Researcher gets her feet wet over summer

By Brianne Wilson

Amanda Shanley

Photo by Brianne Wilson

Amanda Shanley waters plants in the Purdue Horticulture Gardens. The junior biological engineering and biochemistry major from Denver, Ind., researched ways to clean wastewater with bacteria. The goal was to find efficient ways to recycle water and ease the burden on treatment facilities. ​Full-size image (613 KB)

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While some students spend their summers relaxing by the pool and doing anything but thinking about school, Amanda Shanley, a senior biological engineering and biochemistry major from Denver, Ind., spent her vacation researching and developing a new way to make water cleaner and teaching others about science.

"I spent the summer researching how to harness bacteria's ability to form biofilms and use them to clean wastewater," Shanley said.

Shanley worked long hours in a lab figuring out ways to treat certain kinds of wastewater with biofilms. Biofilms are thin films of slimy bacteria that stick to surfaces. You've probably seen biofilms covering rocks in a stream, on the bottom of your bathroom sink and even on your teeth. Shanley's goal was to find a way to use biofilms to treat a kind of wastewater called gray water. Gray water isn't sewage, it's all the water from washing machines, sinks and bathtubs.

Treating gray water with biofilms has the potential to keep large amounts of wastewater out of sewage treatment plants, which often have a difficult time keeping up with growing populations, especially in urban areas. The water would be recycled for other, nondrinking uses.

"I believe that this way of cleaning water is very important so that we have clean water for the future, and that the water we use is recycled as much as possible," Shanley said.

The research was part of her work with the Purdue chapter of the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation (iGEM). The student organization uses biological organisms to find solutions to real-world problems. While biofilms have great potential, there are several challenges to overcome before they can be used effectively.

"The goal is to be able to control where these bacteria are," said Shanley. "This is because we don't want them to grow where they are unwanted."

Shanley and her coworkers also got out of the lab to work with high school students and teachers who visited Purdue's West Lafayette campus. Shanley and her team taught students about science through hands-on projects. Shanley said this outreach was rewarding.

"Students change their outlook of what science is actually about when they get that hands-on, eyewitness experience," she said. "This would let the students get first-hand knowledge about what it was like to be a college student."

Shanley shared her work on biofilms and said she wanted to motivate students to get involved in science.

"Many students shy away from science and math because they can be difficult subjects," Shanley said. "But if they are encouraged and get excited about them at an early age, they will be more motivated to try harder and succeed."

Whether the students pursue math and science, Shanley said she hopes her efforts are making them think.

"I hope they will take what I have taught them and be able to apply it to their school work, college choices and career decisions," she said. "Most of all, I hope that I was able to help motivate them to keep working and keep trying to achieve their goals and do their best in everything they attempt in life."