REU student uses chemistry to address environmental concerns

By: Maria Gabriela Gonzalez Starchek

Growing up in Puerto Rico surrounded by nature, Juanita Carballeira knew one thing for sure: she wanted to contribute to keeping the planet’s unique environments safe.

Carballeira – an undergraduate student at the University of Puerto Rico – had been trying to find an opportunity that would differ from the experiences offered by her home university’s chemistry department. This summer, Carballeira joined the FIU Institute of Environment’s Coastal Ecosystems Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).

Although she has always been passionate about the environmental field, she has never gotten the chance to focus on marine and coastal ecosystems. On a friend’s recommendation, Carballeira looked into the institute’s Coastal Ecosystems REU. The program would give her the hands-on coastal and marine research experience she wanted.

Carballeira worked in Piero Gardinali’s research laboratory with mentorship from Ph.D. students Kassidy Troxell and Brian Ng. 

“I was able to refine my research and laboratory skills in the field of analytical chemistry,” Carballeira said. 

She focused on detecting and identifying wastewater tracers throughout the Coral Gables waterway while working in the institute’s Environmental Analysis Research Laboratory. These wastewater tracers are compounds that are unique to wastewater treatment plants and septic tank effluent. Carballeira analyzed two man-made wastewater tracers, Carbamazepine and Sucralose.

“Our findings showed wastewater treatment plant systems in Southeastern Florida are not effective in removing these artificial compounds,” Carballeira said. “Future research will analyze various endocrine-disrupting chemicals so we can gain a better understanding of what is affecting the urban water system.”

This first research experience helped Carballeira realize she wants to be involved in research until she graduates. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry after she graduates. Carballeira hopes to bring awareness to others about environmental science and the importance of preserving our fragile ecosystems.