My engineering: to improve effective, sustainable water

My civil and environmental engineering studies at Carnegie Mellon University have enabled me
to participate in several holistic, community-centered projects that meet basic human needs related to
water treatment. Continuing this work, I aspire to obtain a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, with an
emphasis in environmental chemistry and biochemistry related to water treatment and remediation
technologies. I am a recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which provides 10 years of full higher
education funding to students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds who demonstrate
outstanding achievement in service and academia. The fundamental values of my education are at the
intersection of public health and environmental engineering: to improve effective, sustainable water
and wastewater technologies to address inequalities in health and education.
In 2013, I served with Amigos de las Americas, a nonprofit modeled after the Peace Corps.
Working with the Paraguayan National Ministry of Public Sanitation in the rural community of Ycua Sati,
we designed and constructed 35 latrines to combat drinking water contamination. While completing this
work, I lived with a host sister who could only attend her local school with my assistance with household
responsibilities. I experienced firsthand how the lack of basic necessities such as running water and
electricity directly impacted women’s education and gender inequality. In underdeveloped countries,
women and girls are responsible for collecting often-contaminated water, simultaneously causing illness
and restricting access to education.  In the summer of 2016, I independently shaped a research project that enabled me to return to
Paraguay to pursue community oriented water research. To conduct these studies, I structured the
project with Professor Juan Pablo Nogues at Universidad Paraguayo Alemano, secured funding through
grant writing and networking, and set up a host family. In a two-part project, I studied the flood
frequency of the Paraguay River by statistically modelling the return period of extreme floods and
applying climate change adjustments. Floods in Paraguay are a pressing issue affecting the most
impoverished residents of Asuncion. In the second part, I studied aquifer monitoring by numerically
modeling the well data for an aquifer in MATLAB and PMWIN to understand the potential damage of
contamination. Research studies in water resources are rare in Paraguay and these are first of their kind.
These projects in Paraguay catalyzed my desire to study low-cost methods for improving global
water conditions. Over the past three years, I have contributed to research on peroxidase-mimicking
oxidation catalysts that target toxic and persistent micropollutants in water. This work has been
conducted in the Institute for Green Science, led by Chemistry Professor Terrence Collins. Our newest
generation of catalysts, called NewTAMLs, promise lower costs and energy usage than ozone. My first
project involved determining the pH-dependent performance of NewTAMLs by using UV-Vis
spectroscopy to monitor the degradation of a model substrate. From this data, I obtained the kinetic
rate constants, key measures of catalyst reactivity. A manuscript describing this work is in preparation.
For my second project, I have worked independently to study NewTAML-catalyzed degradation of the
persistent neonicotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid. I use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC),
electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (ESI-MS), and ion chromatography (IC) to quantify the
kinetics and analyze the intermediates of the degradation process. I am currently drafting a manuscript
describing this work. In addition to water resources and chemistry research, I have explored microbiology and
nanotechnology. During the summer of 2017, I worked in Professor Lisa Alvarez-Cohen’s group at UC
Berkeley researching the use of the organohalide-respiring bacteria, Dehalococcoides mccartyi, to
remediate trichloroethene (TCE) and inhibit the release of arsenic as part of EPA’s Superfund Research Program. It was postulated that, if the bioremediation process could be performed at alkaline pH, the
released arsenic would be adsorbed to solids and immobile. To determine whether bioremediation at
high pH is feasible, I conducted studies to to determine the alkaline pH in which D. mccartyi becomes
inhibited. This involved inoculating and creating anaerobic, sterile cultures and then using gas
chromatography (GC) to determine the pH range over which TCE is dechlorinated.
Following my summer at UC Berkeley, I became intrigued by other methods of remediation.
Currently, I am researching the reactivity of sulfide-modified nanoscale zerovalent irons (S-nZVIs) with
organic and inorganic pollutants in Professor Gregory Lowry’s group for my honors research program.
nZVIs have the potential to treat wastewaters and remediate groundwater. This study compares the
reactivity of nitrate with different forms of S-nZVI to correlate the properties of the materials with their
reactive lifetime. Nitrate reduction serves as probe reaction to address reactivity differences. All
experiments are tested using GC and IC.
In addition to research, I have worked in two industry settings: at an urban design civil
engineering firm and an architecture firm, which were both located in the SF Bay Area. At the
environmentally conscious civil engineering firm, I assured submission quality by creating and editing
engineering plans and specifications using stormwater codes, GIS, AutoCAD, and REVIT. My experiences
with government, industries, and communities have emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary,
collaborative research in producing sustainable and effective engineering solutions. I believe my interdisciplinary training will be a strong asset to Yale’s environmental engineering
program. I am interested in pursuing analytical organic chemistry to promote security and economic
stability in water treatment processes. Professor Jaehong Kim’s work with catalysis and membrane
chemistry resonates with my goals of addressing domestic and international water treatment issues,
including toxicity issues. In particular, his project on food dye sensitized solar water disinfection is
relevant due to its portability and sustainability. More so, his work in the field of water treatment and
developing countries is largely interdisciplinary, stimulating my interest to find potential solutions to the
global access to potable water. Further, Professor Kim’s undergraduate course, “Environmental
Technology in the Developing World,” resonates with my work in improving the global living standards.
I am motivated by the Yale’s environmental engineering work because pairs an across-campus
collaborative environment with world-class laboratories, allowing me to focus on producing technical
results while being able to put them on a global perspective. Water treatment technologies require the
collaboration available at Yale due to their global societal impacts. I am interested in intersecting the
social and engineering aspects by investigating reactivity mechanisms to improve water treatment
processes. Environmental remediation research topics would also allow me to help protect communities
and environmental systems from the impacts of hazardous pollutants. I hope to tackle and address clean
water access in developing communities, limiting formation of DBP’s, endocrine disruption, and
chemical pollutants. My experiences both inside and out of academia have given me a strong curiosity
and drive to develop innovative water treatment and remediation technologies.
Ultimately, I envision myself becoming a university professor, researching novel water
treatment technologies and mentoring other aspiring scholars, especially women engineers. I hold
strongly to the concept of a life where I can mentor students and research in service to our global
community. I aspire to obtain a PhD to research solutions for critical resource challenges in the
water-energy-food nexus and sanitation in developing countries.

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I'm Rita!

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