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Calvin Students Earn Prestigious Fellowships
October 18, 2007

Two Calvin College engineering students are among 15 students around the nation to win prestigious research fellowships from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Junior Val Horstman and senior Corinne Kluge, both engineering majors with a civil and environmental concentration, each received two-year undergraduate fellowships from the EPA’s Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) program.

Both received the GRO fellowships to cover tuition and fees, books and expenses and a monthly stipend; the fellowships also encourage their research with Calvin engineering professor David Wunder.

“A fellowship is common for graduates,” said Horstman, 20, a Grand Rapids native. “It’s not as common for undergraduates. This is a big blessing.”

“I feel like God has blessed me enormously with this,” agreed Kluge.

A 21-year old hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Kluge is already in the second year of her fellowship.

Horstman, Kluge and Wunder are researching how antibiotics interact with biologically active filtration systems used for drinking water treatment in numerous regions worldwide.

Common antibiotics, Horstman explained, which are used to treat cattle as well as humans, don’t entirely break down when they enter wastewater and then the environment.

“They’re found at nanogram to microgram per liter concentrations in surface waters used for the production of drinking water, and so we’re trying to see how those relatively low but persistent concentrations might interfere with drinking water treatment,” she said. “As engineers, we’re trying to build our knowledge about the processes so that we can improve the way they are designed and operate.”

The team is researching slow-rate bio-filtration systems, processes by which water is filtered through a large bed of sand or other porous media that has been colonized by bacteria in a surface coating called biolfilm.

“It models what naturally happens in river banks,” Horstman explained.

As gravity feeds the water through the sand bed, a biological layer or schmutzedecke (German for “dirty layer”) forms in the upper region of the filtration bed. This layer is crucial for water purification.

The students and professor are studying how antibiotics interact with the biofilms in slow-rate biofiltration processes, trying to determine how much of the antibiotics reach the biofilm and to what degree the biolfilm bacteria that are the heart of the treatment process are compromised by antibiotics.

“If you impede biological activity with the antibiotics, you have worse water, to say the least,” said Horstman.

Her area of research within the project is “sorption” or how the antibiotics move from liquid to biofilm; Kluge is concentrating on “inhibition.”

“Basically, what I’m doing is trying to see is whether the biofilm bacteria are inhibited at all by low-level antibiotic concentrations found in surface waters,” she said.

Horstman likes the project for its real-world implications.

“The one thing I think is so cool about Professor Wunder looking at these processes is that they’re so great for working in developing regions,” she said.

Whether or not the GRO fellowship leads her to a career in development, Horstman said, it was a tremendous encouragement to her as an engineer.

“It was confirmation that engineering was where God wanted me and that environmental engineering was where I could serve him,” she said.

Kluge, who mentors the Women in Engineering Study Group, said the GRO fellowship has allowed her some academic flexibility.

“In addition to immersing me in the environmental field to do research, it’s given me freedom to chase the other opportunities that come up,” she said.

Though she is undecided about graduate school options, Kluge remains passionate about the environment.

“I’m very interested in being a good steward of our world, which is what God calls us to do,” she said.

Because of the competitiveness of the EPA Greater Research Opportunities program, Wunder is impressed that not one, but two Calvin students have earned GRO fellowships.

“I was pleasantly surprised, but at the same time I knew they were both the kind of student that this program was looking for,” he said. “They both are gifted and highly focused students who are passionate and professionally focused on caring for creation in their work as engineers. Frankly,” he added, “I couldn’t do what I’m doing without both of them.”

~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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