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Ohio State sends first undergrads to work in CERN lab

August 19, 2016

Many countries around the world face serious water contamination issues in need of bright, new ideas to improve the quality of life and prevent diseases in these areas. Ohio State engineering student Amy Chiu reflects on how her trip to CERN, a research lab in Geneva, Switzerland, allowed her team to develop a prototype to provide clean water to urban India.

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After a long, 60-hour week in a lab with Nobel Peace Prize winners and the world’s most illustrious scientists, inspiration struck Amy Chiu as she looked at a teammate’s sketch on a whiteboard plastered with sticky notes.

As part of the Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) honors program, Chiu and 18 other Ohio State students traveled to the internationally acclaimed European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. They were competing in the final portion of the IBE Grand Challenge Based Innovation course. 

Team Purilite Ohio State's Amy Chiu (front left) poses with Team Purilite, her project team at CERN.

The Ohio State students, from the College of Engineering and Fisher College of Business, were the first undergraduates globally and the first students from the United States to work in CERN’s IdeaSquare innovation lab. Engaging with the world’s top scientists, the students were able to refine business and product solutions to pressing global issues, including access to clean water, electrification of rural health clinics, food safety and recycling.

Chiu, an industrial and systems engineering student, spent the past two years learning about product development, the business cycle and innovation in a classroom environment in Columbus, Ohio. In Geneva, she could apply that knowledge toward broadening humanity’s access to clean water and gain perspective on how innovation occurs in different cultures and environments that promote collaboration.

“(I never thought) that I would ever work with some of the top scientists in the world in an advanced research facility during my time in college, yet Ohio State put me in a position that allowed me to pursue these activities," Chiu says.

Innovation without borders

CERN is the birthplace of many of the world’s top innovations of the past 60 years, including the creation of the World Wide Web, the building of antimatter and the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. While at CERN, the students engaged regularly with Dr. Markus Nordberg, head of Resources Development at CERN and one of four individuals who managed the program responsible for identifying the Higgs boson.

“I was impressed with the level of collaboration and the knowledge these students brought with them into the lab,” Nordberg says. “Despite an aggressive two-week project deadline, they worked hard, asked smart questions and presented compelling solutions to various challenges facing nations around the world.”

That they were studying, prototyping and presenting in such a prestigious environment wasn’t lost on the students.

“Being at CERN helped me to see the root cause of problems and to leverage what is available to create a solution that can make our society a better place,” Chiu says. “Innovation is something that can occur at any time, and being able to identify potential problems allows the mind to remain open to development. Being in an environment that constantly encouraged me to think beyond conventional means allowed me to finally understand what innovation means.”

Created as Ohio State’s first interdisciplinary honors program, the four-year IBE program is designed to help students develop the ability to communicate across business and technical domains and enact an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving.

Michael Leiblein, academic director of the IBE Business program and Ohio State’s Center for Innovation Strategies, and Jim Sonnett, a former vice president at Battelle and lecturer at Fisher College of Business, co-taught the course in Columbus and accompanied the students to Switzerland.

“I believe we all came away from the experience with a better understanding of what it takes to succeed at one of the very best organizations in the world. I was incredibly proud of the way our IBE students collaborated to develop viable solutions to critical global challenges in an economically sustainable manner,” Leiblein says.

“We are grateful to our partners at CERN for this wonderful opportunity and look forward to engaging with them again as we work to create the next generation of business and engineering leaders.”

Working for clean water

Many countries face serious water contamination issues that have adverse effects on the quality of life and health for communities around the globe. When considering how to address the issue, Chiu and her team focused on India, where large amounts of water exist but are highly contaminated by infrastructure.

Water purification device One of the water-purification prototypes developed by Team Purilite at CERN.

A teammate’s sketch of a hydro wheel on a whiteboard led Chiu to wonder: Could a self-sustaining water purification machine provide clean water to citizens?

The students built two prototypes — one for the present and one for 24 years in the future. The former incorporated a water wheel, generator and UV light, while the 2040 model made use of dehumidifiers, a Dyson bladeless fan and a UV light.

“While it doesn’t directly impact those living in India right now, it has allowed us, as a team, to bring up the issue of clean water in India and show a potential approach that can inspire the works of others,” Chiu says.

“By creating study abroad and service learning volunteer trips and supporting student organizations, I believe Ohio State is showing students the importance of these issues and allowing them to make a difference.”

Chiu tries to focus her efforts on discovering different opportunities and seeing where they lead her. As a Ross Scholar in the College of Engineering, she is thankful for the funding she received from STEP as it allowed her to pursue new chances to discover her passions and make an impact without the financial burden.


#OSUStories are about the distinct educational experiences of Ohio State students.