Sloan Scholar Spotlight | Erica Dasi

Combining a passion for Environmental Science and Environmental Engineering Research, Global Collaborations, Outreach, and Science Communication

Sloan scholar Erica Dasi is a Ph.D. student in the Environmental Engineering Program within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. For her dissertation, she is researching the application of biological nutrient removal for drinking water and wastewater treatment in small communities. Erica was recently awarded the Brown and Caldwell Dr. Wesley Eckenfelder, Jr. Scholarship Award. Her other awards at USF include the Florida Education Fund’s McKnight Doctoral Fellowship, GEM Fellowship (sponsored by Berkeley National Laboratory), NSF NRT Strong Coasts, and the Chateaubriand STEM Fellowship. Erica is advised by Sarina Ergas, Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering.

Erica Dasi

Erica Dasi

What is your favorite part about being in the doctoral program in Environmental Engineering, and more specifically the Sloan UCEM Community (academic and personal value)?
I appreciate the diversity that exists in the Environmental Engineering doctoral program. Our department has many examples of women who are leading impactful research teams and who have successfully earned the full professor title. Our department is also a leader in recruiting, maintaining, and graduating female and underrepresented environmental engineering doctoral students on campus. I find this encouraging to have access to excellent role models and support as I work toward my academic and professional goals.

My favorite part of being in the USF Sloan UCEM is the community. It is comforting to know that I am not alone in this journey to the Ph.D. and that there is a space for me to seek and provide help along with access to activities and resources that foster my academic and professional development. As a master’s student at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), I was a part of a similar program known as the NSF LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate, which also cultivated community-building amongst its fellows. I found that being in this program was paramount for navigating through my research, thesis writing, and applying for Ph.D. programs. I am grateful to have continued support at USF through the Sloan UCEM program as I pursue my terminal degree.

Tell us about your research?  
My research seeks to develop a low-cost, simple, and sustainable treatment technology to address nutrient pollution (i.e., nitrogen and phosphorus) from drinking water and wastewater in small community water systems. When there is an abundance of nutrients in the water supplies, this can present adverse effects to the environment and human health. My research seeks to harness a natural and ubiquitous biological process, known as denitrification, in treatment systems to convert nutrients into environmentally benign products. I am also using molecular and computational tools to study the underlying biological processes to enhance nutrient removal within my water treatment systems.

How were you introduced into science?  
When I was a child, my parents exposed me to the science through conversation and by taking me to local STEM-education activities. I enjoyed thinking of creative mini projects that combined math with the sciences, which motivated me to purse an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences. As an undergraduate student, I conducted research centered on applying biology-based technologies to mitigate Red Tide in the Baltimore Inner Harbor. This research experience solidified my interest in science, enabled me to uncover my passion for applied science, and a desire to gain knowledge in environmental engineering to contribute to improving water quality worldwide.

You recently received the Brown and Caldwell Dr. Wesley Eckenfelder, Jr. Scholarship Award. How will it impact your studies as a doctoral student working in Environmental Engineering?  
I am grateful to have been selected this scholarship, which honors Dr. Wesley Eckenfelder, Jr. who was a pioneer in the science of industrial wastewater treatment. This scholarship will provide financial support as I am progressing through my doctoral program.

Who are the role models and mentors both at USF and elsewhere that have influenced your research and career goals?  
Dr. Rosemary Jagus introduced me to scientific research at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, in Baltimore, MD. I found her enthusiasm contagious as we worked closely together in the lab on experiments. Her love for science, encouragement, and mentorship throughout my undergraduate degree program influenced my decision to pursue graduate school and a career in research. My advisor Dr. Sarina Ergas and mentor Dr. James Mihelcic are my role models here at USF. I admire how they integrate global research and community engagement in their research. Not only are their students conducting novel and impactful water research, they are also applying their research through partnerships nearby and around the globe. I aspire to do the same as a professor and research mentor to create a globally engaged setting for my students.

