Greetings fellow Earthlings! My name is Tanya, I’m a chemical and biomolecular engineer that develops environmental technology for terrestrial and space applications. Clean water is vital no matter where you are in the universe, I dream about a world where we don’t have to worry about drinking harmful contaminants. I’d like to share my story for all the women out there facing similar obstacles in life. Some parts will come across as sad but don’t worry, things get better as you keep reading.
My childhood was pretty rough, grew up in a low-income single parent household with 5 siblings. I saw and experienced more things during my first 10 years of life than anyone should ever have to go through. Luckily, very very luckily, my grandparents helped me escape that situation in my early teens and adopted me. We moved across the country.
It took a while for me to shake the trauma and bad behaviors I picked up from childhood. Ended up dropping out of high school (do not recommend, stay in school) and it took a while to build myself back up. I got a GED, picked up a job as a waitress, and started taking classes at the local community college (it’s all I could afford at the time).
After getting an associate’s degree, I transferred to a 4 year university. Halfway through the program I got sick. Really sick. Unfortunately, I was too stubborn at the time to take a break from school (I was literally doing homework in the hospital) and ended up falling behind and failing out of college. I was devastated. My grandparents, the greatest people on this planet, encouraged me to keep trying and find a new door to open.
I wrote a letter to the dean at a college ~2 hours away, explaining my situation and practically begging for a second chance. To my surprise at the time, they accepted me! I’ll forever be thankful for Prairie View A&M university. My health got better, I maintained a high GPA, and met a space job recruiter by chance while studying in the library.
After talking to the recruiter for 10 minutes, I knew space science was the right career for me. She was extraordinary, I was inspired by her poise and passion. After an official interview, I received an offer to be an intern that summer.
1. How would you describe your job/role?
In space and on Earth, we take wastewater and use technology to turn it into potable water. That means removing contaminants and harmful microbes from various water sources in order to make safe drinking water. Astronauts like to joke that “yesterday’s coffee is today’s coffee.” When you’re beyond low earth orbit without an abundant supply of water, you have to tap into every potential source such as urine. It’s actually quite complicated to turn urine into drinking water, it’s full of things you don’t want to consume like urea, volatile compounds, inorganic molecules, and bacteria. The further we travel into space, the more water sources we’ll need to sustain life, such as greywater (shower and laundry) and planetary water, each full of things you don’t want to drink. My role is to dream of and develop technologies to clean these water sources.
In parallel, my PhD research focuses on facilitating access to clean water almost anywhere in the world by developing efficient modular water treatment systems that are easy to deploy, that can tap unconventional sources to provide humanitarian water, and develops systems to treat and reuse challenging industrial wastewaters in remote locations. Specifically, I use nanotechnology to remove harmful contaminants such as nitrate in agricultural runoff water and transform them into innocuous compounds that are safe for consumption.
2. What are some challenges you have faced in this research?
I’ve grown a deep appreciation for gravity. When you take that away, things get weird (and fun). Liquids move differently, gas molecules behave differently, and processes that work on Earth don’t work the same in space. Designing technology around these obstacles is challenging, we’re almost always met with a surprise or two once our hardware makes it to space.
3. What made you choose this STEM discipline? Were you inspired by someone?
Chemical engineering is all about taking one molecule and transforming it into another molecule. Taking one form or energy and converting it into a different form. It’s driven by the fundamental and empirical laws of the universe; I find that deeply comforting and beautiful. In the words of Neil Armstrong, “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”
4. What are some cool things that people in your profession work on?
There are so many cool things, it’s hard to choose which one to talk about! In my PhD program, I’m part of an engineering research center full of extraordinary people working on groundbreaking research for water treatment. Using light and nanophotonic to manipulate water, electric fields to influence molecular behavior, magnetic particles to hook-and-bait harmful contaminants, it’s all so fascinating.
When it comes to space, I’m always fascinated by the work done by Dr. Mark Weislogel and that team. Mark specializes in capillary fluids, he’s a wizard when it comes to water in microgravity. Using engineering shapes and geometry, they can bend and control the behavior of water to move without using a pump or external forces. Pretty cool. Really really cool.
5. What is it like to be a woman in STEM? What are some challenges that you have faced?
I’m proud to be a woman in STEM and very grateful for all the women in the world that have fought and are continuing to fight for equality in the workplace. I carry their strength, resilience, determination, and sisterhood with me. I’m very fortunate, at both my space job and my PhD program, women are respected, treated with respect, and our achievements are celebrated and recognized.
However, this has not always been the case. At a previous job, no matter how hard I tried, folks disregarded my abilities and didn’t take me seriously. I was flaunted around for being “the girl” and invited to big meetings and dinners with important clients just because of my gender. I hate that this is a story that every woman in STEM has and I look forward to a day when that is no longer true.
6. What are 3 things that you wish could change about STEM?
👩🏻🚀The number of women in STEM. Women constitute less than 30% of the STEM industry. STEM jobs are building the world and future, solving our world’s greatest challenges. I want to see more women at the forefront of these endeavors.
👩🏻🚀The accessibility to STEM for girls growing up in low-income communities. We need to address social oppression, we need to give students in the 5th ward access to the same resources as students in ivy league schools, we need to help these students learn that they are not bound by their situation.
👩🏻🚀The lack of recognition given to women in STEM. I cried happy tears a few days ago when it was announced that 3 women in STEM are receiving the Nobel Prize this year. At the same time, I felt sad – of the 605 people awarded Nobel prizes in scientific disciplines (chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine) from 1901 to 2017, only 18 were women. That’s less than 3%.
7. What message would you like to give to our young readers?
When I was growing up, we were taught that women can be one or the other, the “smart girl” or “the girly girl.” You don’t have to choose and you can be both if you want to. If you want to be a cheerleader that thinks bugs are cool and listens to both heavy metal and pop music, do it. Wear makeup or don’t wear makeup, wear dresses or wear sweatpants or wear both, wear heels or old sneakers or both…do whatever you enjoy and makes you happy. Science doesn’t care about any of that, all you need is a curious mind.
Thank you for reading our second STEM Up interview of the season! To know more about what Tanya is up to, follow her journey at @tnyakrgers
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