Undergraduate research co-ops inspire environmental engineer

Megan Naber wants to improve future practices in the agriculture industry

Megan Naber hopes to put her engineering degree to good use by finding new ways to reduce the environmental problems that arise from the agriculture industry.

Naber, an environmental engineering student at the University of Cincinnati, is motivated by her passion for the natural world and her experiences as an undergraduate researcher.

Naber is simultaneously working on two degrees as part of the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science ACCEND accelerated degree program. She will graduate this spring with her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering and in December she will complete her master of science in the same field. 

Megan Naber holding a turtle outside

Megan Naber gained hands-on experience as a co-op at Greenacres Foundation, a nonprofit in the Cincinnati area. Photos/provided.

She spent her early years living in upstate New York on a lot of land before her family later moved to Cincinnati. Those early experiences helped Naber develop a lifelong appreciation for nature — and a desire to protect it. She was drawn to classes in math and science and loved high school physics, environmental science and engineering classes. Majoring in environmental engineering seemed like the perfect fit.

“I learned how engineering really is problem solving and ingenuity and taking these issues that we are seeing in the world around us and then figuring out how to create solutions,” Naber said. 

Naber was drawn to UC because of the dual-degree ACCEND opportunity as well as the cooperative education (co-op) program. At UC, co-op is integrated into the engineering curriculum and gives students paid, real-world work experience. Naber also comes from a family of Bearcat fans and grew up going to UC football games. 

“I always joke that I was born to be a Bearcat,” Naber said. “I’ve always felt like this place is home. I love that we are a larger research university with a ton of opportunities, but still with a small campus feeling.”

Her first two co-op experiences in environmental health and safety at GE Aviation in Florida and New York gave Naber the opportunity to work in industry. She focused on environmental compliance in the manufacturing of aviation electronics. 

Inspired by her professors’ research work, Naber decided to shift gears for her next co-op. She worked at the Greenacres Foundation, a nonprofit located in Indian Hill near Cincinnati that includes a 600-acre property focused on education, research and conservation. It includes streams, forest and a working farm.

“I did ecological and agricultural research with Greenacres,” Naber said. “I wanted to work with them specifically because I’m interested in bettering the industrial agriculture industry.”

While working at Greenacres, Naber gained hands-on experience and learned more about agricultural processes. She worked on various projects ranging from automating their data inventory process to studying the impact of cattle on the land. She was particularly interested to learn how the practice of regenerative agriculture could actually provide benefit instead of detriment to the environment.

Megan Naber holding lab devices in a lab

Megan Naber worked on various research projects in Associate Professor David Wendell's lab, including detecting COVID-19 in dorm wastewater to prevent outbreaks. Photo/Provided

Two elective graduate-level courses — Applied Biology for Engineers and Microbiology for Engineers — solidified Naber’s interest in incorporating biology into her engineering career. Inspired by these classes, both taught by David Wendell, associate professor of environmental engineering, Naber asked Wendell about possible research opportunities in his microbiological engineering lab. She worked as a co-op in the lab and still works there part-time as a research assistant while taking classes. 

Wendell’s lab has been running coronavirus testing of dorm wastewater during the pandemic and Naber has been instrumental in the effort. They successfully detected the virus in wastewater which then helped identify a positive student in the dorm. The virus that causes COVID-19 can be detected in wastewater before people are infectious. 

“I love being able to be part of something like this because it’s so important right now,” Naber said. 

Naber also participated in a research project in Wendell’s lab for the Ohio Department of Transportation. The research team developed a process to detect the DNA of endangered hellbender salamanders in water. The current process requires surveyors to go into streams to look for the salamanders or their habitats, which is expensive and disruptive to the natural environment. 

Outside of classes, co-ops and her research work, Naber is involved in campus activities including CEAS Ambassadors — she’s president of the group this year — sharing her experience and giving tours to prospective UC engineering students and their families. She’s also president of the Society of Environmental Engineers and tutors local Cincinnati K-12 students as part of Bearcat Buddies. 

Naber wants to begin working on a Ph.D. after she completes her master’s degree this winter. She’s interested in potentially pursuing a future career that was inspired, in part, by her time at Greenacres. 

“While working at Greenacres, I learned a lot about soil quality, soil health and the microbiome that exists in healthy soil and how that impacts crop growth when you have that established microbiome,” Naber said. 

A healthy microbiome in the soil could be utilized to eliminate or reduce the amount of fertilizer needed, which would stop those chemicals from entering and contaminating waterways and water systems. 

“My long-term goal in my career is to help establish a way that agriculture can utilize those microbiomes in a large industrialized setting,” Naber said. “They wouldn’t have to use as much fertilizer, it makes the water quality a lot better and it’s overall better for the environment.”

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