Routes Spotlight: Kaleigh McAlaine

Kaleigh McAlaine is a fourth year Environmental Engineering student with a minor in Marine Biology at Northeastern University, and recently completed her co-op with ROUTES in December 2018. During her co-op, Kaleigh worked under the mentorship of ROUTES & PROTECT Director Akram Alshawabkeh, participating in his research on the development of groundwater remediation technologies at the laboratory and pilot scale, as a part of Project 5 research within the PROTECT Center. Kaleigh brings a passion to learn more about the intersection of public and environmental health and the ways research and science can improve community and environmental well-being into all of the work she does. This passion sparked while participating in study abroad in New Zealand, where she collaborated with a local Māori community to help address water availability, economic independence, and reliable energy in a sustainable way. During her co-op with ROUTES, she worked with the Northeastern research team to help further develop a reliable in-situ ground water remediation system using electrochemical processes to make the drinking water safer, and will continue to work in the lab part-time throughout the winter semester.

Due to her passion, dedicated research efforts, and drive to continue participating within research on campus within ROUTES and PROTECT, Kaleigh was selected to be the interviewed and highlighted. The following has been adapted from the transcript of her recent interview.

Kaleigh was drawn to ROUTES because of her desire to be an environmental health advocate and continue to add to her scientific growth, and she saw the research within the program to be the perfect opportunity to do something tangible about the environmental health issues now affecting all future generations. “Environmental health is a massive global issue, which is only going to get worse with the advancement of climate change and population growth,” Kaleigh explains. “Everyone should have fundamental rights to clean water and sanitation. How else can anyone or any country grow and develop without basic sanitation or clean water?”

Dr. Alshawabkeh’s research within the PROTECT Center was particularly intriguing to Kaleigh because she visited Puerto Rico prior to Hurricane Maria. She had such a memorable and positive experience with the people, food, and environment that she felt that “to be able to help in any way I can is an honor. I was looking specifically for a co-op that would benefit the Puerto Rican people—initially for post-hurricane support, but then realized I could help more in other ways.” For these reasons, Kaleigh was especially suited to be a ROUTES Scholar and work under the mentorship of Dr. Alshawabkeh on PROTECT Center research.

During her co-op Kaleigh was paired with Yuwei Zhao, a bright PhD student who also provided significant mentorship. Under Yuwei’s tutelage, Kaleigh was able to deepen her understanding of chemical principles and build her knowledge using scientific machinery such as spectrophotometer, SEM, mass spec, and pH probe. Kaleigh’s main responsibilities included supporting Yuwei, running research, helping troubleshoot, learning chemical principles, and understanding the research on a fundamental level. During her time in Dr. Alshawabkeh’s lab she learned about the specific properties of trichloroethylene, or TCE, and treatment requirements of similar chemicals such as chlorinated organics and dense non-aqueous phase liquids, or DNAPLs. For Kaleigh, the most important aspect of her co-op experience was learning more about the research process. “How a problem is actually solved through research takes a long time when done right! It requires dedication and attention to detail when isolating variables.”

Kaleigh’s main challenge during her research was troubleshooting when results were unexpected. “We are working with handmade cathodes so the margin of error is quite high. When the results vary widely, however, there is an indication of an unaccounted for variable. Trying to find and eliminate an unknown variable can be frustrating and discouraging.” However, she went on to explain that the most satisfying and rewarding part of this process is the progress and excitement of figuring out what the unaccounted for variable is. She was able to learn extensively about technical lab work, “but more than that – how to work with a team, even one that spans multiple universities and institutions, as well as more intimately with a lab partner.”

While on co-op, she attended both the North East Graduate Student Water Symposium and the NIEHS Superfund Research Program 2018 Annual Meeting. At the Annual SRP Meeting Kaleigh co-presented and co-authored a poster titled, Electrogeneration of H2O2 on a PTFE-Graphite felt cathode with a dampproof coating in flow through reactor alongside her mentor Yuwei Zhao. The poster was well received by SRP scientists. “The SRP conference was amazing! It let me learn more about the field and the work being done within it as well as meet amazing people like [SRP Program Administrator] Michelle Heacock and other incredibly smart researchers, investigators, administrators, and trainees.”

Kaleigh became so invested in the research she was participating in that she gained the opportunity to continue working in Dr. Alshawabkeh’s lab, because she “had more work to do and more to learn from Yuwei! Now I am still continuing experiments, writing more papers, and hoping to work with more environmental health labs in the future.”

Kaleigh’s mentorship from both Yuwei Zhao and Professor Alshawabkeh was essential to her research success, and gave her the opportunity to ask many questions which she had not been faced with during her studies. “They have been instrumental in helping me gain hands-on actual experience in the lab and consider what a project looks like from start to finish. Both mentors have taken the time to meet with me to discuss future career possibilities and how to achieve them.” Additionally, having the opportunity to work with and meet people within PROTECT allowed Kaleigh to gain an “understanding of the importance of working with local communities” when doing environmental health research.

Kaleigh is currently working on several paper that will be the summation of all the work she completed during her co-op with Project 5 under PROTECT. Once submitted and accepted by scientific journals, these will be her first publications!  She will be graduating next spring with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering.