Graduate Study
Ph.D. Student Spotlight
Ph.D. Student Spotlight: Emma Shapiro

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Emma Shapiro

While she may have studied chemistry as an undergraduate, Emma Shapiro is now in the third-year Ph.D. program and she's no fish out of water. During the summer, she traveled to Israel as a student leader on the Global Engineering Trek (GET). She is also a part of the Israel-U.S. Collaborative Water-Energy Center (CoWERC) consortium. 


1. Where are you from? 

Leawood, Kansas 

2. Where did you get your undergraduate degree, and what was your major? Do you have an MS? 

I studied chemistry at Wesleyan University and came directly to NU after getting my bachelor’s in 2021.  

3. What attracted you to engineering? 

I explored graduate programs in both chemistry and environmental engineering, but ultimately decided that engineering has more applications. Studying environmental engineering gives me the opportunity to take research/materials that are being developed in chemistry labs and study ways that they can be directly applied to real world problems.

4. What attracted you to pursue a Ph.D. in your specialty area? 

I was particularly interested in environmental chemistry in school and participated in a variety of different research projects in the field – such as studying metal nanoparticles for cleaner energy production and the degradation of oils in ancient remains for archaeological dating. During COVID, when we were sent home from college, I worked at a biotech company on optimization of their air purification systems. Working with the engineers there encouraged me to continue my education after my undergrad and pursue a PhD. At the time, I did not have a concrete idea of the research I wanted to do in graduate school, but I had general interests in water - specifically water in Israel. 

5. How do you explain your thesis research to a non-scientist? 

My research is focused on evaluating novel methods for removing organic contaminants from wastewater, specifically PFAS (the forever chemicals) and pharmaceuticals. I am testing novel adsorbents, which are developed by the Dichtel lab at Northwestern, and predicting their performance in full-scale systems. The goal of this project is to integrate the adsorbent into actual wastewater treatment systems, so that wastewater can be safely reused. Water scarcity and decreased water quality are major global challenges and expanding water reuse practices would significantly increase total available water resources for applications such as irrigation, industrial uses, and drinking water augmentation.

6. What attracted you to NU? 

I was interested in working with Prof. Aaron Packman because of his leadership in the Northwestern Center for Water Research, which partners with several Israeli Universities and companies. The project I am working on is a part the Israel-U.S. Collaborative Water-Energy Center (CoWERC), a consortium consisting of members from research organizations, private companies, and water utilities, which aims to address challenges at the water-energy nexus. Being a part of this consortium has given me opportunities to travel within the U.S. and Israel to meet with collaborators and develop technologies that can be scaled up and tested for implementation. The opportunity to work on applicable issues and their collaborative nature drew me to Northwestern. 

7. What has been the highlight of your time at NU and CEE? 

The collaborations and opportunities to travel to meet and learn from our partners has been a major highlight in the program. Last year, I traveled to Israel with three other PhD students for two weeks to learn about other CoWERC research and meet with collaborators. I also had the opportunity to travel to Austin, TX for three weeks and learn hands-on lab techniques from engineers at AECOM.  

Most recently, I traveled to Israel as a student leader on the Global Engineering Trek (GET) on Water in Israel. I have been to Israel several times before, but I have never gone a trip to Israel that is focused on water issues, and it was interesting and unique experience to travel around the country learning specifically about all things pertaining to water.

8. What has been the most challenging aspect of your graduate school experience?

Independence is one of the greatest parts of pursuing a Ph.D., while also being one of the most challenging aspects. It’s important to self-motivate and treat the position like a full-time job, but no one is actively holding you accountable/keeping track of the hours that you put in. Also, coming to Northwestern without an engineering degree or any experience with environmental engineering was a challenge and there was a huge learning curve.

9. Can you tell us about your experience being mentored or mentoring others? 

As mentioned above, I traveled to Israel as a student leader on the GET Israel trip this summer. GET takes undergraduates from various years and majors to Israel to learn about water infrastructure, technology, and research. The students learned about water in the modern world and from a historical point of view at various archaeological sites. I really loved having the opportunity to interact with the students and learn about their interests. There were students from a wide variety of majors including different engineering disciplines, religion studies, political studies, and others, but water is a central topic in all these areas.  

I hope to be able to continue being involved with this trip – it is an incredible hands-on learning opportunity for students, and I would love to continue teaching them about water and learning from them. I had to balance the stress of being in place of authority and making sure everyone was safe/where they needed to be, but also spending time with them outside of the organized learning and help them foster new friendships with each other.  

10. What are your interests or hobbies outside of your research? 

Outside of research, I like to spend time with friends in Chicago and Evanston. I take any opportunity to be outdoors – especially during the few months of the year when the weather is nice - I love to run along the Evanston lake-front path, go for long walks, and play golf, tennis and pickleball. I also spend a lot of time cooking, reading books or listening/audiobooks, doing the NYT crossword puzzle, and playing games (especially scrabble, but I can be pretty competitive).