To build the next generation of sustainable forest bioproduct scientists, students at the University of Maine are conducting research in feedstock extraction/modification, process control and sensing, nanomaterial production and utilization, and new product development.
Some of those students are at the UMaine Forest Bioproducts Research Institute (FBRI), which became a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF REU) site in 2007.
Through the years, the nationally competitive funding supported the active engagement of 130 undergraduate students from Maine and beyond. As an REU site, FBRI provides 10 undergraduates with a 10-week summer research experience, each mentored by one of 12 faculty members from the University of Maine and the University of Concepción.
The program includes a forest products industry field trip and student presentations at a research conference, both in Chile.
UMaine has long had NSF REU sites in different disciplines, including sensor science and engineering, led by John Vetelino, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and now by Nuri Emanetoglu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Since 2019, UMaine also has been an REU biology site focused on One Health and the Environment (Accelerating New Environmental Workskills; REU ANEW), co-led by Anne Lichtenwalner, associate professor of animal and veterinary sciences, University of Maine Cooperative Extension veterinarian and director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory; and Kristina Cammen, assistant professor of marine mammal sciences.
Four students from the FBRI REU program reflected on their introduction to research. Elliott Sanders of Pocatello, Idaho; Matthew Kline of Monaca, Pennsylvania; and Amber Boutiette of Skowhegan, Maine are UMaine graduate students. Daniela Stuck of Concepción, Chile completed her master’s last August and is taking part in a biomass conversion internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“It was an opportunity to try conducting research at a major institution, meet like-minded individuals who were also interested in research and develop a sense for the role as a researcher for a career path,” says Sanders, who was in the 2014 REU cohort. “It was cool to meet people in similar areas of study and see how they approached different research topics.”
Sanders stayed at UMaine to earn a master’s degree in forest resources and now is in the Ph.D. program. He’s focusing on modifying the nano-scale interactions between wood and plastics in composite materials.
“I would like to develop the next iPod of wood plastic composite material products and find a way to provide it to the world at a fair price,” he says. “Part of doing that is understanding materials at the fundamental level, having a business sense and working past failure to make a dream come true.”
Stuck was in the 2016 REU cohort. Her master’s research in chemical engineering concentrated on catalytic conversion of biomass for biofuels upgrading and production.
She was introduced to research — and the United States — as an REU student.
“It was my first insight into research and into American culture,” Stuck says. “It motivated me to pursue grad school and move to a foreign country to develop my career.”
Kline and Boutiette were in the 2017 REU cohort.
For his Ph.D. research, Kline is developing a method to use chemical catalysts to turn woody debris like cellulose into transportation fuels such as diesel, kerosene and jet fuel. His goal is to create more efficient ways to produce cleaner renewable diesel fuel on a larger scale.
“When I was here as an REU, I saw the potential that there was in the project that I was working on, and I wanted to continue that,” Kline says. “It is really important to me as a scientist and a person to have a project that has real-world applicability that I know can make a difference in the world.”
Boutiette’s master’s research focuses on new applications of micropatterned papers and films in biotechnology. After graduation, she’ll continue her work in an industrial research environment in a small startup, where she can combine her bioengineering skills and entrepreneurial interests to lead a project and help grow a company.
“My REU experience was incredibly valuable in terms of both personal and professional development,” says Boutielle, who earned a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from UMaine.
“The program provides an opportunity to conduct research and run a project independently, including writing structured reports and sharing research findings in group meetings. It was a great opportunity to work with other students and solidify good research practices in an academic environment, and I feel that this has improved my confidence going into other research projects. As an added bonus to the program, there are organized recreational activities and adventures to explore different parts of Maine throughout the summer.
“UMaine has an incredibly diverse research environment that provides potential opportunities to work on all kinds of projects. I found that the atmosphere is very collaborative and friendly, and the campus is beautiful.”