REU: Sustainability of Horizontal Civil Networks in Rural Areas

Develop sustainable engineering solutions to infrastructure challenges in rural environments.
Pending funding approval

For information contact

Christine Wittich

Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

2019 Sustainability of Civil Infrastructures summer scholars.
2019 Sustainability of Civil Infrastructures summer scholars.

Who should apply

Related fields

  • Civil Engineering
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Chemistry
  • Earth Sciences

This program encourages applications from students at all undergraduate levels including freshman and sophomores.


Participation in the Nebraska Summer Research Program is limited to students who meet the following criteria:
  • U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident
  • Current undergraduate with at least one semester of coursework remaining before obtaining a bachelor's degree

See Eligibility for more information.

How to apply

Follow the application steps to submit the following materials.

About the Program

Rural areas, which contain approximately 20% of the US population and over 90% of the land area in the United States, are fundamental to human well-being in both rural and urban areas. Rural areas provide resources such as the infrastructure for U.S. food and bioenergy production as well as the transportation infrastructure from inland urban centers to ports. Rural areas are characterized by agricultural- and natural resource-based economics, stable or declining populations with low population densities, and “farm-to-market” localized transportation patterns, and these characteristics necessitate new technologies and approaches for civil infrastructure. Despite the differences between rural and urban regions, little attention is paid to the unique challenges and opportunities for sustainability in rural areas.

In this ten-week summer research program, students will work with faculty in the Department of Civil Engineering to conduct research and will contribute new knowledge to improve our understanding of how best to address the challenges facing rural environments.  Through collaboration with industry partners, students will also be given opportunities to learn how infrastructure challenges are currently being addressed by the civil engineering industry. In addition, this program offers a series of communication development opportunities including preparation of a conference paper, informal presentations to their peers, formal poster presentations, and outreach to high school students.


  • Competitive stipend: $5,000
  • Suite-style room and meal plan
  • Travel expenses to and from Lincoln
  • Campus parking and/or bus pass
  • Full access to the Campus Recreation Center and campus library system
  • Wireless internet access

Learn more about academic and financial benefits.


  • Department seminars and presentations
  • Professional development workshops (e.g., applying to graduate school, taking the GRE)
  • Welcome picnic
  • Day trip to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo
  • Outdoor adventures
  • Research symposium

Mentors and Projects

Dr. Shannon Bartelt-Hunt Civil and Environmental Engineering: Environmental Engineering

Microplastics Occurrence in Agricultural Runoff

Significance: The occurrence of microplastics, an emerging contaminant in agricultural systems, is very poorly characterized. Plastics are a frequently observed component of marine debris and there is growing concern about microplastic ecotoxicity, and the impacts of sorbed hazardous organic contaminants, heavy metals and biofilms on microplastic surfaces. However, microplastics are increasingly being found in terrestrial freshwater environments in addition to marine systems. In wastewater treatment plants, microplastics are often associated with biosolids, which are typically applied to cropland as a fertilizer. To date, there is little information about the transport of microplastics from fields with land applied biosolids to freshwater or infiltration into agricultural soil. The primary research questions to be addressed in this project: (1) are microplastics transported in runoff from fields with land applied biosolids? and (2) are there specific microplastic morphologies (shapes) that are most commonly transported?

Dr. Jongwan Eun Civil and Environmental Engineering: Geotechnical Engineering

Characterization of Gas Production and Mechanical Properties of Solid Waste in Rural Areas

Significance: Landfills are typically sited in rural areas with low population densities. Gas production and leachate can be particularly concerning in rural areas due to the reliance upon groundwater. Therefore, accurate predictions of landfill gas (LFG) emissions and waste settlement are crucial for the prevention of greenhouse gas emissions and for sustainable management of a municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill. The objective of this research is to characterize gas production and leachate of solid waste by using a direct injection logger including a piezocone penetration test (PCPT) with a hydraulic profiling tool (HPT) and membrane interface probe (MIP). This project aims to evaluate the properties of landfills and determine best practices for sustainable management of gas production. The primary research questions to be answered in this project are: 1) Can gas production be accurately measured in landfills using an in situ method? and 2) What are the in situ mechanical properties of solid waste?

Dr. Xu Li Civil and Environmental Engineering: Environmental Engineering

Limiting the transport of antimicrobials and antimicrobial resistance genes in the environment

Significance: The extensive use of antimicrobials (AMs) in the livestock industry for animal disease treatment/prevention and growth promotion has promoted the emergence of antimicrobial resistant bacteria. Antimicrobial resistance genes (AMR genes) - the genetic materials that render resistance mechanisms to bacteria - can proliferate among the bacteria in the environment. If human pathogens acquire AMR genes and become antimicrobial resistant, antibiotic treatment will lose its effectiveness in treating infected individuals. The goal of this research project is to understand the fate and transport of AMs and AMR genes in the agricultural environment and develop best management practices (BMPs) to control their proliferation.

Dr. Yusong Li Civil and Environmental Engineering: Water Resources Engineering

Evaluating and Predicting Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution under a Changing Climate

Significance: Agricultural nonpoint source pollution (NPS) is a significant contributor to the contamination of surface water and groundwater resources. With increasing demands on global agricultural production and the need to maintain sustainable water resources in the future, it is crucial to identify areas with high agricultural NPS potentials. Understanding the spatial distribution of NPS pollution is essential for the design of mitigation strategies. This project will quantify and predict the spatial distribution of agricultural NPS risks in the United States under historical and future climate scenarios. A transformed agricultural nonpoint pollution potential index (T-APPI) will be calculated to quantify the NPS risks.

