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Lisa Colosi-Peterson, PhD – Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Virginia


Lisa Colosi-Peterson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Virginia (UVA). She teaches in the Environmental & Water Resources program and leads the Environmental Biochemistry Laboratory at UVA. Her research group is dedicated to improving the efficiency and efficacy of wastewater treatments for the removal of organic contaminants. Dr. Colosi-Peterson holds a PhD and a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of Science in Biological & Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

Interview Questions

[] Was there a particularly formative experience, or a particular series of experiences that drew you toward environmental engineering? Or was it just something you gravitated toward gradually?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] I think the latter. I actually did not know that environmental engineering was a field when I first started college. My dad is an engineer and my mom is a nurse, so I liked the fusing idea of life sciences, especially biology and biochemistry, with engineering. At Cornell, I enrolled in a program that at that time was called Agricultural and Biological Engineering. While I was there, they changed the name of the program to Biological and Environmental Engineering, and my diploma says Biological Engineering.

[] What were some of the formative experiences that drew you toward environmental engineering?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] After my sophomore year I got an internship with DuPont. I’m from Delaware, my dad is a mid-level executive at DuPont, and he probably pulled some strings. I worked as an environmental engineering intern at DuPont’s corporate headquarters.

When I came on board, they were working on a project with the US Army, trying to deactivate a stockpile of chemical weapons in Indiana. They were sending the pre-treated chemical weapons via rail car to Wilmington, where I was working, and they were putting them into what at one time had been the world’s largest chemical production facility that still had a very large wastewater treatment plant. My job that summer was to assist the more senior engineers in designing a treatment process for the deactivated main ingredients and proving that it would be safe to use. As a sophomore in college, that seemed like an amazing project to walk into.

After that, I was hooked. I still think it’s almost magical that the wastewater comes in really, really dirty and comes out really, really clean. I went back to school after that summer and tweaked my approach to completing the curriculum to have much more environmental content because I wanted to pursue that as my career.

[] Was there a point at which you remember becoming aware that engineering or environmental science was a male-dominated field? Was it something you noticed during that internship?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] Well, I did two years of engineering as an undergraduate in what is now called the Biological and Environmental Engineering program. I think that program might have been 40% female. Have you heard of “the ethic of care?” It comes out of studies into why women find engineering appealing. Most frequently, they’re looking for fields where they feel like they can help take care of people and, traditionally, those have been biomedical and environmental engineering majors. At UVA, you can see that the highest enrollment as a percentage of women in a STEM field is biomedical, and the environmental side of civil/environmental engineering is right behind them.

When I went to work at the internship, the person I reported to was a woman, which in retrospect was unusual. But I didn’t think much about it at the time. Also, several of the consultants I was supporting were women. Environmental engineering is a relatively new field, having risen to prominence in the 1970s with the passage of landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act. So it may not be as male dominated as some of the older science and engineering fields. I have never felt particularly out of place as a woman environmental engineer.

[] In your role as an educator, what are you seeing in the classroom in terms of gender balance?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] At UVA, my environmental engineering upper level electives frequently have more women than men in them. Even if young women aren’t pursuing a degree in environmental engineering per se – let’s say they’re getting a mechanical engineering degree – we’ll frequently have them take a couple of introductory sustainability principles classes in our department because we’d like them to be able to apply sustainability tools and analytical approaches to whatever kind of engineering they may be doing. It is also noteworthy that the department I’m affiliated with – the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering – has four female faculty members out of 15 or 16, which is the highest percentage across all of the engineering disciplines at UVA.

[] There is data that backs up what you’re seeing in a broader sense. Women slightly outnumber men in degree programs devoted to environmental and natural sciences. However, when you look at the breakdown of the actual workforce, it’s more like 27% of environmental scientists and geoscientists are women. Some of this may be attributable to a holdover from an era when women weren’t encouraged to go into STEM fields. I’ve also spoken to experts who point out that popular representation of scientists/engineers skew heavily male. What are your thoughts on causal factors for the disparity or gender gap we’re seeing?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] I think you’re right about what in engineering we would call the “plug-flow problem.” People graduating with bachelor’s degrees in engineering are going into the workforce at the bottom of the pyramid. They’ve got to wait behind the people who have more senior positions.

In terms of increasing the number of engineering degrees that are granted: at UVA, I’ve taught the first semester Introduction to Engineering class five or six times. It’s for incoming first-years who are interested in engineering – students who haven’t yet declared a major, but who are looking at engineering. I was warned by a more experienced teacher that it would be eye-opening to see how many of the students have never met a practicing engineer. For me that was shocking. I grew up thinking that the world was full of engineers.

I think that exposure to other engineers early on is a contributing factor to helping students envision what their future can be, and it can be an important part of encouraging a young person to go into engineering. That’s why I think it’s so wonderful that there are youth-oriented STEM programs. I think without access to a functional, inspiring, role model, it’s hard to know that you would want to do this as a career.

[] I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but engineering has a reputation for being hard.

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] It is hard. Young women students come into my office fairly frequently and tell me, “This is hard.” So, I spend a lot of time cheerleading. I spend a lot of time saying, “Yes, but it’s meant to be hard.” I try to talk about how it’s an investment. You work hard for four years and then you reap the rewards when you get to pick a job that’s meaningful, stimulating, and – to be perfectly frank – gives you, as a young woman, the means to be financially independent. That’s something our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers didn’t have access to. At the end you will get a job. It may not be the job, but you will get a job, and you will be able to take care of yourself, and that’s invaluable. That’s my pitch.

[] In your personal statement on UVA’s website, you talk about your research centering on waterborne contaminants like hormones, steroids, estrogen, pharmaceuticals, and even personal care products, like perfumes and so forth. A lot of those contaminants come from products marketed to women, and they may impact women’s health acutely. Do you think there’s anything to the idea that it’s going to take more women scientists and engineers to fix problems like that, and to create a new, healthier paradigm for how we treat the environment and ourselves?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] That’s a very interesting question. My interest has always been rooted in the desire to take care of people, and my personal sense of investment in this field has really evolved as I’ve had children. Now it’s not just an interesting problem of taking care of other people, it’s my own family. In my courses I interject all sorts of things about motivations for wanting to do a good job cleaning water and wastewater by saying, “Now remember, we’re leaving the planet to our children and grandchildren, and these things are important because they’re so persistent in the environment.”

It’s hard to generalize about men vs. women, but I think it’s important for scientists and engineers to think like parents and family members, as opposed to just academics. It’s really alarming that there are so many things in the water. The Europeans seem to do a much better job. They use the “precautionary principle”: if they can’t prove something doesn’t cause harm, they won’t allow it to be sold and discharged. In contrast, in the US if no one can prove it’s something bad, then we basically allow it.

In Europe, there’s also a different mentality about work-life-balance, taking vacations, maternity leave, paternity leave, and I think that their more forward-looking approach to regulation and treatment of the environment may be consistent with a more holistic work-life balance.

[] You’re up-front about the implicit motivations for your research in the personal statement as well. You mention helping your family and your community. I wonder if it might be more difficult for a male engineer to convey those sentiments, and if that’s another reason to bring more women into the field?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] I think that might be right. But I also have many wonderful male colleagues. As a field, we tend to be particularly interested in serving the public. It’s a field that makes you care about others. It’s not the most lucrative field, so you’re not setting yourself up to make the kind of money you could in other types of engineering. It’s a stable and good quality of life, but no one’s doing it for the money or the glamour. I think women are potentially accustomed to that because traditionally women’s jobs haven’t been that high paying, but they are jobs that can make a difference.

[] Your personal statement ends by stressing the importance of mentoring. You say that you “love that so many girls and young women care about helping the environment and protecting human health, since that puts me in a position to mentor our future engineers.” Clearly, this is something you feel is important.

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] Absolutely. To me it’s so self-evident that better integration and representation would enrich the quality of the field. You know the stats; they’re so sobering. We’re not fully leveraging a tremendous part of our workforce. It’s been a man’s world for a long time, and I think that everyone should have access to the opportunity to work in a field that is exciting, interesting, and meaningful.

I may be the only faculty member in the School of Engineering who has an all-female research group. That wasn’t intentional; I don’t exclude men. But I have all female graduate students and all female undergraduate research assistants, and I’m proud of that. With the environmental problems we are facing, we need everyone’s best ideas.

[] A moment ago, you mentioned work-life balance. It’s an issue we always seem to come around to when we talk about in women in STEM fields. It’s not just a concern for women, but it may be more pressing for women. From what you see of the students coming through UVA, is this a major concern?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] Yes, I think it adds another layer of uncertainty. Many young women may not have a lot of role models to help them envision what their future might be like as a practicing engineer. They may not know many engineers, and then if you carve out the sub-section of the engineers that they do know that are women, that gets to be a really small number. Maybe zero. I think the lack of female role models to show someone how it can be done is disconcerting. I know that my students seem to be very interested in me and my family situation. I think it’s humanizing for them to see that I have a family. Their curiosity tells me that they are taking note of what their circumstances might be like in the future.

[] What other advice would you give to women who are considering a career in environmental engineering?

[Dr. Colosi-Peterson] I think it’s important to be educated and savvy about what you want. To the extent that you can put yourself in a position to be trained in an area that is desirable, you have more power to negotiate with an employer.

I also think that it’s important to ask questions and find role models. I get a lot of emails from women asking if they can visit my lab or ask me questions about my work. I try to respond to all of them in a positive, encouraging way because I think people have a right to know about the field, and networking can be difficult for women in a male-dominated field. The fact is that academic engineering is still heavily male. So, if you’re a woman who’s thinking about an engineering degree, it’s worth taking the time to reach out to other women in the field. Find someone who can tell you what it’s all about.

It’s also important to realize that there is a lot of practical environmental engineering to be done in the field, a lot of which does not require a PhD. Only a small percentage of people with environmental engineering degrees go into teaching and academic research. For other types of jobs, you do need a master’s degree. That’s not just my own opinion; it’s what we hear from our field’s professional organization, the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE).