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MIT PhD students shed light on important water and food research

J-WAFS Fellows discuss their inspiration for pursuing challenges in water and food systems.
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Collage of screenshots from videos of Devashish Gokhale, Katharina Fransen, James Zhang, Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang, and Aditya Ghodgaonkar, with the J-WAFS logo in the bottom middle and the J-WAFS colors of green and blue as a border on the top and bottom.
2022 J-WAFS Fellows (top row, left to right) Devashish Gokhale, Katharina Fransen, and James Zhang; (bottom row, left to right) Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang and Aditya Ghodgaonkar.
Photos: Lillie Paquette

One glance at the news lately will reveal countless headlines on the dire state of global water and food security. Pollution, supply chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine are all threatening water and food systems, compounding climate change impacts from heat waves, drought, floods, and wildfires.

Every year, MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) offers fellowships to outstanding MIT graduate students who are working on innovative ways to secure water and food supplies in light of these urgent worldwide threats. J-WAFS announced this year’s fellowship recipients last April. Aditya Ghodgaonkar and Devashish Gokhale were awarded Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowships for Water Solutions, which are made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family. James Zhang, Katharina Fransen, and Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang were awarded J-WAFS Fellowships for Water and Food Solutions. The J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded in part by J-WAFS Research Affiliate companies: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

The five fellows were each awarded a stipend and full tuition for one semester. They also benefit from mentorship, networking connections, and opportunities to showcase their research.

“This year’s cohort of J-WAFS fellows show an indefatigable drive to explore, create, and push back boundaries,” says John H. Lienhard, director of J-WAFS. “Their passion and determination to create positive change for humanity are evident in these unique video portraits, which describe their solutions-oriented research in water and food,” Lienhard adds.

J-WAFS funder Community Jameel recently commissioned video portraitures of each student that highlight their work and their inspiration to solve challenges in water and food. More about each J-WAFS fellow and their research follows.

Katharina Fransen

In Professor Bradley Olsen’s lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Katharina Fransen works to develop biologically-based, biodegradable plastics which can be used for food packing that won’t pollute the environment. Fransen, a third-year PhD student, is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from waste generated by the materials that are essential to connecting them to the global food supply. “We can't ensure that all of our plastic waste gets recycled or reused, and so we want to make sure that if it does escape into the environment it can degrade, and that's kind of where a lot of my research really comes in,” says Fransen. Most of her work involves creating polymers, or “really long chains of chemicals,” kind of like the paper rings a lot of us looped into chains as kids, Fransen explains. The polymers are optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste. Fransen says she finds the work “really interesting from the scientific perspective as well as from the idea that [she’s] going to make the world a little better with these new materials.” She adds, “I think it is both really fulfilling and really exciting and engaging.”

Aditya Ghodgaonkar

“When I went to Kenya this past spring break, I had an opportunity to meet a lot of farmers and talk to them about what kind of maintenance issues they face,” says Aditya Ghodgaonkar, PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Ghodgaonkar works with Associate Professor Amos Winter in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, where he designs hydraulic components for drip irrigation systems to make them water-efficient, off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. On his trip to Kenya, Ghodgaonkar gained firsthand knowledge from farmers about a common problem they encounter: clogging of drip irrigation emitters. He learned that clogging can be an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. He decided to focus his attention on designing emitters that are resistant to clogging, testing with sand and passive hydrodynamic filtration back in the lab at MIT. “I got into this from an academic standpoint,” says Ghodgaonkar. “It is only once I started working on the emitters, spoke with industrial partners that make these emitters, spoke with farmers, that I really truly appreciated the impact of what we're doing.”

Devashish Gokhale

Devashish Gokhale is a PhD student advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stems from his childhood in Pune, India, where both flooding and drought can occur depending on the time of year. “I've had these experiences where there's been too much water and also too little water” he recalls. At MIT, Gokhale is developing cost-effective, sustainable, and reusable materials for water treatment with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and low-concentration pollutants like heavy metals. Specifically, he works on making and optimizing polymeric hydrogel microparticles that can absorb micropollutants. “I know how important it is to do something which is not just scientifically interesting, but something which is impactful in a real way,” says Gokhale. Before starting a research project he asks himself, “are people going to be able to afford this? Is it really going to reach the people who need it the most?” Adding these constraints in the beginning of the research process sometimes makes the problem more difficult to solve, but Gokhale notes that in the end, the solution is much more promising.

James Zhang

“We don't really think much about it, it's transparent, odorless, we just turn on our sink in many parts of the world and it just flows through,” says James Zhang when talking about water. Yet he notes that “many other parts of the world face water scarcity and this will only get worse due to global climate change.” A PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Zhang works in the Nano Engineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen. Zhang is working on a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light at different wavelengths interacts with liquids at the surface, particularly with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical and experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating water at high energy efficiencies. Zhang hopes that the technology can one day “produce lots of clean water for communities around the world that currently don't have access to fresh water,” and create a new appreciation for this common liquid that many of us might not think about on a day-to-day basis.

Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang

“Around the world there are about 2 billion people currently suffering from micronutrient deficiency because they do not have access to very healthy, very fresh food,” says chemical engineering PhD candidate Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang. This fact led Zhang to develop a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. With her advisors, Professor Robert Langer and Research Scientist Ana Jaklenec, Zhang brings biomedical engineering approaches to global health issues. Zhang says that “one of the most serious problems is vitamin A deficiency, because vitamin A is not very stable.” She goes on to explain that although vitamin A is present in different vegetables, when the vegetables are cooked, vitamin A can easily degrade. Zhang helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under cooking and storage conditions. With this technology, vitamin A, for example, could be encapsulated and effectively stabilized under boiling water. The platform has also shown efficient release in a simulation of the stomach environment. Zhang says it is the “little, tiny steps every day that are pushing us forward to the final impactful product.”

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