Faculty Spotlight: Ludmilla Aristilde

Ludmilla Aristilde

Ludmilla Aristilde

Inspired by her parents to become an educator, Professor Ludmilla Aristilde motivates her research group to constantly ask how and why to cultivate a new understanding that can contribute to the innovation of technology. 


Q1, Where were you born and where did you study (undergrad, grad, post-doc) 

I was born in Port-au-Prince, which is the capital of Haiti. I was raised in Brooklyn--since I moved there in my early teens. I finished high school in Brooklyn which has a vibrant Caribbean population. My high school was around 80% Caribbean and 99% Black. So, it was a huge culture shock to go from there to Cornell University where I studied as an undergraduate.  

In college, I did a dual-degree program. I have an art degree from Cornell's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning along with my engineering degree. I went to UC Berkeley for my Master's and Ph.D. degrees. I applied for multiple opportunities as I was finishing my Ph.D. and hoped to get one of them--and then I got two great opportunities, more than I could dream of. One was a Fulbright scholarship to go to France where I went right after I completed my Ph.D.; the other was a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the National Science Foundation. I had secured a postdoctoral position at Princeton so immediately after my Fulbright time in France, I went to Princeton for three years for my postdoctoral training.  

Q2, How long have you been at NU & briefly describe your research program? 

I was recruited to Northwestern about 4.5 years ago, which followed 7 years at Cornell University where I started my faculty career at Cornell. 
We, at the Aristilde Research Group, get excited about figuring out the mechanisms that control environmental processes and use this new understanding for environmental technology or environmental biotechnology. I would say that the first goal is understanding these processes so we can predict them better, and then the second aspect is understanding these processes so we can exploit them to develop new technology that is central to sustainability solutions.  

The reason I prefer to call us a “research group” instead of “a lab” is because we do both experimental and computational work. There are times that people are in the physical lab, other times the computer. Many of my undergraduates do computational and most of my Ph.D. students do both experimental and modeling research. My group asks why and how questions. We try to understand why and how things happen in an environment that controls the behavior of different organic processes. 

Q3, What courses do you teach? 

My undergraduate course, which is now called “Project Practicum” for Environmental Engineering, will be renamed “Dynamics in Chemical Transport and Transformation” starting next year. It is essentially a project-based class where students are acting as environmental consulting engineers tackling real-world scenarios. They work as teams of engineers on different projects that address real-world contamination scenarios. 

I also teach two graduate courses. The first one is “Surface Chemistry of Environmental Particles” where I teach the fundamental surface chemistry of different particles and how this chemistry is important in environmental processes or can be leveraged for engineering purposes. The second one is “Environmental Metabolomics” where students learn how to achieve chemical fingerprinting of organic processes, from the transport and transportation of carbons in rivers and soils to the metabolism of carbons in microbes of biotechnological relevance such as the production of fuels or plastics via biological processes. 

Q4, Did you always know you would become a professor? What attracted you to an academic career? 

Both my parents were teachers--my mom was a kindergarten teacher, and my dad was like the equivalent of a middle school teacher in the French system in Haiti, which played a huge role in my attraction to wanting to be an educator. Education was super important in our household growing up. As a Black family, my parents made it very clear to me and my brothers that academic pursuit was a way for us to achieve something significant. Also, I had an amazing chemistry teacher--she was Jamaican--when I was in high school in Brooklyn and she made me fall in love with chemistry. 

It was my third year in college that I decided, you know what? I want to be a teacher at the university level. I love this age level of students, like these young minds, and they’re in tune with what’s going on in the world, they see how they can be part of the world, and they want to do something about it. I found it very compelling to be part of mentoring and teaching students who are going through this transition of thinking about how they are going to make their mark in the world. Some of us professors were attracted first to the research aspects. But for me, it was the education part that attracted me first to being a professor. Eventually, I fell in love with research, which now combines with my passion for education.  

Q5, What is the most challenging part of your job? 

In terms of being a professor at a research institution, obviously, we teach in the classroom, but we also teach outside of the classroom, so we have Ph.D. students, and we have postdoctoral research. We are well-trained to be scholars and to train scholars. I enjoy that part of the job. The part of the job that we're the least trained on is managing different personalities and different people. We are not trained to be psychologists or managers of people. I think it is important as professors that we learn to be kind and responsive to everyone, even when it is challenging. To improve as a mentor requires investment and training. I've gone through training to be a better mentor. I am now in my 11th year as a professor. I'm a much better mentor than I was eight years ago.  

Q6, What do you consider your most significant research finding or accomplishment thus far? 

Earlier last year, we studied a type of bacterial species that can recycle carbon waste from both plants and plastics, which I think was significant because it said that we can use naturally occurring microbes that can do amazing things before we even engineer them. It's putting to the forefront that there's an untapped reservoir of nature-based solutions that we can use in biotechnology. 

We have new research to be published soon that will change the paradigm regarding the established view of how phosphorus in organic matter behaves in the environment. Phosphorus is an essential element for all forms of life and is an important component of fertilizers that are required to ensure food security in the world.  

Q7, Is there someone or something that has inspired you? 

I would say my parents; I don't think there's a better inspiration than them. I think my father was an intelligent, forward-thinking, visionary person and my mom was also visionary and the strongest woman I know. I'm grateful that I have both as parents. Despite all the challenges my parents faced growing up in Haiti, they made incredible sacrifices for all their children to be here in the States. We all have thriving lives here.  

Q8, What do you do for fun when you are not working? 

When not working, you would likely find me biking. I go to church regularly--I'm quite involved in my church. During the summer, I swim in the lake every day, five to six times a week. Beyond that, I read a lot, and I enjoy sports, either playing or watching them on TV. 

Q9, How do you explain what you do and why it is important to someone who isn’t a scientist or engineer? 

For someone who's not a scientist or engineer, I say I do work at the molecular level--which is the level of interactions that are invisible to the human eye--dictates what's happening in the visible world. That’s how I convince people why it's important that we study these things at the small nano and molecular scales. We need to understand these things at a small scale so that we can make better environmental or technological decisions on the things that we can see. Because then you can predict how things behave and develop a rationale for how to design or engineer a better way to achieve a sustainable world. 

Q10, What is one thing that has impressed you about living in Chicago? 

Growing up on an island until my early teens made me love being by the water--but I’m also a city girl. I don't think people appreciate or embrace Lake Michigan as much as I think they could. How amazing is it to live in a city and be by water, like even in the winter? Even when I can’t go swimming, I ride my bike to work every day by the lake and that has been very soothing--it's good for the soul. We live at the intersection of this big body of water and an urban center where we can have both a diversity of cultures and a wonderful outdoor environment.  

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