Beyond the 'Bubble'

Beth Miller  • Spring 2017 issue
Photo by Whitney Curtis
Photo by Whitney Curtis

While most students in the School of Engineering & Applied Science come from outside of the St. Louis area, becoming a part of the community through student groups, class projects, field trips and personal interests is high on their priority lists.

Here we highlight several Engineering students, from undergraduate to doctoral students, who are using what they are learning in the Engineering classrooms and laboratories to make their marks in St. Louis. These experiences have not only benefited the people, organizations and businesses they work with, but enriched the students’ lives as well.


In 2013, St. Louis native Abby Stylianou used her skills in computer vision to help the St. Louis community in a more unusual and unique way than she had while a student in the St. Louis Public Schools or as a WashU undergraduate. Stylianou, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies in 2012, helped the St. Louis Police Department and the city’s medical examiner locate the grave of an unidentified young girl who had been found murdered in 1983. The case has been unsolved and was moved to the “cold case” files until the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an article about volunteer efforts to find the young girl’s grave in the Washington Park Cemetery in north St. Louis County. Unfortunately, the cemetery had suffered from years of neglect and overgrowth, and some headstones had been damaged or moved, making the task an extraordinary challenge.

“I’ve always been interested in the intersection of technology and social justice and am excited to see how much research can be helpful to the community. When the grave case came up, it was an exciting opportunity to help out.”

— Abby Stylianou

Stylianou, who was then working as research staff in the lab of Robert Pless, then professor of computer science, used a tool the lab created called, which uses computer vision and algorithms to compare the locations of objects in photos of the grave site from 1983 to current satellite images to find the location where the grave was likely located. The day of the exhumation, Stylianou’s calculations were only 8 inches off from where the remains were found. Since then, the remains have been reburied in the Garden of Innocents at Calvary Cemetery while detectives continue to work on the case and identify the young girl.

“It was an amazing thing to be a part of, but it’s bittersweet,” she said. “We really want to know who she is and to be able to find her killer, and while that’s not solved yet, it’s nice to know they are making progress toward that, and she now has a better resting place.”

Since then, Stylianou has been working on another computer-vision-related project that has a worldwide impact. She and Pless have worked with a St. Louis entity, the Exchange Initiative, to develop an app, called TraffickCam, that allows anyone to upload a photo of their hotel room into a database that law enforcement officials can use to determine where victims are being trafficked.

“It’s very challenging,” Stylianou says. “To do this at a national scale requires new research into how to do image-based search efficiently and accurately.”

The technology behind TraffickCam is the body of Stylianou’s doctoral research.

Quincy Marting and Daozhou Liu talk with Niraj Patel, an engineer with the City of St. Louis Water Division at the Chain of Rocks Water Treatment Plant. Photo by Whitney Curtis

Master’s students Quincy Marting and Daozhou Liu are getting involved in St. Louis by working on a basic human need — clean drinking water. Marting, who is from Hawaii, and Liu, a native of China, are doing an independent study project with Ray Ehrhard, senior research associate in energy, environmental & chemical engineering, and the City of St. Louis Water Division at the Chain of Rocks Water Treatment Plant in north St. Louis. Opened in 1894, the plant is the largest treatment facility in St. Louis and is capable of pumping 450 million gallons of water a day.

The team is analyzing data from the water that comes in and is doing an energy audit to determine utility rates, how much water has been pumped and how much energy is being used and where. They will present the data to the plant’s engineers to determine how the plant can optimize its process to save money and energy. In addition, they are calculating what size of a backup generator the plant needs in case of a power failure.

Marting, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from WashU in 2016 and played on the football team, saw the project as a way to apply what he has learned as well as to give back to the community.

“I’ve been in St. Louis for four years, and I want to be able to do something for the city,” he said. “By doing this, I feel more a part of the city.” Marting, who is earning a master’s in mechanical engineering, said the project has taught him why St. Louis’ drinking water is often ranked as the best-tasting city water in the country.

