Traveling oceans to discover water purification techniques


For many college students summer is a time for relaxation, part-time jobs, and internship experiences, but for chemical engineering senior, Adam Uliana, the summer of 2016 was filled with international travel ventures and research studies aimed to advance water purification techniques around the globe.

Uliana spent his spring and summer months as a participant in EuroScholars, a program designed to provide motivated undergraduate students from the United States and Canada with international research opportunities. As a EuroScholar, Uliana spent several months at KU Leuven in Leuven, Belgium, where he worked with students and researchers from around the world to discover new water treatment methods aimed to protect the environment against emerging chemical containments. 

“I never thought that studying abroad would be something I would do. It seemed a little out of my comfort zone—but I am so glad that I did,” said Uliana. “As an aspiring chemical engineer, I feel the need and desire to help protect our environment. There is often a misconception that individuals in the chemical industry only contribute to the world’s mounting pollution challenges rather than offering solutions to solve them. My personal goal is to correct those mistakes and change the conversation.”

At KU Leuven, Uliana collaborated with nearly 20 researchers hailing from virtually every continent. He conducted research aimed to innovate new membranes using nanomaterials to enhance water purification. Throughout the summer, his work was highly revered, being published in multiple scholarly journals. As the only native English speaker in the group, Uliana played an exceptionally important role, as he was charged with much of the writing and editing.

“English was the common language spoken among the group, but I was the only person to speak it natively. In addition to the research work, there was also a lot of learning how to communicate with individuals from different languages and cultures,” recalled Uliana.

As if the experience at KU Leuven was not remarkable enough for the young researcher, Uliana was presented with a second research opportunity in May. With a grant provided by the Materials Research Institute at Penn State, Uliana and several Penn State researchers were afforded the opportunity to travel to Kigali, Rwanda, to investigate new methods of sanitizing wastewater.

Uliana, along with Stephanie Butler Velegol, undergraduate program coordinator and instructor in environmental engineering; Mike Erdman, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development and instructor in engineering science and mechanics; and Emma Clement, undergraduate researcher in civil engineering, spent one week in the African city flocculating solid contaminants in wastewater to create sanitized water and produce new fuel sources.

“Our research work in Rwanda was a very eye-opening experience. They didn’t have clean running water available so the work processes were much different than what I have experienced in the past. It made me realize how privileged we are in that regard,” said Uliana 

Before heading back to Happy Valley to begin his senior year, Uliana was able to enjoy some personal travel time as well. He visited over half a dozen European countries and spent time hiking, sightseeing, and enjoying new experiences. “Not too bad for someone who, at the beginning of the year, had never traveled outside of the country,” he joked.

Uliana’s plans for the future include earning a Ph.D. and continuing work in water purification and environmental remediation, preferably in a research or academic setting. He is hopeful that he will stay in contact with his international peers and collaborators and one day return to the sites that have inspired his career path.

“One thing that really surprised me, and that I’ve learned constantly throughout my international research work, is that people around the globe really aren’t that different,” Uliana said. “We all have important things that unite us such as jokes, stories, and family—those similarities really help build trust and friendships and, in my opinion, that’s where real collaboration is born.”


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Mindy Krause

Adam Uliana works in the lab

Adam Uliana conducts water purification research at KU Leuven in Leuven, Belgium. As a EuroScholar, Uliana worked with over 20 researchers from around the globe to engineering new water-cleansing membranes using nanomaterials.

photo of Moringa Seeds
Harvested Moringa oleifera seeds in Kigali, Rwanda. Uliana and his research team at Penn State have applied these seeds as a sustainable method for water purification in developing regions.

“There is often a misconception that individuals in the chemical industry only contribute to the world’s mounting pollution challenges rather than offering solutions to solve them. My personal goal is to correct those mistakes and change the conversation.”
—Adam Uliana



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