From Germany to Kingston: RI C-AIM, URI student finds path in engineering

For University of Rhode Island student Timo Kuester, trying to find a career in medicine back home in Germany was not working out. Little did he know, an online job test would set him on a path to study chemical engineering, and join a statewide project examining the effects of climate change on Narragansett Bay.

Kuester
C-AIM graduate student Timo Kuester prepares for analysis in Dr. Geoffrey Bothun’s Lab at the University of Rhode Island

“When I finished high school, I was looking for a very long time, asking, ‘what do I want to do?” he recalls.

Kuester, who had been enrolled as a student at German university TU Braunschweig, eventually traveled to London for an internship with global agrochemistry firm Syngenta. He then knew that engineering was his choice career.

“I was absolutely amazed,” he says. “I was involved in pretty fundamental research for one of their technical product procedures, and after this I thought, ‘I want to be in research.’”

Fast forward to 2016 when Timo enrolled in the International Engineering Program (IEP) at URI and began working under Dr. Geoffrey Bothun, Principal Investigator/Project Director of the newly formed Rhode Island Consortium for Coastal Ecology Assessment, Innovation and Modeling (RI C-AIM).

“He had this very cool idea about detecting nitrates and phosphates with technology I had never heard of before,” notes Kuester. “I thought, ‘well, this seems pretty interesting, so sign me up.’”

RI C-AIM is a collaboration of engineers, scientists, student researchers and more from eight higher education institutions across Rhode Island seeking to develop a technological infrastructure for predicting and responding to the changing interactions between chemicals and lifeforms in Narragansett Bay. The project is funded through a five-year, $19 million grant from the National Science Foundation through the Rhode Island EPSCoR program.

Kuester is currently working with Bothun to develop better sensors for detecting pollutants in Narragansett Bay, which in turn will help to identify and understand the causes of issues such as harmful algae blooms.

“All these really annoying things,” says the RI C-AIM researcher with a laugh.

Doing such work did not always come easily to Kuester, however, and when he first arrived in Rhode Island, the Germany native was glad to get much-needed assistance from his graduate peers.

“I though Kingston had like a million people living there until I figured out that was the entire population of Rhode Island,” says Kuester about his knowledge of the Ocean State before arriving. “I went through a certain phase where I was very non-productive, but I think it was mostly communication with the other students. I started getting more involved for fun with people, and we would talk together about homework and give each other hints. That was a major help.”

As an RI C-AIM participant, Kuester sees himself as a bridge between chemist and engineer.

“When I conducted my experiments for the first time, I did some things that are natural to me. For example, looking at time dependency is something a researcher from a different field might not o,” he explains. “Time dependency is important because we will have our sensors in the ocean for long periods of time, so we are are taking ideally thousands of measurements over maybe one month or a year.”

Kuester is not just passionate about research, but promoting fair working conditions for graduate assistants, having been elected this month as Membership chair for URI’s Graduate Assistants United. At a recent conference in Chicago, he heard stories from union members throughout the country about why fighting for workers’ rights is so important.

“One thing that really got stuck in my mind was a bus driver who was basically the only openly gay man in his working environment and just got harassed by his boss and co-workers,” he recalls. “There was not really anyone standing up for him.”

“It is important to try and improve your working conditions,” Kuester continued. “Healthcare is one thing I am really concerned about because, being from Germany, it is just given.”

For now, Timo is focused on the summer season when the German native gets to test his sensors on Narragansett Bay waters.

“I want to confirm that I am actually measuring what I think I am measuring, getting the sensor done and getting it in the field,” he says about his research as he looks towards a Ph.D at URI in the near future. “If that is not the case, I hope that I can at least contribute to the enhanced detection of these nutrients.”

For more information about Kuester’s work with RI C-AIM, visit https://web.uri.edu/rinsfepscor/.

Written by Shaun Kirby, Communications & Outreach Coordinator for RI C-AIM.