Dr. Daniel Linzell Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Smart Big Data Pipeline for Aging Rural Transportation Infrastructure

Significance: While transportation infrastructure around the nation is in poor health, rural areas are acutely affected by this crisis due to their low population density and distance from urban centers. More specifically, Nebraska has the 7th highest percentage of structurally deficient rural bridges in the U.S. With 60% of those bridges constructed between the 1930s and 1960s, the aging infrastructure must receive periodic inspections to assess potential deficiencies. This project strives to develop a reference smart big data pipeline for aging rural bridges, which are important components of our rural transportation network. The project combines existing and new datasets to address challenges of relevance to bridge owners using scalable and replicable big data pipeline components. Activities will inform bridge owner decision-making by integrating existing datasets and data collected using next-generation health monitoring technologies (e.g., contact and non-contact sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles) with innovative data management. The primary research questions to be addressed in this project are: 1) How can legacy and advanced sensing techniques be integrated into a structural health monitoring system in a fashion that increases its effectiveness? and 2) Can simplified models provide robust information that facilitates examining the effects of decisions on future bridge health and service life?

Dr. Tiffany Messer Biological Systems Engineering: Environmental and Water Resources Engineering

Effectiveness of Floating Treatment Wetlands for Pesticide and Nutrient Removal

Significance: Nitrate-N contamination is persistent in rivers and groundwater throughout the world and a major cause for drinking water impairment across the United States. Floating treatment wetlands (FTWs) are now used extensively across the United States as a means for mitigating nitrate-N losses to both surface and groundwater due to their cost effectiveness and low energy consumption. While the use of wetlands as a treatment approach for nitrate-N is well known, nitrate-N is not the sole constituent in runoff from agricultural fields. Common use pesticides (CUPs) and antibiotics, while important for agricultural productivity, have become ubiquitous in waterways worldwide resulting in significant effects within agroecosystem food webs and human health. The primary research objective is to identify the physical and biogeochemical water quality parameters that enhance CUP and antibiotic removal using FTWs. 

Dr. Chungwook Sim Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Computer-Vision Based Health Monitoring of Aging Rural Bridge Infrastructure

Significance: The number of aging rural bridges are increasing in Nebraska.  When it comes to make decisions to repair, rebuild, or rehabilitate these aging rural bridges, decisions are made by prioritizing the ranks of these bridges.  Condition ratings made by the inspectors for bridge deck, superstructure, and substructure are one of the parameters used in this decision making.  Human visual inspection is typically conducted first and if needed, additional measures are used to assess the level of deterioration for condition ratings.  This process becomes a challenge when there are thousands of bridges and limited number of inspectors available.  To assist this inspection process, this project will focus on developing a computer-vision based system to monitor the health of our aging rural bridge infrastructures.   

Dr. Joshua Steelman Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Revisiting Reliability for Rural Bridges

Significance: Rural bridges are crucial to agricultural economic activities, particularly during harvest seasons when crop yield transportation imposes heavy loads on bridges. Many bridges in rural areas are at or beyond their intended service life and were designed either for unknown or lower vehicle loading than required in modern codes. Unnecessarily imposing load restrictions on bridges leads to increased trip frequencies and lengths for freight vehicles, or demolishing and replacing safe bridges.  Therefore, it is desirable to maximize permitted vehicle loading and extend service lives of aging bridges. Reassessing the structural capacity and mechanical response to vehicular loads for rural bridges is critical to achieving this goal. The primary research question that this project addresses is: how does uncertainty in mechanical response to vehicular loads influence structural reliability for rural bridges?

Dr. Christine Wittich Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Resilience of Agricultural Infrastructure and Rural Communities to Natural Hazards

Significance: Despite the criticality of the agricultural industry to both U.S. and global sustainable food production, the resulting lack of economic diversity in most rural areas is theorized to be a major contributor to the low resilience of rural communities to natural hazards, including earthquakes and windstorms. While resilience is a function of many socioeconomic and organizational factors, the disaster response of the built environment is a critical aspect that cannot be ignored. In many rural areas, critical infrastructure includes vital agricultural support and production systems, such as irrigation systems, storage silos, and low-rise hoop buildings. However, many of these systems do not conform to typical engineering design and analysis methods, and have been observed to perform poorly during past earthquakes and severe windstorms. This research aims to generate a fundamental understanding of the performance of agricultural infrastructure to extreme loads in an effort to enhance rural resilience to natural hazards.

Dr. Richard Wood Civil and Environmental Engineering: Structural Engineering

Monitoring and Evaluation of Low-Volume Rural Roadways

Significance: Given the criticality of transportation infrastructure to the agricultural industry in many rural areas, routine evaluation of roadway condition is imperative such that appropriate maintenance can be undertaken, and unnecessary closures avoided. Due to the low-volume use of many rural and gravel roadways combined with the potential remote location, condition assessment is a time-intensive and expensive task that is oftentimes neglected. Point clouds representative of the road surface can be used to robustly and accurately measure the change to roadways; however, a number of challenges arise for implementation and analysis in remote areas and over long distances. This project addresses two of these key challenges as stated in the following research questions: 1) What geometric properties of roadway surfaces are indicative of damage and deterioration? and 2) How can ground control and GPS be efficiently utilized in remote areas and over long distances to accurately constrain point clouds?