Making the lab work for the world outside

Hani Gomez is from Cochabamba, Bolivia, which has such an inviting climate it’s called “The City of Eternal Spring.”

But growing up in a place with an eternally alluring outdoors hasn’t dissuaded her from pursuing a career that will involve countless hours indoors. Electrical engineering can often be all about laboratory work, an unavoidably interior activity, but Gomez firmly believes it’s well worth it.

A recent experience opened the senior electrical engineering major’s eyes to just how much of a difference engineers can make in the real world. Last semester she was part of a trip to the Navajo Nation with a team of students led by civil engineer Navid Saleh.

The group was looking at water contamination issues in the tribal territory occupying parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Gomez saw engineering fieldwork there for the first time, and she was impressed by Saleh’s enthusiasm in working to understand serious problems in the real world and then go back to the laboratory to engineer solutions.

“It was a life-changing experience,” she says. “I saw how important research could be, not just to the researchers, but also to the community.”

She returned to Columbia with a new appreciation for the laboratory where she currently spends much of her time. Gomez is engaged in undergraduate research under the tutelage of MVS Chandrashekhar, an assistant professor of electrical engineering. She just earned a Magellan Scholar grant to help develop a technology for detecting nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gaseous pollutant that is a common byproduct of many devices that involve combustion, such as engines, stoves and heaters.

Chandrashekhar and his team have shown that graphene, a material consisting of a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms, can be fabricated so that its electrical conductivity serves as a very sensitive measure of how much nitrogen dioxide is present.

It’s the basis for a quantitative sensor for the unhealthy gas, and because graphene can be made inexpensively, it has the potential for widespread use in occupational and household settings. Gomez is working closely with doctoral candidate Shamaita Shithi Shetu to help characterize graphene samples modified in different ways to assess their utility in detecting nitrogen dioxide.

Gomez thinks that collecting exposure data on gases like nitrogen dioxide is going to become very prevalent in coming years. She’s not the only one – a technology giant appears to think so, too.

“Google just bought this company, Nest, which is focused on sensors in houses,” she says. “We have fire alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and other sensors in our households. NO2 is something we need to know more about, and a device to measure it does exist, but the fact that we can use graphene will make measuring it a lot less expensive.”

Gomez plans to get a doctoral degree in electrical engineering so she can pursue a research career in semiconductors. Her undergraduate experience at USC is providing her the resources and opportunities to make that happen.

“The electrical engineering department here is really good,” she says, “and they’re always encouraging you to get more involved and learn more outside of the classroom.

“Especially in terms of research, I always feel like USC professors are trying to approach students – my mentor was actually the one who approached me about the research. I feel like they’ve given me as much as they could, and then it was up to me whether I wanted to get involved or not.”

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