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My name is Desiree Plata,
and I'm a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering here at MIT.
And the mission of my group
is to change the way that we invent materials and processes.
We try to use geo-chemical tools
to understand how chemicals are gonna move in the environment,
where they'll end up, and what that means for
potential exposures to human and ecological systems.
I have always been passionate about the environment
from a very young age.
I'm from Portland, Maine, and my grandmother's home is situated in Gray, Maine.
Gray, Maine sits atop one of the EPA's Superfund sites
called the McKin site. And the McKin site
was responsible for the collection and disposal of
hundreds of thousands of gallons of industrial waste
annually, from 1965 to 1978.
The method of disposal at the time
was to basically put these barrels of chemicals into an open pit in the ground.
I didn't know about any of that until I was in college,
but what I did know was that everybody in my grandmother's neighborhood was sick.
The child up the street was born with an inexplicable neurological disorder;
two doors down there was a cancer;
my grandmother and my uncle both had multiple sclerosis;
a couple of doors down there was another cancer, and another one;
and I said to my mom, as I was realizing this,
"There has to be something in the air or in the water in this town that's making these people sick!"
So for the next fifteen or so years
I gained the skills to try and be able to understand this problem,
and about a year from graduating with my chemistry degree;
my aunt, who had helped raise me, became sick with breast cancer.
I ultimately found that there was chemical contamination in the drinking water in this town.
One of the reasons I came to MIT as a grad student
not only for the great science, but also so I could take the bridge
across the river to MGH and sit with her during her cancer treatments,
which was really, you know, a privilege for me, but
made the mission of my work that much more salient.
So that's really what I see as my role;
is to be able to train future inventors, and say
is the best way to do this is really at the...the point of inception of an idea,
or maybe just past the proof of concept where you start to say:
"Ok, how am I making this, and how can I make it with consideration of the environment?"
But there's another level that we can't ignore,
and that's already developed industry.
And so one of the things that we've undertaken is the task of
trying to understand how are natural gas extraction processes
and alternative oil extraction processes being developed,
and is there something that we can understand about the chemistry
to try and prevent unwanted byproducts,
because then we can have the same chemical intervention
that protects the public health and also helps the industries.
One of the things I emphasize in my group is
we can't just be finger-pointers anymore. We have to be part of identifying the solution.
And sometimes that solution is actually really hard to find because
you don't just want a solution that works for you and makes a nice science story,
you want a solution that's gonna be adoptable and deployable in practice
so that it can actually go on to affect people's lives.
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Point of inception: Creating sustainability-oriented innovations from the start

40 Folder Collection
jbsatvtac1 published on August 22, 2019
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