“A lot of treatment plants will take out all of the minerals, but water tastes good because of its mineral content,” he said.

“There’s something special about the Missouri River water, and when the Missouri and the Mississippi meet at the Confluence, it brings those minerals in the two rivers together. They can keep a lot of minerals in the water because there are so many.”

— Quincy Marting

Liu, who is in his first year in the U.S. and is earning a master’s in energy, environmental & chemical engineering, said the project is teaching him how to solve problems.

“A project is a big challenge sometimes,” he said. “We should know how to start it and what the process will be, as well as how to express yourself and share what you found with the engineers.”

Clockwise from left: Carlos Gonzalez, Dawn Manske, Andrew McNeel, David Lie-Tjauw

Student group Engineering Test Kitchen was designed in 2013 to connect WashU Engineering students with businesses and organizations in St. Louis that needed help with a project but did not have staff to complete it. Last fall, a group of Engineering students worked with Made For Freedom, a local for-profit social enterprise founded by Dawn Manske that offers clothes, jewelry, bags and other products made by human trafficking survivors. The company offers jobs to women who are victims of and at-risk for human trafficking, and to date has provided more than 9,000 hours of employment for these women worldwide.

Carlos Gonzalez, a dual-degree student earning a bachelor’s in computer science, led a team of four students, including Andrew McNeel, a sophomore majoring in computer science with a second major in economics & strategy, and David Lie-Tjauw, a freshman majoring in computer science with a second major in financial engineering, to boost Made for Freedom’s search-engine optimization.

Gonzalez, a native of Mexico who earned his first bachelor’s degree in physics from the College of Wooster in Ohio, said the project appealed to him for several reasons.

“Part of it was the experience to get to apply things I’ve learned in class on a real-world project,” he said. “Also because it benefited the local community in a very direct way and solved a lot of problems they were having. Considering that Dawn’s project is entirely online, it has a very big impact.

“I would definitely like to work with other local companies and help them in one way or another. That’s what we should be doing — improving our communities.”

— Carlos Gonzalez

“Without ETK I wouldn’t have been able to make the connections I have and meet these people,” said Lie-Tjauw, who has both a Langsdorf Fellowship and a McKelvey Undergraduate Research Award. “I’m really thankful to the university and the donors for making my presence here possible. I’ve really been able to focus on ETK, doing incredible things and learning more about myself.”

Sean Fallon, right, who is majoring in chemical engineering with a second major in economics and strategy, was part of a student team that worked with Jenny Wendt, project manager for the City of University City, to implement the city’s Climate Action Plan.

Sean Fallon, a junior from Cincinnati, has taken advantage of numerous opportunities to get involved in the St. Louis community in his few years at WashU. From working on experiential learning projects with Engineering and the Olin Business School, to serving as a renewable energy intern with the university’s Office of Sustainability, Fallon’s out-of-the-classroom learning has spanned a number of fields.

Through the Sustainability Exchange practicum course in Engineering last fall, Fallon’s team, which included Quincy Marting, worked to implement University City’s Climate Action Plan and to reduce municipal greenhouse gas emissions. This included developing strategies to retrofit city streetlights with LED bulbs; to install solar panels on several city buildings, and to conduct a lighting audit for the Heman Park Community Center. These plans will not only help University City achieve its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, but also to generate significant savings from reduced energy costs, Fallon said.

Through Olin Business School’s Center for Experiential Learning (CEL), Fallon worked with the St. Patrick Center in St. Louis and helped with market research and a marketing strategy to bring in more donors and volunteers dedicated to ending homelessness. Additionally, Fallon took part in the CEL Practicum and worked with NVP Energy, a wastewater treatment company based in Galway, Ireland, for which Fallon helped design and implement a U.S. market entry strategy and traveled to Ireland to present his findings to NVP’s senior management.

“A practicum course is a great way to make a tangible impact in the lives of others, through the real-world application of skills we learn in class —no matter how varied those skills may be,” Fallon said. “It’s a really good way to give back to, and become more connected with, the surrounding community.”

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