Feature Story | 3-Apr-2024

WVU graduate student researcher aims to remove ‘forever chemicals’ from West Virginia water

West Virginia University

When Paola Perez-Vega completed her bachelor’s degree in 2023, she had the option of choosing between an industry job or graduate school. She went the graduate school path.

The luring power of her undergraduate research in water separation was one of the key factors that made her flow with the tides into the chemical engineering graduate program at West Virginia University. Through her research, she is utilizing a combined destruction and filtration system to remove “forever chemicals” from drinking water sources in West Virginia.

“The research I am working on is in the separation of per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, or ‘forever chemicals,’ from our drinking water,” Perez-Vega said. “It utilizes membrane technology and microwave technology to separate and also break down PFAS.”

PFAS represents a large, complex group of synthetic chemicals used to produce consumer products such as nonstick cookware and stain-resistant clothes, just to name a few. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified PFAS as a chemical that is detrimental to the health of individuals, as it is has been found to be a cause for illnesses such as kidney, testicular and thyroid cancer. They’re called “forever chemicals” because they are extremely difficult to break down.

Just as it is difficult to break down “forever chemicals,” breaking the love for chemical engineering in the Perez-Vega family might be a difficult task. Her parents are both chemical engineers and it is unsurprising they have played an important role in inspiring her to be a chemical engineer, too.

“I fell in love with the work that my parents do, as they are both chemical engineers,” Perez-Vega said. “Having them provide me such a rich science-based environment had me lean more towards this field. It made me develop a curious mind, as I engaged more with the environment.”

In her early years as a chemical engineer, Perez-Vega’s mother worked at a variety of companies in the pharmaceutical industry, back in her homeland of Puerto Rico. She describes her mother as a fascinating woman and her first mentor. Her father, also a chemical engineer, worked in the pharmaceutical industry in Puerto Rico before transitioning to vaccine manufacturing. Perez-Vega said it has always been fascinating to see how her parents’ profession improve patients’ quality of life.

“There are not many places where you see the impact of your work in everyday life and this has been a driving force for me,” she said. “I ask myself in what way can my work make a difference in the world. Whether it is small or huge, it is important that one person starts that chain reaction, so that everybody can do their part in the long run and make something happen.”

Perez-Vega is on the right path to living her dreams already. With PFAS reported to be present in the blood of more than half of America’s residents, her research is working to eradicate the chemical from water sources in West Virginia. She’s exploring a one-step separation process that will combine membrane technology to remove PFAS from water sources, as well as microwave technology that will degrade and break down the chemicals.

“This technology is one that we might be able to utilize for a wastewater treatment plant,” Perez-Vega said. “It is not energy-intensive nor expensive. Membranes are easy to modify to fit whatever one is trying to separate and the technology is environmentally friendly compared to current practices.”

Perez-Vega said WVU has played a huge role in helping her define her academic and career path, having had the opportunity to be mentored by both faculty and students alike.

“Having fantastic guidance from female mentors in chemical engineering has been phenomenal,” she said. “My advisor and principal investigator for my research, Dr. Oishi Sanyal taught me courses in heat transfer, separations and membrane technology, which got me into this research. She is an excellent professor who knows how to simplify complicated information.

“My other mentor is Dr. Lizzie Santiago and she is also from Puerto Rico,” Perez-Vega said. “Having a mentor that understands you and what you are going through is awesome. It has shaped how I push myself to make things happen.”

Perez-Vega was just one of 10 students to be awarded the Hazel Ruby McQuain Graduate Scholarship last year. The scholarship program, administered by the Office of Graduate Education and Life, provides students who are committed to addressing the greatest needs of West Virginia and its residents with up to three years of financial support.

For the future, Perez-Vega said she hopes to finish her project and earn a doctoral degree while she mentors other students.

“I intend to mentor the next generation of students who will work on this project and to keep undergraduate students engaged in this research. It will be good to have them take it over, expand upon it and, from there, I can hope to jump into the industry.”

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