I learned a lot.

Peter Everett: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Emily Kuehl: Thank you so much for having me.

Peter Everett: I really loved having you here. Thank you so much.

Emily Kuehl: Thank you.

Peter Everett: All right.

Emily Kuehl: Oh, I should have mentioned. I got engaged two days ago.

Peter Everett: What? Oh my gosh, that's awesome.

Emily Kuehl: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:19:38].

Peter Everett: Congratulations.

Emily Kuehl: Thank you. I should have said that.

Peter Everett: Yeah. What is it like getting engaged in college?

Emily Kuehl: I don't know yet. I don't think it's real yet. I'll let you know in a week when maybe I've processed it.

Peter Everett: Okay, okay.

Emily Kuehl: He's also a chemical engineer.

Peter Everett: So, he goes to Miami though?

Emily Kuehl: He goes to Miami.

Peter Everett: Oh, he goes to Miami.

Emily Kuehl: Yes, he goes here.

Peter Everett: So, you're Miami mergers. Okay.

Emily Kuehl: I guess we're-

Peter Everett: All right. So basically, Miami for some reason, well because Miami is awesome, so Miami is awesome and has maybe a larger percentage than the national average of students that actually get married coming out of Miami. That's what a Miami merger is. So, any time two Miami students meet and get married, they end up becoming Miami mergers. That's what Miami mergers are, and congratulations on everything happening.

Emily Kuehl: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Peter Everett: On being engaged, and thank you so much for coming and taking the time.

Emily Kuehl: Thanks so much for having me.

James Loy: Emily Kuehl is a senior studying Chemical and Environmental Engineering at Miami University, with a Mathematics Minor. She plans to graduate this spring.

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Featured Majors: 

Chemical Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Mathematics, Music Performance

Featured Organizations & Internships:

Miami Climbing Club

American Institute of Chemical Engineers

Wright Patterson Air Force Base Toxicology and Inhalation Lab 

Schneider Electric

Career Clusters:

Engineering and Technology