Trainee Spotlight: Yuwei Zhao

Headshot of Yuwei Zhao in the Project 4 lab

Yuwei Zhao is a senior PhD candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University, where she works in Prof. Akram Alshawabkeh’s lab (Project 4). Since 2015, she has worked on the development of an in-situ groundwater remediation device, including pilot lab and field tests in the greater Boston area. Now, as the senior PhD candidate, she manages research activities in the lab and provides mentorship to junior graduate students and undergraduates. She has attended and presented at every Superfund Research Program Annual Meeting since 2017, and most recently presented on “In-situ degradation of Ibuprofen in a flow-through reactor” at the 2020 meeting.

Yuwei became interested in Prof. Alshawabkeh’s research as an undergraduate environmental engineering major, when she first began researching advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) as a form of environmental remediation. After reading multiple papers published by the Alshawabkeh research team, she decided to come to Northeastern to continue her research in his lab.

Working in a PROTECT lab has provided Yuwei with many opportunities for both personal and professional development. “PROTECT provides me a lot of chances to meet with people who have different backgrounds and are from different schools and organizations,” she says, an experience that has helped broaden her perspective. Participating in the Annual SRP Meeting has also provided a key opportunity for networking with people from academia as well as industry, while activities such as the 2018 Texas A&M SRP Disaster Research Training Workshop or PROTECT Trainee Development workshops have given Yuwei access to new skills, knowledge, and resources to help her further her career.

Yuwei poses with ROUTES Scholar Kaleigh McAlaine at the SRP Annual Meeting in 2018

Yuwei has particularly appreciated the opportunity to develop her leadership and management skills while at PROTECT. In addition to her current role managing the research lab, she has provided mentoring to undergraduate and high school students in the PROTECT lab. The undergraduates are part of the ROUTES training program, which includes a six-month full time research co-op as part of the Northeastern undergraduate degree, while the high school students were participants in the Young Scholars Program. These opportunities to develop her leadership and management skills are important to Yuwei, who credits her mentor with placing great important on her career growth right from the start. “We discussed my interests and career goals very early in my Ph.D. study. [Prof. Alshawabkeh] respects my opinion and ideas about research and provides me flexibility in my studies.”

One of Yuwei’s proudest achievements is the patent application the Project 4 lab submitted in fall 2020. Yuwei is the lead inventor on the patent, which also includes former Research Scientist Dr. Ljiljana Rajic as well as Prof. Alshawabkeh. “It is about Electrogeneration of reactive oxygen species without external oxygen supply,” Yuwei says. “This concept can be used for in-situ groundwater remediation, portable purified water system, or drinking water cleaning after disaster.” Unlike other similar methods, this system is low-cost, environmentally-benign, and generates the oxygen supply in situ, eliminating the need for an external source. The system can effectively be used in a wide array of situations, and due to its low cost is significantly more accessible than alternative options.

After completing her PhD later this year, Yuwei plans to pursue a career in industry, working as an environmental engineer for an organization focused on remediation. This will allow her to directly apply the knowledge and skills she has gained in PROTECT. “With the development of society and the progress of technology, the problem of environmental pollution has become increasingly serious,” she says. The PROTECT team looks forward to seeing what Yuwei does next to tackle this problem.