Podcast: Curiosity Unbounded, Episode 1 — How a free-range kid from Maine is helping green-up industrial practices
The Curiosity Unbounded podcast is a conversation between MIT President Sally Kornbluth and newly-tenured faculty members. President Kornbluth invites us to listen in as she dives into the research happening in MIT’s labs and in the field. Along the way, she and her guests discuss pressing issues, as well as what inspires the people running at the world’s toughest challenges at one of the most innovative institutions on the planet.
In this episode, President Kornbluth sits down with Desirée Plata, a newly tenured associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Her work focuses on making industrial processes more environmentally friendly, and removing methane — a key factor in global warming — from the air.
Sally Kornbluth: Hello, I’m Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT, and I’m thrilled to welcome you to this MIT community podcast, Curiosity Unbounded. In my first few months at MIT, I’ve been particularly inspired by talking with members of our faculty who recently earned tenure. Like their colleagues, they are pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Their passion and brilliance, their boundless curiosity, offer a wonderful glimpse of the future of MIT.
Today, I’m talking with Desirée Plata, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Desirée’s work is focused on predicting the environmental impact of industrial processes and translating that research to real-world technologies. She describes herself as an environmental chemist. Tell me a little more about that. What led you to this work either personally or professionally?
Desirée Plata: I guess I always loved chemistry, but before that, I was just a kid growing up in the state of Maine. I like to describe myself as a free-range kid. I ran around and talked to the neighbors and popped into the local businesses. One thing I observed in my grandparents’ town was that there were a whole lot of sick people. Not everybody, but maybe every other house. I remember being about seven or eight years old and driving home with my mom to our apartment one day and saying, “It’s got to be something everybody shares. The water, maybe something in the food or the air.” That was really my first environmental hypothesis.
Sally: You had curiosity unbounded even when you were a child.
Desirée: That’s right. I spent the next several decades trying to figure it out and ultimately discovered that there was something in the water where my grandmother lived. In that time, I had earned a chemistry degree and came to MIT to do my grad work at MIT in the Woods Hole Oceanographic in environmental chemistry and chemical oceanography.
Sally: You saw a pattern, you thought about it, and it took some time to get the tools to actually address the questions, but eventually you were there. That is great. As I understand it, you have two distinct areas of interest. One is getting methane out of the atmosphere to mitigate climate warming, and the other is making industrial processes more environmentally sound. Do you see these two as naturally connected?
Desirée: I’ll start by saying that when I was young and thinking about this chemical contamination that I hypothesized was there in my grandmother’s neighborhood, one of the things—when I finally found out there was a Superfund site there—one of the things I discovered was that it was owned by close family friends. They were our neighbors. The decisions that they made as part of their industrial practice were just part of standard operating procedure. That’s when it clicked for me that industry is just going along, hoping to innovate to make the world a better place. When these environmental impacts occur, it’s often because they didn’t have enough information or know the right questions to ask. I was in graduate school at the time and said, “I’m at one of the most innovative places on planet Earth. I want to go knock on the doors of other labs and say, ‘What are you making and how can I help you make it better?'”
If we all flash back to around 2008 or so, hydraulic fracturing was really taking off in this country and there was a lot of hypotheses about the number of chemicals being used in that process. It turns out that there are many hundreds of chemicals being used in the hydraulic fracturing process. My group has done an immense amount of work to study every groundwater we could get our hands on across the Appalachian region of the eastern United States, which is where a lot of this development took place and is still taking place. One of the things we discovered was that some of the biggest environmental impacts are actually not from the injected chemicals but from the released methane that’s coming into the atmosphere. Methane is growing at an exorbitant rate and is responsible for about as much warming as CO2 over the next 10 years. I started realizing that we, as engineers and scientists, would need a way to get these emissions back. To take them back from the atmosphere, if you will. To abate methane at very dilute concentrations. That’s what led to my work in methane abatement and methane mitigation.
Sally: Interesting. Am I wrong about when we think about the impact of agriculture on the environment, that methane is a big piece of that as well?
Desirée: You are certainly not wrong there. If you look at anthropogenic emissions or human-derived emissions, more than half are associated with agricultural practices. The cultivation of meat and dairy in particular. Cows and sheep are what are known as enteric methane formers. Part of their digestion process actually leads to the formation of methane. It’s estimated that about 28% of the global methane cycle is associated with enteric methane formers in our agricultural practices as humans. There’s another 18% that’s associated with fossil energy extraction.
Sally: That’s really interesting. Thinking about your work then, particularly in agriculture, part of the equation has got to be how people live, what they eat, and production of methane as part of the sustainability of agriculture. The other part then seems to be how you actually, if you will, mitigate what we’ve already bought in terms of methane in the environment.
Desirée: Yes, this is a really important topic right now.
Sally: Tell me a little bit about, maybe in semi-lay terms, about how you think about removal of methane from the environment.
Desirée: Recently, over 120 countries signed something called the Global Methane Pledge, which is essentially a pledge to reduce 45% of methane emissions by 2030. If you can do that, you can save about 0.5 degree centigrade warming by 2100. That’s a full third of the 1.5 degrees that politicians speak about. We can argue about whether or not that’s really the full extent of the warming we’ll see, but the point is that methane impacts near-term warming in our lifetimes. It’s one of the unique greenhouse gases that can do that.
It’s called a short-lived climate pollutant. What that means is that it lives in the atmosphere for about 12 years before it’s removed. That means if you take it out of the atmosphere, you’re going to have a rapid reduction in the total warming of planet Earth, the total radiative forcing. Your question more specifically was about, how do we grapple with this? We’ve already omitted so much methane. How do we think about, as technologists, getting it back? It’s a really hard problem, actually. In the air in the room in front of us that we’re breathing, only two of the million molecules in front of us are methane. 417 or so are CO2. If you think direct air capture of CO2 is hard, direct air capture of methane is that much harder.
The other thing that makes methane a challenge to abate is that activating the bonds in methane to promote its destruction or its removal is really, really tricky. It’s one of the smallest carbon-based molecules. It doesn’t have what we call “Van der Waals interactions”—there are no handles to grab onto. It’s not polar. That first destruction and that first C-H bond is what we as chemists would call “spin forbidden”. It’s hard to do and it takes a lot of energy to do that. One of the things we’ve developed in my lab is a catalyst that’s based on earth-abundant materials. There are some other groups at MIT that also work on these same types of materials. It’s able to convert methane at very low levels, down to the levels that we’re breathing in this room right now.
Sally: That’s fascinating. do you see that as being something that will move to practical application?
Desirée: One of the things that we’re doing to try to translate this to meaningful applications for the world is to scale the technology. We’re fortunate to have funding from several different sources, some private philanthropy groups and the United States Department of Energy. They’re helping us over the next three years try to scale this in places where it might matter most. Perhaps counterintuitive places, coal mines. Coal mines emit a lot of methane and it happens to be enriched in such a way that it releases energy. It might release enough energy to actually pay for the technology itself. Another place we’re really focused on is dairy.
Sally: Really interesting. You mentioned at the beginning that you were at MIT, you left, you came back. I’m just wondering — I’m new to MIT and, obviously, I’m just learning it — but how do you think about the MIT community or culture in a way that is particularly helpful in advancing your work?
Desirée: For me, I was really excited to come back to MIT because it is such an innovative place. If you’re someone who says, “I want to change the way we invent materials and processes,” it’s one of the best places you could possibly be. Because you can walk down the hall and bump into people who are making new things, new molecules, new materials, and say, “How can we incorporate the environment into our decision-making process?”
As engineering professors, we’re guilty of teaching our students to optimize for performance and cost. They go out into their jobs, and guess what? That’s what they optimize for. We want to transition, and we’re at a point in our understanding of the earth system, that we could actually start to incorporate environmental objectives into that design process.
Engineering professors of tomorrow should, say, optimize for performance and cost and the environment. That’s really what made me very excited to come back to MIT. Not just the great research that’s going on in every nook and corner of the Institute, but also thinking about how we might influence engineering education so that this becomes part of the fabric of how humans invent new practices and processes.
Sally: If you look back in your past, you talked about your childhood in Maine and observing these patterns. You talked about your training and how you came to MIT and have really been, I think, thriving here. Was there a path not taken, a road not taken if you hadn’t become an environmental chemist? Was there something else you really wanted to do?
Desirée: That’s such a great question. I have a lot of loves. I love the ocean. I love writing. I love teaching and I’m doing that, so I’m lucky there. I also love the beer business. My family’s in the beer business in Maine. I thought, as a biochemist, I would always be able to fall back on that if I needed to. My family’s not in the beer business because we’re particularly good at making beer, but because they’re interested in making businesses and creating opportunities for people. That’s been an important part of our role in the state of Maine.
