Kelli McCourt was an undergraduate at the University of Florida when she began helping develop low-cost sensors designed to detect mercury in water, an interdisciplinary project that was motivated by pollution in Colombia’s rural mining communities.
Many projects fall by the wayside after undergraduates receive their bachelor’s degrees, but not for Kelli. She is continuing her sensor work as a Ph.D. student in biosystems engineering in Clemson University’s Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences.
Kelli has backing from one of the nation’s most prestigious programs– a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
“I have three years of funding, so I feel secure,” she said. “If I want to write a grant or work with my advisor, I can focus on my project instead of having to fund myself.”
Kelli was drawn to Clemson for its commitment to environmental sustainability, and she is conducting her research under the guidance of Dr. Diana Vanegas.
They have been collaborating with partners at Universidad del Valle in Colombia, including Dr. Irene Vélez-Torres, a social scientist who has worked to identify the mining communities’ needs.
Taking direction from the communities helped attract Kelli to the project. She knew the research was needed and would be used.
“I could do something with a purpose,” she said.
Kelli started at Clemson in January 2020, just two months before COVID-19 shook the world. She said that Dr. Vanegas has been supportive through the pandemic, allowing her to take time when she needed it.
While at Clemson, Kelli has also become interested in empowering women. It’s a priority in her lab group, where the lead faculty member is a woman, and many of the students are women, she said.
“That’s something I’ve talked to my advisor about a lot,” she said. “If I become a professor, how can I recruit more students into engineering?”
After earning her doctorate, Kelli plans to continue her research at a national laboratory or as a professor in academia.
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