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UMaine Today Magazine

Student Focus

Robert Fisher
Robert Fisher

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Robert "Fish" Fisher and his teammates took their alternative energy chemEcar all the way to national competition.

For University of Maine chemical engineering and business marketing major Robert Fisher, energy is a way of life.

Known as "Fish" to his friends and family (and even a few of his professors), the charismatic 27-year-old from Oak Harbor, Wash., injects a certain energy into everything that he does, including the recent regional and national ChemEcar competitions, sponsored by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AICE).

Fisher and his teammates pushed UMaine to the top in regional competition in April, securing first and second place with their two entries and edging out tough competition from teams representing some of the nation's most prestigious engineering programs, including MIT, Tufts, Clarkson and Cornell.

"It felt really good to beat out a lot of the big-name schools," says Fisher, who is wrapping up his four-year program this spring with the hope of pursuing his MBA at UMaine. "People don't realize how good the engineering programs are here."

The idea behind AICE's ChemEcar competition is to inspire student teams to apply their knowledge of chemical engineering to create an alternative fuel vehicle capable of transporting a payload a specific distance. The design, construction and testing of the UMaine cars required hundreds of hours of work by the student team members, who collaborated under the guidance of chemical and biological engineering professor John Hwalek.

The two, six-person teams from regionals combined to make one in preparation for the national competition, selecting the more predictable hydrogen fuel cell car over an aluminum-air battery design. Fisher did much of the construction of the shoebox-size vehicle, from scaling down the gear ratio to cutting out the thin, polycarbonate wheels. After conducting dozens of tests to fine-tune the original design, the team headed to California for the prestigious national contest.

At the AICE national conference in San Francisco, the buzz among student competitors was that UMaine would be the team to beat, since Fisher and his teammates placed first in several categories in regionals. The UMaine car pushed its way to third place, powered by hard work, innovation and, of course, a little hydrogen.

However, building alternative-fuel vehicles isn't all that Fisher does. In addition to the academic demands of his double major, he also works as an engineering assistant in the Pulp and Paper Pilot Plant on campus.

"I do a little bit of everything over there," says Fisher, on his way to another engineering class. "Repair, design, test, construct new lab equipment. If it breaks, I fix it. I have really had a lot of great opportunities for hands-on projects. I'm going to have a lot in my tool box when I leave here."

Luke Powell
Luke Powell

Luke Powell is motivated by the challenges of working in the field to find patterns that help to explain why native birds are disappearing.

Scrambling across the slippery clay banks of the Madre de Dios, soaked to the skin by the unforgiving Peruvian rain, Luke Powell passed the time between semesters a little differently than most college students. Powell spent winter break on a research trek across the Peruvian Amazon a journey that began as a homework assignment.

"I was taking a one-credit course in professionalism in biology that was co-taught by Mike Kinnison and Rebecca Holberton. One of the assignments was to write a grant proposal," says Powell, who is pursuing his master's degree in the University of Maine's Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program. "I wanted to focus on a real-world question. I really got into it."

Powell's class project blossomed into a full-blown grant proposal, even though he had no specific audience in mind during its creation. He worked closely with Kinnison, Holberton, and mathematics and statistics professor Bill Halteman to fine-tune the proposal, and eventually decided to submit the work to the Amazon Conservation Association. The group liked what it saw, and Powell's class assignment suddenly developed into a fully funded research project in the jungles of Peru.

Working out of the Los Amigos Research Center near Puerto Maldonado, Powell traveled by boat to 15 sites where exposed clay deposits along remote riverbanks are frequented by parrots. Conflicting theories have been proposed to explain why the brilliantly colored parrots frequent these collpas, or clay licks, and consume the soil there.

Soil samples collected at the collpas and at similar control sites will be analyzed in the lab to determine how the composition of the soil might benefit the birds. Powell hopes his project will shed new light on the value of small-scale landscape features to wide-ranging species.

"My interests have always had a slant toward conservation, and I really love working in the field. This project is a great opportunity to answer an important question in the conservation of these birds," Powell says.

While macaws are an important part of Powell's research interests, his master's project focuses on the rusty blackbird, a small songbird whose range in Maine and elsewhere has been shrinking rapidly in the last 20 years.

UMaine Today Magazine
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