Stephanie Rich, a College of Engineering and University Honors College senior in environmental engineering, was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to spend almost a year in Germany to research groundwater contamination.
The prestigious Fulbright Program was created in 1946 by Senator J. William Fulbright to promote international understanding through educational exchanges. Rich is the first student from Oregon State’s School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering to be honored with a Fulbright scholarship. Because of the timing of her birth, Rich was a year younger than most of her peers at Roseburg High School, but her age — and the fact that she had studied the German language for four years — made her eligible for the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. The exchange is jointly funded by the German Bundestag and the U.S. Congress and is overseen in the U.S. by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The international exchange opportunity enabled Rich to spend a year in Hamburg after graduating from high school. In Germany, she played trombone in the jazz band and studied math, Shakespeare, and German literature.
“I grew a lot that year,” she recalls. “I had a really supportive host family and a really solid group of friends.”
Returning to Oregon, Rich enrolled at Oregon State University as an undecided major, but soon became interested in the global issue of groundwater contamination. She learned that one particular group of compounds — chlorinated solvents found in dry cleaning fluids and degreasers — has been dumped onto the ground for decades and has spread through groundwater supplies. The problem is particularly bad in unregulated industrial zones.
After an undecided first term, she committed to pursuing an engineering degree. Under the guidance of Lewis Semprini, she studied bioremediation, in which microbes are used to digest the toxic chemicals and convert them into harmless compounds. Her performance in classes qualified her to become a participant in the Pete and Rosalie Johnson Internship Program during the summers of her freshman and sophomore years. The Johnson internship program gives undergraduates the opportunity to gain research experience early to jump-start their professional development.
Rich’s research, which was funded through Semprini’s grant from the U.S. Dept. of Defense, addressed the use of aerobic mycobacterium to attack a plume of solvents spreading under Fort Carson, Colorado.
“The Johnson internship program…gave me the chance to practice presenting research in a professional manner,” said Rich.
When Semprini took a sabbatical to spend time at Tubingen University in Bavaria, he gave a talk at the nearby Karlsruhe Instituted of Technology and learned that the Water Technology Center there was doing research similar to Rich’s. Semprini and Rich agreed that participating in these German research efforts would be the logical next step for her. Rich set her sights on a Fulbright scholarship to carry her back to Germany and continue her work.
Rich graduates from Oregon State in June. In September, she will join the researchers in Karlsruhe until July 2016.
Receiving the Fulbright bodes well for her future career.
“A lot of things changed when I went to Germany for my extra year,” she said. “The Fulbright will catapult me to other opportunities. I know I want to continue to do research and go to graduate school someday, but whether it be in Germany or the U.S., I don't know. I want to keep my possibilities open.”
Semprini is proud that his student has met with such success. “Stephanie will be a very good ambassador,” he said. “That is part of what the Fulbright is about — better communication between countries and peoples.”
— Warren Volkmann