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In My Own Words: Brian Li '20

By Brian Li '20

After years of being interested in the sciences, I cold-emailed a few professors in the area to work as their research intern, albeit all to no avail. Two dozen professors later, I was on the verge of giving up before I was introduced by my then-advisor Ms. Lily Wang to Jay N. Meegoda, Ph.D., P.E., professor and director of the Geotechnical Testing Laboratory at NJIT's Civil and Engineering Department. He was able to offer me a place working on one of his environmental engineering projects. Specifically, the project dealt with anaerobic digestion, a waste management process where microorganisms degrade organic substrates to produce fuel.

We typically think of research as people in lab coats futzing around with glassware. However, that is not often the case. I remember spending hours on end sitting in front my computer poring over literature and familiarizing myself with the underlying science of the project. Even more time is dedicated simply to waiting (an average experiment for our project takes two to three weeks to complete). Progress often comes at a glacial pace, disappointing results are very common—we always hear about the one success but pay no attention to the 99 failures that came beforehand.

By this past summer, I had been working with Professor Meegoda for over a year. Since starting to work on the project a year ago, our research group, comprised of both NJIT students and Pingry student researchers, already had some data on hand and we were gradually refining our approach to conducting experiments. During one of our daily meetings in August, Professor Meegoda floated the idea of publishing a paper before the summer's end. Since the data we had on file was not particularly compelling, he invited me to work with the other members of our research group to write a review paper to close out the summer research season. A review paper is written to present an overview of, in this case, recent research in the field of anaerobic digestion. I was taken aback. I had read many papers by that time but never thought of working on one myself.

Writing a review paper can be a daunting task. On top of finding and synthesizing published papers, there is also structuring the paper and organizing the information. I was intimidated by the workload. Nonetheless, the research group and I took about a month's worth of time writing up an initial draft together, followed by weeks of revision, before finally submitting a manuscript to The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The good news came early in the morning on October 7—the publisher had accepted our paper.

The paper could not have been possible without the help of my co-authors and the guidance and Professor Meegoda. In addition, Zotero, our reference manager, was an absolute godsend for helping us sift through 97 citations.

In retrospect, my view of research going in as a freshman was rather naïve. Results do not grow on trees, yet the harsh truth is that results are what research is quantified with. However, there is also plenty to be gained from the process itself. Working in a lab and undergoing the paper publication process has imparted valuable insights to the power of hard work and patience. Most importantly, it has allowed me to gain an appreciation of the theory and implications of the work. Little things, like good data points, grant funding, and papers are just incentives along the way to keep us moving.

During the school year, the project continues at NJIT and at Pingry, where we work under the guidance of Dr. Carl Sparrow, an adjunct research mentor who works with the Independent Research Teams (IRT) in the Upper School. Our project is proud to be one of several research teams in Pingry's IRT program, and we are looking forward to beginning our next series of experiments in the very near future (examining the performance of methane digesters under different operating conditions).

Read Brian's paper in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer,