Ballet and Bacteria
Engineering Student Balances Time between Dance and Wastewater Treatment
Karina Eyre splits her time in a dichotomous way: dancing ballet, in all its grace and artistry, and collecting sewage samples — the stuff flushed down toilets and emptied into kitchen sinks, which she collects every week from Moscow’s wastewater treatment facility.
Her goal is to design more sustainable and efficient systems to treat wastewater before it’s reused for human consumption or discharged into the environment. Dance is her release from the muck.
The University of Idaho senior from Parker, Colo., graduates this May with a bachelor’s in civil engineering from the College of Engineering. For three years, Eyre also has been a member of an organization of student dancers and the Lionel Hampton School of Music’s percussion ensemble that choreographs and produces live performances. Eyre credits the Dancers Drummers Dreamers program in the College of Education as one of the reasons she came to U of I.
“It’s something that’s been a nice change of pace from doing engineering all the time,” she said. “A well-rounded person doesn’t come from just being an engineer. You can be the most brilliant person in the world, but if you can’t communicate and collaborate effectively, you’re not going to make a difference. And being a dancer growing up, I learned how to work with people and communicate my ideas.”
Eyre has worked alongside civil engineering Associate Professor Erik Coats in U of I’s Environmental Engineering Wastewater Lab for the past two years. In the lab, she is involved in introducing wastewater samples to one of the lab’s biologically active environments, or reactors. She studied how to remove excess phosphorus from the wastewater, which leads, when discharged, to a proliferation of algae blooms that deplete fish of oxygen and, in large amounts, is toxic to humans and pets.
Traditionally, phosphorus is removed chemically, through a process that uses expensive chemicals that deplete earth metals and forces sludge leftover from wastewater solids to landfills. But Eyre, who will begin her master’s in environmental engineering this fall, wants to lessen our carbon footprint — “which is something that’s been hammered into me working in the lab” — by removing the phosphorus nutrient biologically.
The process entails creating an environment that encourages growth of certain bacteria in wastewater that naturally consume phosphorus. To help these microbes thrive, Eyre introduces the appropriate food sources, manages their oxygen levels and controls how long they remain in the reactor’s basins.
“We’re going to have to remove contaminants at higher rates than ever before and sustain larger populations,” Eyre said, “So we need to reduce our carbon footprint for these facilities. The things we can do to harness what nature has already set up are incredible.”
This philosophy of re-use has taken hold in other organizations with which Eyre aligns herself. Dancers Drummers Dreamers uses recycling bins and empty soda bottles as rhythm instruments. And the Women in Engineering Day Design Challenge, sponsored by U of I’s Society of Women Engineers, for which Eyre served as vice president her junior year, shows high school women interested in STEM how to innovate with everyday items.
Flanked by six men in her family who are engineers, Eyre is her family’s first woman to pursue the profession. Attracting more women to the field has become one of her top priorities.
“If we aren’t given the chance to tap into the minds of half our population, then we are not using our resources effectively,” Eyre said. “You never know where the next great solution is going to come from.
“One of the things that scared me most about civil engineering was that I was going to design purely from a manual. I was worried that I wouldn’t have any ability to innovate for myself. But in environmental engineering, we’re always coming up with better ways of doing things and making strides in new technology.
“I feel like I was able to have a really full college experience,” Eyre added. “And I’ve grown up so much, which is a product of U of I being the sort of school it is — a great place where I could get an education, but also a place that I could have a lot of unique experiences. I’m probably never going to get that again.”
Article by Kate Keenan, College of Engineering