MIT really supports that side of my mind, as well. I love the entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists here. I love that when you bump into people and you have a crazy idea, instead of giving you all the reasons it won’t work, an MIT person gives you all the reasons it won’t work and then they say, “This is how we’re going to make it happen.” That’s really fun and exciting. The entrepreneurship environment that exists here is really very supportive of the translation process that has to happen to get something from the lab to the global impact that we’re looking for. That supports my mission just so much. It’s been a joy.
Sally: That’s excellent. You weren’t actually tempted to become a yeast cell biologist in the service of beer production?
Desirée: No, no, but I joke, “They only call me when something goes really bad.”
Sally: That’s really funny. You experienced MIT as a student, now you’re experiencing it as a faculty member. What do you wish there was one thing about each group that the other knew?
Desirée: I wish that, speaking with my faculty hat on, that the students knew just how much we care about them. I know that some of them do and really appreciate that. When I send an email at 3:00 in the morning, I get emails back from my colleagues at 3:00 in the morning. We work around the clock and we don’t do that for ourselves. We do that to make great sustainable systems for them and to create opportunity for them to propel themselves forward. To me, that’s one of the common unifying features of an MIT faculty member. We care really deeply about the student experience.
As a student, I think that we’re hungry to learn. We wanted to really see the ins and outs of operation, how to run a research lab. I think sometimes faculty try to spare their students from that and maybe it’s okay to let them know just what’s going on in all those meetings that we sit through.
Sally: That’s interesting. I think there are definitely things you find out when you become a faculty member and you’re like, “Oh, so this is what they were thinking.” With regard to the passion of the faculty about teaching, it really is remarkable here. I really think some of the strongest researchers here are so invested in teaching and you see that throughout the community.
Desirée: It’s a labor of love for sure.
Sally: Exactly. You talked a little bit about the passion for teaching. Were there teachers along your way that you really think impacted you and changed the direction of what you’re doing?
Desirée: Yes, absolutely. I could name all of them. I had a kindergarten teacher who would stay after school and wait for my mom to be done work. I was raised by a single mom and her siblings and that was amazing. I had a fourth-grade teacher who helped promote me through school and taught me to love the environment. If you ask fourth graders if they saw any trash on the way to school, they’ll all say, “No.” You take them outside and give them a trash bag to fill up and it’ll be full by the end of the hour. This is something I’ve done with students in Cambridge to this day and this was many years on now. She really got me aware and thinking about environmental problems and how we might change systems.
Sally: I think it’s really great for faculty to think about their own experiences, but also to hear people who become faculty members reflect on the great impact their own teachers had. I think the things folks are doing here are going to reverberate in their student’s minds for many, many years. It also is interesting in terms of thinking about the pipeline and when you get students interested in science. You talk about your own early years of education that really ultimately had an impact.
It’s funny, when I became president at MIT, I got a note from my second-grade teacher. I remembered her like it was yesterday. These are people that really had an impact. It’s great that we honor teaching here at MIT and we acknowledge that this is going to have a really big impact on our student’s lives.
Desirée: Yes, absolutely. It’s a privilege to teach these top talents. At many schools around the country, it’s just young people that have so much potential. I feel like when we walk into that classroom, we’ve got to bring inspiration with us along with the tangible, practical skills. It’s been great to see what they become.
Sally: Tell me a little bit about what you do outside of work. When you ask faculty hobbies, sometimes I go, “Hobbies?” There must be something you spend your time on. I’m just curious.
Desirée: We’re worried we’re going to fail this part of the Q&A. Yes. I have four children.
Sally: You don’t need any hobbies then.
Desirée: I know. It’s been the good graces of the academic institution. Just for those people who are out there thinking about going into academia and say, “It’s too hard. I couldn’t possibly have the work and life that I seek if I go into academia,” I don’t think that’s true anymore. I know there are a lot of women who paved the way for me, and men for that matter. I remember my PhD advisors being fully present for their children. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do the same thing. I spend lots of time taking care of them right now. But we love being out in nature hiking, skiing, and kayaking and enjoying what the Earth gives us.
Sally: It’s also fun to see that “aha” moment in your children when they start to learn a little bit about science and they get the idea that you really can discover things by observing closely. I don’t know if they realize they benefit from having parents who think that way, but I think that also stays with them through their lives.
Desirée: My son is just waiting for the phone call to be able to be part of MIT’s toy design class.
Sally: That’s fantastic.
Desirée: As an official evaluator. Yes.
Sally: In the last five years or so, we’ve been through the pandemic. In practical terms, how you think about your work and your life, what do you do that has improved your life? I always hate the words of “work-life balance” because they’re so intermeshed, but just for the broader community, how have you thought about that?
Desirée: I’ve been thinking about my Zoom world and how I am still able to do quite a bit of talking to my colleagues and advancing the research mission and talking to my students that I wouldn’t have been able to do. Even pre-pandemic, it would’ve been pretty hard. We’re all really trained to interact more efficiently through these media and mechanisms. I know how to give a good talk on Zoom, for better or worse. I think that that’s been something that has been great.
In the context of environment, I think a lot of us—this might be cliched at this point—but realize that there are things that we don’t need to get up on a plane for and perhaps we can work on the computer and interact in that way. I think that’s awesome. There’s not much that can replace real, in-person human interaction, but if it means that you can juggle a few more balls in the air and have your family feel valued and yourself feel valued while you’re also valuing your work that thing that is igniting for you, I think that’s a great outcome.
Sally: I think that’s right. Unfortunately, though, your kids may never know the meaning of a snow day.
Desirée: You got it.
Sally: They may be on a remote school whenever we would’ve been home building snow forts.
Desirée: As a Mainer, I appreciate this fully, and almost had to write a note this year. Just let them go outside.
Sally: Exactly, exactly. As we’re wrapping up, just thinking about the future of climate work and coming back to the science, I think you’ve thought a lot about what you’re doing and impact on the climate. I’m just wondering, as you look around MIT, where you think we might have some of the greatest impact? How do you think about what some of your colleagues are doing? Because I’m starting to think a lot about what MIT’s real footprint in this area is going to be.
Desirée: The first thing I want to say is that I think for a long time, the world’s been looking for a silver bullet climate solution. That is not how we got into this problem and it’s not how we’re going to get out of it.
Desirée: We need a thousand BBs. Fortunately, at MIT, there are many thousands of minds that all have something to contribute. I like to impose, especially on the undergraduates and the graduate researchers, our student population out there, think, “How can I bring my talents to bear on this really most pressing and important problem that’s facing our world right now?” I would say just whatever your skill is and whatever your passion is, try to find a way to marry those things together and find a way to have impact.
The other thing I would say is that we think really differently about problems. That’s what might be needed. If you’re going to break systems, you need to come at it from a different perspective or a different angle. Encouraging people to think differently, as this community does so well, I think is going to be an enormous asset in bringing some solutions to the climate change challenge.
Sally: Excellent. If you look back over your career, and even earlier than when you became a faculty member, what do you think the best advice is that you’ve ever been given?
Desirée: There’s so much. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really great mentors. What is the best piece of advice? I think this notion of balancing work and not work. I’ve gotten two really key points of advice. One is about travel. I think that ties into this concept of COVID and whether now we can actually go remote for a lot of things. It was from an MIT professor. He said, “You know, the biggest thing you can do to protect your personal life and your life with your family is to say no and travel less. Travel eats up time on the front, in the back, and it’s your family that’s paying the price for that, so be really judicious about your choices.” That was excellent advice for me.
Another female faculty member of mine said, “You have to prioritize your family like they are an appointment on your calendar and it’s okay when you do that.” I think those have been really helpful for me as I navigate and struggle with my own very mission-oriented self where I want to keep working and put my focus there, but know that it’s okay to maybe go for a walk and talk to real people.
Sally: Go wild.
Desirée: Yes, that’s right.
Sally: This issue, actually, of saying no, not only to travel but thinking about where you really place your efforts and when there’s a finite amount of time. When I think about this—and advising junior faculty in terms of service—every faculty member is going to be asked way more things than they’re going to want to do. Yet, their service to the department, service to the Institute, is important, not only for their advancement but in how we create a community. I always advise people to say yes to the things they’re truly interested in and they’re passionate about, and there will be enough of those things.
Desirée: I have a flowchart for when to say yes and when to say no. Having an interest is at the top of the list and then feeling like you’re going to have an impact. That’s something I think, when we do this service at MIT, we really are able to have an impact. It’s not just the oldest people in the room that get to drive the bus. They’re really listening and want to hear that perspective from everybody.
Sally: That’s excellent. Thanks again, Desirée. I really enjoyed that conversation. To our audience, thanks again for listening to Curiosity Unbounded. I very much hope you’ll all join us again. I’m Sally Kornbluth. Stay curious.