“As a kid, that really resonated with me about the damage to the environment, and it made me want to improve the environment,” said Cwiertny.
Cwiertny’s father was an engineer and managed to get him in contact with a consulting firm that was using microorganisms to break down oil through a process called bioremediation. At the time, it was a new and emerging field, and Cwiertny was able to use some of these microorganisms to do tests and study the rate at which they break down pollutants, resulting in a first place prize in a couple contests he entered.
“That maybe romanticized the idea of being a scientist for me,” Cwiertny said, laughing. “I won $300 and thought you could make real money in research.”
Today Cwiertny is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, researching water quality and wastewater treatment.
His work is a mix of chemistry and engineering. It involves studying what pollutants do when they are released into the natural environment, as well as developing new approaches for how to remove those pollutants.
A surprising finding is that many pollutants used every day behave in unique and unexpected ways. One example is the chemical trebolone, which is a steroid given to beef cattle to bulk them up for beef production. Though trebolone is known to be harmful to the environment and can disrupt the function of aquatic organisms, the assumption has been that it breaks down very quickly in the environment.
In reality, the energy from sunlight does break the chemical down, but at night without any sunlight, it undergoes a chemical reaction causing it to regenerate.
“It should disappear quickly, but in actuality the chemistry makes it far more complex,” said Cwiertny. “Sometimes pollutants don’t do what you would think they’d do.”
In the next few years, Cwiertny expects humans will become more reliant than ever on advanced water treatment to take polluted water to a level that’s really clean. Turning waste water into usable drinking water is already a popular method in other parts of the United States.
Cwiertny said Iowans need to learn to rely more on sustainable approaches to manage runoff from agriculture. Natural plants and landscapes can be better used to stimulate the biological processes that break down nitrogen before it reaches the water sources.
The real impact on both people and the environment is one of the things Cwiertny enjoys most about his research.
“We have a clear need to make sure we have water for everyone that needs it,” said Cwiertny. “There’s a clear impact of trying to improve humanity, and that’s fun.”
He also gets excited by the students who are inspired by his coursework and the enthusiastic graduate students he works with.
One piece of advice he frequently tells his students is to always ask the next question and never stop with a result.
“Always try to figure out why,” said Cwiertny. “Keep going deeper. That’s where true discovery happens.”
If Cwiertny weren’t a researcher, he might have become a… religious studies professor.
“The classes in college that always fascinated me the most were religious studies classes, so maybe a professor or scholar in that area,” said Cwiertny. “And then growing up I always wanted to be a baseball player.”
When Cwiertny is not working, he can usually be found… chasing after his kids, ages five and two-and-a-half.
“When they let me, I try to golf,” said Cwiertny. “That’s my hobby, and the kids are my passion.”
Cwiertny is currently reading… about water.
“I’m kind of a nerd in that I read books about water. What I most recently read is called Water 4.0. It’s about urban water systems.”
By Anne Easker