Inaugural Vest Scholar Works to Protect Water Purity

Duke’s first Vest Scholar, Laura Underwood, will seek ways to prevent bacterial buildup in water treatment devices

By Ken Kingery

This fall, Duke welcomes its first Charles M. Vest NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering International Scholar to campus. Reminiscent of a reverse Rhodes Scholarship, the award gives international graduate students the opportunity to spend a year at one of nine universities in the United States conducting research addressing the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering.

Duke’s inaugural Vest Scholar is Laura Underwood, a PhD candidate studying at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. While stateside, Underwood will be working in the laboratory of Mark Wiesner, the James L. Meriam Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, on solving worldwide issues of water quality with nanoparticles.

“Today’s water treatment systems rely almost entirely on facilities with giant footprints mostly using very old technology with a few new innovations sprinkled in,” said Underwood, who has worked on water quality in a variety of ways since her days as an undergraduate student. “We’re trying to help create a small filter that can streamline processes and make systems more efficient.”

No stranger to the United States, Underwood was born in Delaware and moved around the country quite a bit before earning her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the College of Wooster in northeastern Ohio. After working for a few years, she decided she wanted to pursue more applied technologies, which led her to enroll in an engineering master’s degree program from the University of Edinburgh.

After graduation, Underwood spent three months in an internship in Paris at the headquarters of the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The experience only made her thirst for pursuing novel water purification technologies grow stronger, and she returned to the University of Edinburgh to pursue a PhD focusing on the development of nanomaterials that can act as a modular pre-filter to protect membranes and ensure water quality.

One of the biggest obstacles in water filtration is biofouling. As a filter is used to collect water contaminants, bacteria and other microorganisms tend to build up and grow on it. Underwood hopes to develop an inexpensive method to stop this buildup from happening using novel nanoparticles.

Wherever her research at Duke takes her, she’s looking forward to the experience.

“Duke is well-known for water treatment research and the field I want to research,” said Underwood, who said she was already familiar with Wiesner’s work in the subject and was drawn to his research group in particular. “It’s a great opportunity also to see how another laboratory works and experience what graduate school is like in the U.S. I hope to take back to Edinburgh new international connections and ideas so that we can better collaborate together to solve some of the largest issues facing our collective planet.”