2022 Student Research Days Spotlights: Monday

This is a series highlighting undergraduate and graduate students who are participating in the Student Research Days poster sessions April 11-12.  

Undergraduate: Johnathon Cerny 

Major: junior in mechanical engineering with a minor in robotics and mathematics 
Project: alternative rover locomotion 

Johnathon Cerny got hooked on robotics in high school and now is majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in robotics and mathematics. 

The junior’s project, Alternative Rover Locomotion, was an entry in NASA’s Big Idea Challenge, which encouraged students to come up with different ways other than wheels to mobilize lunar vehicles. His team came up with the idea of rover that moved via a set of spider-like legs that could traverse caves or tunnels. 

Their design, which they dubbed David and Goliath, included a platform that would serve as the mothership for the tether-attached rover. The legs would be capable of rotating in multiple configurations, allowing the rover to move in many ways, including even walking on its “elbows” like a seal.  

“It was amazing to get to practice engineering skills that I developed in classes,” said Cerny, who hopes for a career in space robotics.  

He and his team even went above and beyond the NASA contest’s requirements and built a prototype of one of the rover’s legs. 

Although their design didn’t win NASA’s contest, he and a team did win a design challenge sponsored by Honeybee Robotics last year.  

Graduate: Lisbeth Vallecilla Yepez 

Major: doctoral student in biological engineering 
Project: producing succinic acid with microbial fermentation of corn fiber 

Succinic acid is a key chemical used in the food, agricultural, pharmaceutical and polymer industries. Most current methods to produce the acid use petroleum, which can be harmful to the environment. Lisbeth Vallecilla Yepez seeks to produce it through microbial fermentation of corn fiber. 

Yepez has come up with a biofilm reactor to product succinic acid with corn fiber. 

“This process could promote sustainability of corn ethanol plants, the agricultural corn industry and rural economy,” she said. “My process is desirable because of its focus on production alternatives that utilize renewable resources such as corn fiber and mitigate harmful greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide which is consumed during succinic acid fermentation.” 

Yepez received her bachelor’s in chemical engineering in her native Colombia and followed with a master’s in food science and technology, now seeking a doctorate in biological engineering. 

“I would like to continue working in this area. This area is growing and I want to be part of sustainability, the green technology,” she said. “My biggest passion is that technologies can be clean and safe; generate less waste and use less water and energy.”