What collaborative projects have you previously been and are currently involved at USF?As a GEM PhD Engineering fellow, I interned and collaborated on a project at the Berkeley lab to study the microbial diversity and physiology of bacteria involved in nitrate removal from contaminated soils. This project was carried out in efforts to identify and create solutions for addressing extensive nitrate contamination from unlined waste disposal ponds at the Oak Ridge Field Research Center in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  I recently collaborated on a project at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Marseille, France. Over the course of five months, I applied bioinformatic tools and methods to study the microbial community composition and change in drinking water treatment systems designed to biologically remove nitrate. This collaboration was supported by the Embassy of France Chateaubriand STEM Fellowship. I am currently collaborating on a project with a former visiting scholar from China that worked in our research group. I am applying the knowledge and experience that I gained in France to uncover the microbial community composition of a wastewater treatment system designed to remove nitrate from recirculating aquaculture systems used for land-based fish farming. 

My mentors at the Berkeley lab and in France encouraged a space for me to bring forth my ideas and for independent learning. While the independent learning was a challenge at first, it was something I now have come to appreciate. It has allowed me to realize my capacity to problem solve, troubleshoot, make firm decisions, speak confidently about my rationale those decisions. These are skills that I have continued to use as a doctoral student, which have been important for my progress recently.

Why did you decide to create a science blog during your internship in Marseille?
Science communication is something that holds a special place in my heart. Scientists and engineers research some of the world’s greatest challenges and oftentimes innovative technologies emerge, which transform our lives and the environment. Therefore, in order to encourage the future STEM workforce to continue these endeavors, it is our duty as researchers to provide our findings in a clear and accessible manner. I decided to create a science blog about my internship in Marseille to continue refining my ability to communicate to audiences outside of my discipline. I also wanted to provide a resource for others that shared how molecular biology, data science, and environmental engineering can be combined to provide a comprehensive and improved understanding of biological water treatment processes. This is especially important in identifying strategies for their improvement.

Why are you interested in participating in global research projects and how is conducting research internationally different than being in the US?  
When I was younger, I had the chance to visit my family in Cameroon. My family’s village is located in the countryside of the northwest province. During my trip, I witnessed the disparity that many families, including my own, experience in terms of accessing potable water and treating their wastewater. This experience has motivated me to combine my passions in math and applied science to help provide clean water to families in Cameroon and worldwide.

My recent research experience in France allowed me to realize the difference in career-life balance that exists between the U.S. and Marseille. For example, it is normal for the workday to end at about 5 PM and for businesses to close at 7 PM in Marseille. As a result, many research activities were planned around finishing the workday before the lab and/or grocery store closed. Over the course of five months, my time management improved. Furthermore, I experienced less stress, since I was also engaging in activities outside of research that I also enjoy.

What science outreach activities have you been involved?  
I currently serve as one of the outreach-chairs for the USF Chapter of the Florida Water Environment Association (FWEA). Through this position, I have helped in organizing and leading hands-on activities that engage K-12 students and their families on the water cycle, how we interact with water, and various water-treatment technologies. The USF-FWEA has participated in the annual USF Engineering Expo for more than four years and recently was an exhibitor at the 2020 Florida Water Festival. I have also mentored undergraduate students from the Hillsborough Community College and USF in projects that allow them to gain cross-disciplinary research experience.

What are your plans for after graduation?  
My dream is to enter a water research position that enables me to combine my passions, which are environmental science and engineering, community engagement, and science communication. I believe that applying an interdisciplinary approach and engaging community members for addressing water quality challenges contributes towards developing long-lasting solutions. Furthermore, community engagement provides an opportunity to share research in a manner that is clear, which assists in dismantling barriers that restrict information flow between researchers and the public. This is especially important to provide the public with information to make informed decisions, foster STEM in students, and encourage environmentally conscious decision-making

What advice would you give to URM students considering doing a STEM PhD? 
I would encourage URM students considering doing a STEM PhD to participate in multiple research-based internship opportunities in topics that they are interested in. By doing so, they can gain a firsthand perspective on some of the responsibilities, tasks, and skills necessary to pursue a STEM PhD. This can help in selecting a PhD program or research topic, identifying and filling any existing knowledge gaps, and more. Participating in research-based opportunities also helps in expanding your professional networking and establishing mentor-mentee relationships.

To learn more about Erica’s research activities visit her website.