Two Pocahontas County natives were among the 49 West Virginia University students selected to participate in the 19th annual Undergraduate Research Day at the State Capitol in Charleston, February 18.
Kayla Gibson, of Huntersville, and Catlyn Sparks, of Buckeye, who are both seniors at WVU, presented their research projects in the Capitol Rotunda.
Students, who participate in URDC, display their research posters in the rotunda and they discuss their findings with legislators.
Gibson will finish her dual major in civil engineering and mining engineering in May and chose to focus on the field of mining engineering for her research.
Titled “Rare Earth Mineral Recovery Using Food Waste-Produced Reagents,” the project is a collaboration with Emmy Muhoza and Hassan Amini, of Virginia Tech.
“The project is funded by the EPA P3 Student Design Competition program,” Gibson said. “Bastnaesite is a rare Earth element, and it is used in advanced technologies. The reason that I was studying bastnaesite is it is one of the primary REEs [Rare Earth Elements] that the United States holds.
“Currently, the United States is not producing any type of REEs, so we have a hundred percent net important reliance for meeting domestic needs,” she added.
Bastnaesite is one of the few primary sources of REEs in the United States, but recovery of the mineral is difficult, using costly chemicals. In her research, though, Gibson said it is possible to use food waste to recover bastnaesite and strip away what is not needed.
“Previous studies have shown that organic acids that come out of the fermentation of food waste can actually be implemented in the floatation which is a type of recovery,” she said. “Flotation of bastnaesite is to strip its gangue minerals – the minerals that you don’t want – away from the element. Whenever you implement food waste into the flotation feed, it’s actually been proven that the bastnaesite has a higher recovery than other gangue minerals.”
The URDC was not the first time Gibson presented her research. She presented it with her partners at the EPA competition, as well as at the Pittsburgh Coal Mining Institute of America’s competition, in which she received second place.
Gibson was well prepared for her presentation at the Capitol and was enthusiastic about the opportunity.
“I’m really excited to get to the Capitol,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a great opportunity. It’s definitely a different audience than what I’m used to speaking to, so it’s definitely great to get the word out to different types of people.
“My research is something that I take pride in, and I really enjoy doing it,” she continued. “It’s been a really great opportunity to work for the university and the team that I worked with – they’re supportive and great.”
Gibson initially attended WVU with the intention of pursuing a nursing degree, but she soon realized that was not the path for her. She researched biomedical engineering and discovered the dual degree program for civil and mining engineering.
“I thought it was a no brainer, and it’s definitely been a great decision,” she said.
That “great decision” has already paid off, because Gibson has a job waiting for her when she graduates in May.
“I accepted a job in Arlington – it’s with John Moriarty Associates,” she said. “It’s a Boston-based company but they have offices in D.C and Miami, so I actually accepted a position with them. They’re a construction company, so I went more with the civil route than the mining route.
“You never know,” she added. “I have so many options. I could make my way back around to the mining industry if I wanted to.”
Catlyn Sparks will graduate from WVU with a degree in dental hygiene. She worked with a partner – her roommate, Kandice Pruitt, of Panther – on her research project.
Titled “The Link Between Different Dental Products and Enamel Crystallization,” the project focuses on providing information about preventing costly and painful dental health issues.
“What really made me want to do the project that I did was just the lack of knowledge,” Sparks said. “People have a lack of knowledge on professional grade fluoride and how that can prevent restoration. Restorations are hundreds of dollars and fluorides are twenty dollars.
“So just the preventative aspect of fluoride and, even as professionals, we should encourage the use of them and prescribe them more so patients don’t get to the point where they need an eight hundred dollar root canal or filling,” she added.
Sparks said she was looking forward to presenting her project at the Capitol because the lawmakers are the ones who decide what kind of dental care the state receives.
“They actually put dental health in Medicaid and Medicare, and they’re thinking about taking that out of the funding for individuals,” she said. “That’s something that dental professionals fight on a daily basis, of just trying to get people to understand and let you know, oral health is just as important as your total health.
“It ties to so much,” she continued. “A lot of people don’t even realize it. Even just to make these delegates – because they’re the ones that help make laws – just to get them to understand that this is something you should keep funding for people is important.”
At this time, people get $1,000 toward dental health.
“We see so many patients right now who are taking advantage of that and once you take that away, there’s going to be fewer people that can come,” she said. “Prevention is key. We’re the only health field that is focused on prevention. We believe – if you take care of your teeth – then you’re not going to have any of these problems.”
Sparks has seen first hand how prevention is really key to dental health. Beginning at the end of her sophomore year at WVU, she was seeing patients during the summer. Her junior year, she saw two patients a week and by her senior year, she was seeing patients four times a week.
“We also do a rotation for seven to eight weeks in the summer between our junior and senior year where you’re actually out in a real office just practicing, doing your own thing,” she said. “It’s been nice to see what my life will be like outside of the school setting, and how fun it is for me to educate people.”
Sparks isn’t entering the workforce immediately after graduating in May. She has been admitted to the master’s program at West Liberty University, which she will attend online.
Gibson is the daughter of Duane and Sarah Gibson, of Huntersville and Sparks is the daughter of Timothy and Missi Sparks, of Buckeye.