Environmental health and sustainability students Gabriela Ornelas and Rowan Carroll have been selected as 2021 Association of Environmental Health Academic Programs (AEHAP) Student Research Competition winners. AEHAP sponsors the Student Research Competition to highlight important environmental health research being conducted by students enrolled in National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council (EHAC) accredited environmental health degree programs.

Ornelas and Carroll have worked with Dr. LC (Liangcheng) Yang to improve the N95 respirator filtrating ability by using a high-voltage recharger to increase electrostatic charges. N95 respirators are crucial in protecting frontline workers at high risk for coronavirus disease. This COVID-19 pandemic has caused a shortage of N95 respirators, resulting in users relying on decontamination methods to combat supply scarcity. Decontamination, environmental factors, and repeated use of the respirators can reduce the N95 performance. The electrostatic charge of the fibers within the N95 respirator allows the facepiece to achieve a high filtration level for viruses and small size particles. The use of electrostatic rechargers allows for increased protection, efficiency, and reuse of N95 respirators.

The competition experience is exciting. “When Gabriela and I first applied for the AEHAP competition, I was very excited about the possibility of being able to share our findings with the National Environmental Health Association. Once we heard the news that we had won the competition I could not be happier. When we were able to give our presentation, we also had the opportunity to hear the fellow winners present their research. This aspect of the competition is what I found to be the most rewarding about the experience in a whole,” said Rowan.

Students also gained research skills from working on the research projects. “Prior to completing this research, I was unaware of the amount of time, attention to detail needed, and to the challenges that come with conducting a project of this scope. I have learned that while the objective of the research stays consistent, the methods in which they are conducted are subjected to last minute changes and rely upon the innovation skills and problem-solving techniques of the researcher. The environment was challenging but it taught me to be more diligent, creative, curious, and flexible within the lab,” said Ornelas.