UAH undergraduate gains valuable hands-on experience through summer research program


As a participant in UAH’s Research & Creative Experience for Undergraduates program, senior civil engineering major Dominic Hanna got hands-on research experience under the supervision of assistant professor of civil engineering Dr. Hongyu Zhou.

Michael Mercier | UAH

The islands of the Bahamas are well known for their sandy beaches and laid-back atmosphere. They are less well known for their architecture and infrastructure. That's something Dominic Hanna, a senior civil engineering major at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), is hoping to change when he one day returns to his homeland. "The U.S. is more developed, so I want to spend a good bit of time here to get experience," he says. "There's a lot I can learn to make life easier for people in the Bahamas and improve the way they live."

This summer, Hanna came one step closer to his goal when he was selected to participate in the university's Research & Creative Experience for Undergraduates (RCEU) program. Designed to expand hands-on research opportunities to undergraduates, RCEU allows students to take part in ongoing research projects under the supervision of a faculty member or researcher. The work hours correspond to a full-time job for a period of 10 to 12 weeks, in return for which the student receives a modest stipend.

"The RCEU program is open to students from every major at UAH, and the emphasis is definitely on experience as students work closely with our top faculty and professional researchers in our independent research centers," says Dave Cook, student research coordinator. "In addition to their research project, students also attend six professional development workshops that cover subjects such as research ethics, information literacy, self-promotion, preparing for graduate school and presenting their work."

Dr. Zhou gave me a chance to think about the process, make mistakes, and then try again.

Dominic Hanna
UAH student

It's also a great way to build on - and branch out from - classroom learning, adds Dr. Bernhard Vogler, associate professor of chemistry and the program's director. "It allows students to gain experience in a completely different setting," he says. "They get to work with instruments and methods that are not available to everyone and make new observations when it comes to repeated tasks. Ideally, this will then motivate them to explore new avenues both academically and professionally."

Hanna actually had several engineering projects to choose from, but opted to apply to Dr. Hongyu Zhou's. A longtime advocate of sustainability, Dr. Zhou was interested in the feasibility of using coir - the natural fibers extracted from coconut husk - as an alternative to synthetic fibers in civil structural applications. "It was the most interesting to me," says Hanna. "Anything to do with structures is cool, and if we can find more environmentally friendly ways to reinforce them, then why not?"

He was joined on the project by civil engineering graduate student Adam Brooks, and over the course of the summer, the pair worked with Dr. Zhou to come up with a combination of materials that would not only include coir but also be capable of outperforming more traditional construction materials like plywood in withstanding damage. "First we brainstormed ideas," says Hanna. "Then we built specimens that we could test."

They ultimately decided on a combination of coir and synthetic fiber. "Going forward we want to see if we can make it totally renewable," says Hanna, "but a mixture of renewable and synthetic constituents may tackle the inherent durability issues with most natural materials." To facilitate benchmark testing, they applied it to a 16-inch by 16-inch wood frame that was then cured with epoxy resin using a vacuum-assist process.

dominic-hanna group

Hanna, Dr. Zhou, and civil engineering graduate student Adam Brooks spent the summer researching how to use coconut coir to reinforce composite materials.

Michael Mercier | UAH

The resulting panel, which was subjected to conditions simulating an earthquake to determine its shear strength, proved a success in more ways than one. First, says Dr. Zhou, "it was much stronger than plywood construction." Its design also eliminated the need for fasteners, which are often the primary point of failure. "We cast the sheathing material with the structural frame so it was a monolithic piece - seamless and airtight. That increases structural integrity and reduces thermal bridging."

Of course, it's a long way from a 16 x 16 panel to a whole building, so the next phase - "stepping up into full-size, large-scale testing," says Dr. Zhou - is already underway. Hanna will still be there to help; he was hired as a student specialist for the fall semester. But the RCEU portion of his participation has now come to an end. And this Friday, he will present his experiences along with the other program participants from 2 to 4 p.m. in room 301 of the Shelby Science Center.

"I would definitely recommend it," he says. "Dr. Zhou gave me a chance to think about the process, make mistakes, and then try again." It's an opportunity he didn't think he'd have as an undergraduate, and one that he now feels might benefit him going forward. "Before I was thinking, I'm just going to go out and make money after graduation," says Hanna. "But with this, I got to apply concepts learned in the classroom and work with my hands a lot. I also got a little experience with what graduate school may be like, and I'm thinking about giving it a shot!"

While that may mean postponing his return to the Bahamas, it also ensures that when he finally does go back, he'll be even more capable of making the improvements he envisions for his country.



Dr. Bernhard Vogler

David Cook