UMass Honors Student Works Against Quake Damage in China

In our continuing series that shows how honors students influence their universities and beyond, we include the following from UMass Amherst. The story shows the importance of undergraduate research programs, such as the research assistantships offered at UMass.

“The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was the deadliest earthquake to hit China since 1976. It had a magnitude of 7.9. On May 12, 2008, during the quake’s two-minute long main tremor, nearly 80% of the buildings in Wenchuan County were destroyed. Hardest hit were the poorer, rural villages where many of the buildings were constructed before the 1976 Tangshan earthquake when seismic design codes were introduced. Six months after the earthquake, the central government announced that it would spend $146.5 billion USD over a three-year period to rebuild the areas affected.

“Civil engineering major Zhiren Zhu ’13, who calls both Amherst and Beijing home, cites this earthquake as the primary motivation for pursuing his field of study. He recalls watching news reports and noticing that although thousands of school buildings and hospitals had collapsed, structurally strong government office buildings were left standing. He explains,”Strong structures can be created, but they were not affordable. Thus, I wished to create a smarter structural system that can be applied to every ordinary house around the world and save more lives from natural disasters.” He aspires to create safe, sustainable, and affordable structural systems built to withstand inevitable natural disasters.

“Noting the poor structural integrity of schools and hospitals and the severe geological and hydrological problems caused by construction of dams on the Yangtze River and the Yellow River, Zhiren says, “…society wants to see rapid development of infrastructures, [and] engineers often sacrifice safety and sustainability.” Structures are being built, he observes, but not necessarily designed. In the hope to someday address these problems and similar ones all over the world, Zhiren chose to attend UMass Amherst and enter Commonwealth Honors College.

“Although intrigued by structural engineering, Zhiren also has a genuine interest in the fields of environmental and water resources engineering and enthusiastically welcomes opportunities that require him to apply his knowledge to real-life situations. The chance to complete a Commonwealth Honors College Research Assistant Fellowship that combines his interests in engineering and the environment has truly been integrative, challenging, and rewarding for Zhiren.

“Attending a research university and completing a rigorous honors curriculum is not simply a résumé-builder for this ambitious student, passionate musician, and dedicated international student orientation leader. Having lived in Japan, Norway and China as well as the United States growing up, Zhiren was constantly adapting to new environments. Now, in his own way, Zhiren is contributing directly to the community where he lives and studies.

Zhiren applied for and was awarded a $1,000 Research Assistant Fellowship to study wastewater treatment under the guidance of Professor Chul Park for a project called, “The Development of New Wastewater Treatment Technology for Reduction of Sludge and Nutrients.” Zhiren is part of a research team that plans to present a pilot-scale demonstration of improved wastewater treatment technology to officials at the Amherst Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“Disposal of sludge generated during wastewater treatment most often occurs through incineration or ocean-dumping, methods which can lead to ocean water contamination, air pollution, and global warming. Zhiren Zhu and Professor Park agree that currently there are few alternatives for basic methods of sludge treatment. Together, they are developing a new process that has been shown to reduce sludge generation and remove nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

“Zhiren explains, ‘Since interactions between microorganisms are the most natural and sustainable means of nutrient removal, we would like to use algae instead of chemicals to achieve our goal” and believes that now is the time for “engineers to consciously emulate nature’s genius and treat nature as our mentor.’

“With growing global concerns over the impacts of climate change, environmental degradation, and resource competition, students like Zhiren Zhu advance basic infrastructures to improve the environment and life quality of human beings. He admits, ‘Civil engineers may not be able to create iPhones or rockets, but we can still influence people’s lives by providing better quality water, safer traffic systems, stronger buildings and a cleaner environment.’

“Zhiren’s parents are both university professors in China and he predicts that he will follow in their footsteps and become a professor himself someday. ‘I simply can’t imagine a life without school,’ he says. “It just feels perfect to learn something every day and get to understand the world better.’