Graduate Student Council

Fostering academic discourse despite social distancing...


The Engineering Systems and Environment Graduate Student Council ensured that research dissemination in weekly seminars continued despite unprecedented disruptions this semester. For a diverse department, this also meant an opportunity to look inwards and recognize graduate student excellence while tinkering with the seminar formats.

Academic seminars are a long-standing form of research communication. However, recent opinions by academics point to the lack of diversity and inclusivity of speakers. Accordingly, ensuring coverage of a wide range of research tracks and practitioners was critical upon formation of the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment (ESE), which was created in 2018 as a union between the former departments of Systems and Information Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Thanks to student leadership, the department has been able to transition to equitably highlighting a broader range of research interests among the faculty, staff, and students. Formed in 2019, ESE’s Graduate Student Council, or ESE-GSC, organized a set of graduate student lightning talks to represent the wide range of research being pursued in the department. The student speakers highlighted a wide range of topics including water and climate engineering, novel healthcare practices, military operations, and futuristic transportation engineering. The speakers were nominated and selected by their peers, invited across the graduate student body, thus these events were truly “of, for, and by” graduate students.

These changes to the seminar formats have only been possible with faculty guidance. Department Chair, Professor Brian Smith remarked, “The ESE-GSC has created an outstanding seminar series that directly meets the needs and interests of our diverse graduate student body”. The Director of Graduate Studies, Professor Lisa Peterson concurs, “I am grateful to the leadership of the ESE Graduate Student Council for spearheading this effort, because it provides meaningful professional development experiences for our graduate students while also strengthening our community of scholars.”

Despite the unprecedented disruptions that occurred this semester due to COVID-19, ESE-GSC was quick to move online to continue offering engagement opportunities for the department’s students. Professor Smith with especially pleased with the success of the online transition, saying “prior to the move to online classes, I was so excited to witness the high level of engagement in the Friday seminars in Olsson Hall.  While I was quite concerned as we moved online, it turned out that the continuation of the series via Zoom not only still met the seminar goals, it also played a key role in holding together our academic community during a period of social distancing."

"The ESE-GSC has created an outstanding seminar series that directly meets the needs and interests of our diverse graduate student body."

Brian Smith, Department Chair, Engineering Systems and Environment

The Council has been led in its inaugural year by Sarah Gustitus-Graham, a 3rd year PhD student. With pandemic restrictions eliminating opportunities for in-person gatherings, including the traditional speaker series formats, Gustitus-Graham was eager to continue graduate student centric events remotely, saying “this was an opportunity to not only give all of our students a virtual place to gather, but also a place to give some of our students a virtual place to shine.”

Sarah now completes her tenure as she hands over ESE-GSC leadership to Natalie Lerma. Lerma is especially committed to ensuring other forms of inclusivity as a GEM Fellow and a first-generation college graduate. She recognizes the appeal of online seminars in this regard. “Imagine the domains of excellence and diversity we can have. Having Zoom lectures means that we can get speakers we might not have been able to get due to health or other reasons, all while reducing carbon footprints of seminars”.

Looking inwards was not limited to holding student talks. ESE-GSC also organized its first distinguished lecture delivered by UVA Engineering’s Dean Craig Benson. “When Dean Benson indicated his availability, it meant that our first online talk would be by someone who is not only a great scientist, but also a calming voice in times of crisis”, mentions Udayan Singh, ESE-GSC Seminar Series Chair. Dean Benson talked about the reasons environmental engineers must align their careers with their values in acting as gatekeepers for civilization. In a Zoom room with 60 participants, this resonated with the leaders of tomorrow.

Moving forward, ESE-GSC invites suggestions and feedback from student bodies engaged in similar activities. Below, also learn about our excellent students who presented their research this semester.

  • Jeff Bennett, PhD Candidate

    Jeff BennettEducation: BS (Mechanical Engineering), Virginia Tech | MS (Mechanical Engineering), UT San Antonio | MSc (Turbomachinery Aerodynamics), Royal Institute of Technology

    Advisor: Andres Clarens

    My work: Electric grid planning is supported by energy system optimization models which project future power plant installations in order to meet demand at the lowest possible cost. My modeling work assesses the potential to change grid architecture, fuel mix, and grid hardening measures considering hurricane impacts as well as climate mitigation policies. The framework developed by us can be adapted to other types of extreme weather, enabling energy planners to explicitly consider extreme weather risks before making large infrastructure investments.

  • Julie Bridstrup, MS Student

    Julie BridstrupEducation: BA (Environmental Sciences), University of Virginia

    Advisor: Craig Benson

    My work: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a suite of synthetic materials that have been used since the 1940s as surfactants. Their water and oil resistant properties make them extremely useful in coatings, fire-fighting foams, textiles, and a range of other consumer goods. These same properties also lead them to be persistent in the environment and resistant to natural degradation. My work focuses on the fate and transport of PFAS in landfill leachate and the efficacy of existing engineered barrier materials, such as landfill liners, to contain them.

  • Kylie Gomes, PhD Candidate, NSF Graduate Research Fellow

    Kylie GomesEducation: BS (Industrial Engineering), Clemson University | MS (Industrial Engineering), Clemson University

    Advisor: Sara Riggs

    My work: Anesthesia providers are faced with a challenge of visual data overload as they must attend to several visual displays of information while carrying out other tasks competing for their visual attention in order to maintain a patient’s health while under anesthesia. However, it is important to ensure that the tactile alerts used to communicate such information are intuitive and easy to learn. My work aims to address this by evaluating a prototype tactile display to understand how patient physiological information could be represented by the various tactile parameters.

