Engineering for the Environment
This story first appeared in the Fall 2020 GAzette.
Written by Kristen Walsh | Photos BY Lillie Paquette
Desiree Plata ’99 helps her son, 6, and daughter, 4, climb onto the flat rooftop of her garage. (Her three-month-old son stays inside with her husband.) It’s Earth Day, and the MIT professor couldn’t let the day go by without a science experiment. Her kids are nearly jumping up and down as they wait for her to help them toss the homemade egg launchers they built as part of the “egg drop challenge.” The popular STEM activity includes constructing an egg launcher using materials (typically recyclables) to protect a raw egg from breaking when dropped from a set height.
“Once I told my kids that I failed miserably at my first egg drop challenge at Gould—I basically threw an egg out of the third-floor window of Hanscom Hall—they were determined to beat me,” says Plata, who is now the Gilbert W. Winslow (1937) Career Development Professor in Civil Engineering at MIT. “The great thing about this kind of open challenge is that they got to think about the design principles to protect the egg using the materials right in front of them. They were so excited to see if the eggs were intact.” (They were, and Mom was impressed.)
Plata sees that same kind of anticipation from the MIT students known as her “lab family.”
“It’s discovery, and it’s exciting,” she says. “They feel so privileged to have access to a lab and the ability to do those kinds of experiments and figure out what the answer is going to be.”
Only instead of egg cartons, Styrofoam, and a plastic-bag parachute, her students use high-end equipment like geochemical tools “to understand how chemicals move in the environment and where they will end up, and what that means for potential exposure to human and ecological systems.
“The mission of my lab team is aimed at changing the way that we invent materials and processes so we can incorporate environmental metrics during the design phase and prevent environmental damage,” Plata adds.
While sustainable innovation typically focuses on brand new materials, Plata believes that there are a lot of established technologies that still need to be evaluated to explore interventions to improve processes from an environmental perspective. One example that she has studied extensively is the carbon nanotube. (“Imagine carbon atoms arranged in a hexagon pattern and rolled into a tube that is only a nanometer across,” she explains.) It can negatively impact both aquatic and soil organisms. Another issue is the process of natural gas extraction—the need to determine how to get carbon-based fuels safely out of the ground.
Trash, Homework, and Environmental Science Inspiration
When Plata talks about carbon nanotubes and such, her energy mimics that of her students in the lab and her children atop the roof. “From an early age, I have always had a strong connection to the environment and the earth system,” she says.
Like many scientists, inspiration came from experiences. Growing up near the coast of Maine, one of those happened to Plata in fourth grade, when a teacher challenged students to a trash cleanup.
“Most of us thought there wasn’t going to be any trash, but by the time we walked around Baxter Boulevard in Portland we had filled up three huge bags full,” Plata recalls. “It illustrated to me that we need to take care of our planet.”
Plata was also “heavily influenced” by teachers at Gould.
Chemistry teacher Annette Laursen Brickley did something that Plata jokingly says didn’t particularly enjoy back in high school.
“She used to make me do extra homework, including college-level assignments, which I thought was terrible at the time. But she never let up on me. I realize now that it was important to keep me stimulated and engaged. Her strong coaching and cultivation of me as a student is probably the reason that I am an environmental chemist today.”
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It was a class field trip to Evans Notch with science teacher Erik Janicki ’91 to study its ecology and history that spoke to Plata’s love of the outdoors.
“During a hike in the woods, I remember finding an endangered trillium flower and thinking, This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done! I had to then write about it for an assignment, and that combination of hands-on outdoor experience and project work is what really hooked me on environmental research and made me think that it was something I wanted to do with my life,” she says.
Tree to Tree – Better Living Through Environmental Science
Though many of Plata’s formidable “science-inspiring” experiences in Maine were enjoyable, one was more sobering. It happened north of Portland in the rural town of Gray. She was just 8 years old.
“I started noticing that a lot of people in my grandmother’s neighborhood were getting really sick,” Plata says. “My grandmother and my uncle had multiple sclerosis. Several neighbors had cancer. I remember telling my mother that there has to be something everyone shares that is making them sick. Everyone shares air and water.”
Plata didn’t know at the time, but the town sits atop one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund sites, the McKin site, where industrial waste was disposed of from 1965 to 1978. It was in college that she ultimately came across a New York Times article reporting that the industrial waste had contaminated the drinking water. “TCE (trichloroethylene) is one of the main culprits,” she says.
Around that same time—when Plata was completing a degree in chemistry at Union College and exploring graduate programs including at MIT—her aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and began treatments in Boston. It’s one of the reasons Plata chose to attend MIT.
“I wanted to be close to my aunt,” Plata says.
The other reason was, of course, the “amazing science” that happens at the institute. Instead of going into a “straight chem degree,” Plata enrolled into the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution joint program in oceanography, which Plata is convinced she got thanks to a shining recommendation from longtime Gould faculty member Lorenzo Baker. Today, Plata is well-known for her research in environmental engineering. She is a National Science Foundation CAREER awardee, a two-time National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering fellow, and a two-time National Academy of Sciences Kavli Frontiers of Science fellow.
A Happy Solution – Becoming a Science Educator is the Best of Both Worlds
Though she is a highly regarded scholar, Plata is most inspired by educating others.
“The thing that really hooked me on being an educator was the opportunity to engage in cultivating other people and helping them become their best selves,” says Plata, who previously held academic posts at Yale and Duke. “That was also something that my Gould French teacher Madame Ouwinga suggested to me—she said I had too much personality to be behind a lab bench and needed to be interacting with people. I heard her voice in my mind every year when I was in college and graduate school considering my career path.”
“Being a professor is a happy solution. I get to be a scientist but also enrich people’s lives and be there for individuals. And that’s one of the most important things that we do.”
Being a professor is “a happy solution,” she says. “I get to be a scientist but also enrich people’s lives and be there for individuals. And that’s one of the most important things that we do.”
The advice she gives her graduate students—who are balancing long hours and rigorous work in the lab—is something she learned on the Gould orientation hiking trip.
“I hadn’t done much hiking before and I was really nervous. But Lorenzo Baker gave me some great advice: ‘Just find a tree in front of you and make it to that tree. Then find the next tree and make it to that tree.’ That got me through orientation, and it’s something I share with my students who are working on research that can last five or six years.”
Great and Meaningful Science Research
Unfortunately, Plata’s aunt passed away from cancer in 2008. “My aunt grew up about one mile from the plume and moved on top of it when she was 18. Based on what we know now, it is probable that her exposure to TCE during her developmental years contributed to her cancer. I miss her every day.”
That experience makes Plata all the more committed to her work. “Great science comes from solving problems, and more importantly preventing problems. For many scientists, that stems from seeing the impact that could have on someone’s life. Through the work that I do, my hope is that it keeps somebody’s parent or child from getting cancer.”
And she knows that it will take great minds to make progress: “One of the things that really motivates me is to think about how we educate students to fulfill their dreams and also help construct the future that we want to see for the world.”