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  5. Optimizing ways to remove contaminants from water

Focus on new faculty: Christy Remucal, optimizing ways to remove contaminants from water

Christy Remucal

Christy Remucal 

Travel the upper Midwest, and there are streams, rivers, ponds or lakes nearly everywhere you go. In fact, Wisconsin and Minnesota together boast more than 30,000 documented lakes and residents' thoughts about water often tend toward its recreational aspects.

However, living in the northern New Mexico desert, Christy Remucal's family viewed water as a scarce and precious natural resource, collecting rainwater from the roof in summer and celebrating big snowstorms in winter. That mindset resonated with Remucal and—a bachelor's degree, master's degree, PhD and postdoc later—played a role in where she is today.

An environmental engineer who studies fundamental processes that govern the fate of contaminants and pathogens in water, Remucal joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in fall 2012 as an assistant professor.

She began her undergraduate career at MIT as a chemical engineer but changed her major after she attended an environmental engineering open house. "I really liked the field because it's really interdisciplinary, so it has all the chemistry, physics and math I like, but I also care a lot about the environment and water," she says. "Environmental engineering applies those fundamental sciences to solve environmentally related problems."

Remucal began conducting water research as an undergraduate. She spent a year studying abroad at the University of Cambridge and, for her senior thesis on improving solar water disinfection by adding hydrogen peroxide, she field-tested her system in Haiti. 

After earning her bachelor's degree in civil and environmental engineering from MIT, Remucal received a National Science Foundation fellowship, enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley, and completed a master's degree in the same field. To acquire a bit of industry experiences, she took a job with a consulting company doing hazardous site remediation, worked a year, and then returned to Berkeley for a PhD. 

Her focus, again, was contaminant remediation. She studied how iron nanoparticles react with oxygen to produce reactive oxidants that help degrade contaminants in surface waters. "The chemistry behind it turned out to be really interesting," she says. "And the reaction mechanism isn't what everyone thinks is happening. We showed it was a lot more complicated than that." 

Remucal also earned a PhD minor in public health, working with biologists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to research lung cell toxicity related to nanomaterials in the environment. "What happens if you breathe in all these nanoparticles?" she asks. "The chemistry and all the reactive species they produce—that's the same whether you're looking at degrading a contaminant or degrading the molecules within your cells. I thought it was a really powerful thing to use the understanding of chemistry to look at a more complicated interdisciplinary problem."

During her graduate work, Remucal realized she enjoyed teaching and research and decided to pursue a career in academia. Initially, she planned to do postdoctoral research at the University of Minnesota, but her intended advisor, Kristopher McNeill, had just received a job offer from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Remucal seized the opportunity, also, and for the next three years, continued the photochemistry research—optimizing solar disinfection and characterizing the role of dissolved organic matter—she'd started as an undergraduate. 

A faculty position at UW-Madison interested Remucal in part, she says, because the university's environmental chemistry program is strong and she is able to collaborate with many faculty whose expertise is complementary to hers. "I've also been impressed with the high quality of students I've interacted with," she says.

Currently, Megan McConville, one of Remucal's PhD students, is studying two pesticides annually used in large quantities to combat invasive sea lamprey in the Great Lakes. Not much is known about the environmental fate of these chemicals; Remucal and McConville are studying how they degrade with sunlight to assess whether sunlight is an important degradation pathway.

Remucal also is continuing her research of iron redox cycle reactions and characterizing dissolved organic matter. During her postdoc, for example, she developed a new dialysis-based technique for evaluating the size distribution of dissolved organic matter, which is important in many biogeochemical reactions, carbon and nitrogen cycling, and iron reactions. "It's involved in most natural processes, but we still don't have a good feeling of what it is, or how big it is," says Remucal. "People used to think it was really big polymers, but my work and others have shown that it's a lot smaller than what we previously thought. It's a bit fundamental, but has implications for contaminant oxidation."

The big picture for her research, she says, is clean water. "It's really focused on looking at processes that degrade contaminants, either in natural or engineered systems, and looking at the underlying mechanisms to optimize ways to remove contaminants from water," she says. 

Renee Meiller