Engineering Students Receive Honorable Mention Recognition for National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program

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Monica Resto and Zac Rice

MACON – Mercer University School of Engineering students Mónica Resto and Zechariah Rice were recently awarded honorable mention recognition for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).

The program recruits high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers and supports their graduate research training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Launched in 1952 shortly after Congress established NSF, GRFP represents the nation’s oldest continuous investment in the U.S. STEM workforce.

This year, NSF received more than 12,000 applications, with 2,000 students receiving award offers and an additional 1,459 students receiving honorable mention recognition.

Resto, from Jacksonville, Florida, will graduate in December with her Master of Science in environmental engineering with a concentration in engineering for development. She previously earned her Bachelor of Science in civil engineering with undergraduate honors from the University of South Florida Honors College.

As a member of a research group led by Dr. Michael MacCarthy, assistant professor of environmental engineering, Resto is conducting field-based research in El Cercado, Dominican Republic, studying the water quality, groundwater flow and geology of the town’s spring water sources. Since the majority of people living there rely on mountain springs, the group’s research involves studying the water to assess drinking water source quality and developing solutions for protecting these sources from anthropogenic contamination due to human presence and agro-pastoral activities.

Additionally, she participated in several research projects as an undergraduate to assess improving the EMAS standard manual well-drilling technique for use at the USF GeoPark to determine cost and efficacy for use in academic engineering, geology and hydrogeology research projects and university teaching labs; investigate on-site and off-site alternatives for the the City of Plant City Water Reclamation Facility to receive and pretreat septage that could no longer be land-applied due to the passage of Florida Bill SB 550; and quantify commuter exposure to and intake of urban air pollutants for the City of Fort Collins to help urban planners, governments and individuals make informed decisions regarding community design and commute choices.

Resto plans to obtain a Ph.D. in environmental engineering and continue research related to improving individual and community environmental health in developing communities through improved access to water and protection of groundwater resources.

“The process of putting together my NSF GRFP application was a momentous turning point in my career as a graduate student in that it allowed me to develop my research project objectives and methods very clearly and write about them in a concise manner. Having been awarded the distinction of honorable mention has affirmed that my research is innovative, important and has broad impacts which could help to improve the environmental health of millions worldwide. This recognition has further increased my motivation to continue my research with the utmost concentration and dedication and to establish a career helping people in mountainous developing communities improve their environmental health by improving the quality of their drinking water,” said Resto.

“I would like to acknowledge my research and academic adviser, Dr. Michael MacCarthy, for his continued mentorship and for his instrumental support of my research and career goals. I would also like to acknowledge Dr. John Cherry, a leading hydrogeology expert at the University of Guelph in Canada, for his collaboration in the development of my research project and the knowledge that he has shared with me throughout the planning and collection of data in the Dominican Republic.”

Resto is Mercer’s first Engineering for Development Fellow and the only graduate assistant in that program. She has been active in Mercer On Mission, as well as Mercer Firsts, where she mentors a first-year, first-generation Mercer student. Her interests include bouldering, hiking, yoga and spending time with her dog, Bandit.

Rice, from Newberry, Florida, will graduate in May with his Bachelor of Science in Engineering with specializations in electrical and computer engineering. He also has minors in physics, mathematics and religion.

A former offensive lineman on the Mercer football team, he became the first and only NCAA football player to win the Goldwater Scholarship in 2016. In 2017, he participated in the DAAD RISE research internship program in Germany. He was also the University’s second-ever Marshall Scholarship finalist.

Rice works in the lab of Dr. Makhin Thitsa, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, where he has derived the nonlinear feedback control law for controlling a passively Q-switched pulsed laser system.

He also assisted Dr. MacCarthy as lead student researcher on energy poverty and joined Dr. MacCarthy and Resto on a trip to the Dominican Republic to investigate rural electrification.

Rice plans to obtain a master’s degree from Mercer and pursue a career as a software engineer.

“I’d like to thank, in particular, my mentor Dr. Makhin Thitsa for her endless patience and encouragement. I honestly don’t deserve half of the recognition that I’ve gotten between the Goldwater, Marshall and, now, this honor. She deserves the lion’s share of the praise for recognizing potential in me three years ago and pushing me to succeed,” said Rice. “I’d also like to thank Dr. Michael MacCarthy for being a role model in engineering for development and showing me the positive impact that research science can have. Most of all, I’d like to thank my wife, Mia, for being my best friend and helping me pursue my dreams. All praise, honor and glory to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. For more information, visit www.nsf.gov.