  • Kassie Grimes, PhD Candidate, NSF Graduate Research Fellow

    Kassie GrimesEducation: BS (Civil Engineering), Rowan University | MS (Civil Engineering), University of Virginia

    Advisor: Lisa Colosi Peterson

    My work: Antibiotics are essential for treating bacterial infections, but their widespread global use over decades has contributed to the generation of antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB), or “superbugs.” Infections from bacteria that are resistant to one or more antibiotics are harder to treat and can even be deadly. In order to curb the evolution of ARB, we need to mitigate their exposure to these selective pressures. My work focuses on the efficacy of a novel algae-mediated biological treatment to remove wastewater constituents relevant to environmentally mediated antibiotic resistance.

  • Patrick Hancock, PhD Student, ERI Graduate Fellow

    Patrick HancockEducation: BS (Mechanical Engineering), Saint Cloud State University | MS (Mechanical Engineering), University of Saint Thomas

    Advisor: Leidy Klotz

    My work: How climate engineering is discussed, explained, and understood will shape how, why, and in what cases it might be used as part of the response to climate change. As such, understanding how communication about climate engineering might induce bias, and finding ways to remove it, would improve the quality and timeliness of deliberations for climate engineering, and decision making on its use. Our survey of US adults shows that describing climate engineering with natural descriptive analogies increases political polarization, for one major category of climate engineering: solar radiation management.

  • Zhelong He, PhD Candidate

    Zhelong HeEducation: BS (Mechanical Engineering), Tsinghua University | MS (Mechanical Engineering), Tsinghua University

    Advisor: Marek-Jerzy Pindera

    My work: Composite materials are widely used in structural design applications across various engineering disciplines. The solution to a composite structural design problem is typically accomplished by replacing the complex heterogeneous microstructure by a homogeneous material with equivalent properties, and then proceeding with the calculation of the local fields at the structural scale. We construct a new implementation of the asymptotic homogenization theory for anti-plane shear loading based on locally exact elasticity solutions of unit cell problems at different orders in the asymptotic field expansion.

  • Ciara Horne, PhD Student, NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Dean’s Scholar Fellow

    Ciara HorneEducation: BS (Civil Engineering), University of Maryland

    Advisor: Devin Harris

    My work: Accurately quantifying residential urban decay will provide evidence-driven information that will highlight its severity, deciphering which neighborhoods need the most investment and restoration. Visual recognition techniques, particularly convolutional neural networks (CNNs), have been used to automatically analyze and classify building characteristics such as type, architecture, and age. Building upon this scholarship, my work will reveal which areas are experiencing the most decay. Income and race data will also be mapped in comparison so that significant correlations of inequity can be identified.

  • Major Jim Jablonski, PhD Student

    Major Jim JablonskiEducation: BS (Physics), West Point | MS (Operations Research), Air Force Institute of Technology

    Advisor: Peter Beling

    My work: Operations Research and Systems Engineering enable better warfighting.   Military Operations Research Systems Analysts (ORSAs) conduct applied research on a wide variety of high-impact real problems.  Their work extends from current operations to planning and building the future force.  They provide critical insight to operational decision making, refine and build systems to improve physical and cyber defense, and model the future battlefield to better resource the development of battlefield capabilities.

  • Wenjian Jia, PhD Student

    Wenjian JiaEducation: BS (Automobile Application Engineering), Chang’an University | MS (Transportation Management & Planning), Tongji University

    Advisor: T. Donna Chen

    My work: Electric vehicles (EVs) have great potential to decrease transport-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While EV sales continue to rise, the EV market share is still small in most countries. My study develops a county-level EV ownership model is developed using Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles’ vehicle registration data from 2012 to 2016 across 131 counties. The comparison analysis confirms several influential factors of EV adoption, and identifies instances when stated preference/interest does not lead to real-world adoption, which should be explicitly considered in EV policy making.

  • Erica Loudermilk, PhD Student, NSF Graduate Research Fellow, GAANN Fellow, Distinguished Engineering Fellow

    Erica LoudermilkEducation: BS (Environmental Science and Environmental Engineering), University of Delaware

    Advisor: Lisa Colosi Peterson

    My work: Infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria have emerged as one of the biggest threats to human health. The estimated burden of these infections is equivalent to the cumulative burden of influenza, tuberculosis, and HIV as of 2015. Our research investigates the environmental dissemination of Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase (KPC)- producing bacteria, which has been prevalent in the plumbing at the UVa hospital for the past decade. Our results will provide strategic insight to viable intervention techniques for mitigating the spread of antibiotic resistance and its corresponding health impacts.

  • Yawen Shen, PhD Candidate

    Yawen ShenEducation: BS (Hydrology), Wuhan University | MS (Hydrology), Georgia Tech

    Advisor: Jonathan Goodall

    My work: Sea level rise (SLR) and climate change are causing increased flood risk in coastal communities. Understanding this flood risk under the compound impact of multiple flooding mechanisms in complex and highly manipulated urban environments is important for increasing resilience within coastal communities. In my research, a coupled flood modeling system was used to simulate the combined impact of storm surge and heavy rainfall. The modeling system can also assist in evaluating the efficiency of potential flood mitigation measures regarding climate change or sea level rise.

  • Allen Townsend, PhD Student, GAANN Fellow, Dean’s Scholar Fellow

    Allen TownsendEducation: BS (Civil Engineering), Clemson University | MPA (Water Management), Indiana University

    Advisor: Leidy Klotz

    My work: Nearly $5.3 trillion of economic activity and more than 40 million people are facing an unprecedented risk of water shortages in the Colorado River Basin. Reservoir depletion in the river system has already triggered first-ever legally required cutbacks to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico in 2020. Through Behavioral System Analysis (BSA), my research will understand the motivating factors and barriers to accelerated adoption of water-saving programs by farmers, landowners and land managers. The BSA complements a highly inter-related assessment of a market-based financial instrument designed to compensate farmers.