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Graduate Student Spotlight: Bridging Engineering & Social Sciences

Published: Thursday, 26 Jan 2017
Author: Joy M Whitten
Department: Latin American Studies Center

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Cristina Gauthier-Hernández (Ph.D. student, Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences) pursued undergraduate studies in environmental engineering at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. During her undergraduate program, she enrolled in a Portuguese for Spanish speakers course, which launched her engagement in Brazil.

In 2011, Cristina was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to carry out research on renewable energy and sustainable solid waste management practices in a rural community in Bahia, Brazil. Her research plan embodied humanitarian engineering principles: to design and implement a technology that would improve both environmental conditions and quality of life for community members. Accordingly, she identified the largest solid waste generator in the community, a local nursery.  She designed and constructed a biogas system, compost area, and vegetable garden to provide alternative management of domestic organic waste, thereby minimizing the harmful effects of burning, burial, and dumping. While developing her project, Cristina was actively engaged with the community, tutoring children, offering English lessons, and facilitating daycare activities. Still, she felt something was missing. Devising a technological solution (a biogas system) to an environmental challenge and leaving behind operational manuals (albeit in Portuguese) was "void of social components." 

This led Cristina to seek training that would bridge her academic background in engineering with the social sciences. A visit to MSU and a series of conversations with Hannah Distinguished Professor Dr. Emilio Moran and his research team convinced Cristina to come to MSU to pursue PhD study on the intertwined environmental and social impacts of dams in the Brazilian Amazon. She won a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to fund her PhD studies at MSU.

Cristina was awarded a CLACS graduate student research grant to carry out summer field research in 2016. She mapped the densities and locations of septic tanks, water wells, and dumping sites in Altamira, Brazil, the site of one of the world's largest hydroelectric dams. She found that dam construction has resulted in an increase in population and water use; it has also resulted in an increase in solid waste and wastewater. Most homes rely on septic tanks rather than a connection to the local sewer system, and many households rely on wells for access to water. Solid waste collection is irregular. Thus, as the reservoirs behind the dam fill, the rising water table will increase the likelihood of groundwater contamination from septic tanks, putting the health of Altamira's population at risk. Cristina is currently preparing a manuscript for publication based on this summer research and making plans to seek external funding for additional research.