Ph.D. Student Spotlight: Marika Nell

Marika Nell working in lab

Marika Nell is a Ph.D. student who works in the Helbling Research lab where they are particularly interested in the occurrence and fate of organic chemicals in natural and engineered water systems. Nell is a recent recipient of the Provost Diversity Fellowship. Provost Diversity Fellowship recipients are among those fellowship recipients recognized as Graduate School Dean’s Scholars

Marika Nell outside and smilingWhat is your area of research and why is it important?
I work to discover and measure emerging contaminants in water and wastewater. Whether it's pharmaceuticals, pesticides, or cleaning supplies, humans use vast quantities of chemicals every day in our homes and industries. These chemicals can make their way into wastewater and into the rivers, lakes, and streams that serve as our drinking water. Even at low levels, some of these chemicals can impact ecosystems and human health. My work helps us understand what is in our water and wastewaters (especially wastewater from oil and gas operations). From there, we can use this knowledge to assess the risks of chemical contamination and to remove chemicals through water treatment. 

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
I have always enjoyed being outside in nature and have wanted to work to minimize our impact on the environment. When I was young, my parents took me to see the Berkeley Pit, which is an abandoned copper mine in Montana. There, I saw a massive toxic lake that threatens the water supply of Butte, Montana and has killed large flocks of snow geese over the years.  I also learned about the Superfund program and the EPA's efforts to remediate the site. This was my first exposure to the idea that engineering could be used to protect the health of humans and the environment. I have been interested in environmental engineering and water quality ever since. 

What are your hobbies or interests do you like to do outside of your research?
On the fun side of my hobbies, I enjoy rock climbing, hiking, yoga, baking and cooking. In particular, I learned to rock climb here at Cornell through PE classes and other grad students. Climbing has been a great way to destress and foster resilience.  

My other interests include building supportive communities and developing professional development programming for graduate students. I have worked with the Civil and Environmental Engineering Graduate Student Association and the Graduate and Professional Women's Network at Cornell to make spaces where graduate students can meet new people and to host events that give students the tools they need to succeed at Cornell and in any workplace. 

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?
I was impressed by Cornell's research opportunities and resources! I started working with Prof. Damian Helbling as part of the initial cohort of students in the Helbling Research Group. Prof. Helbling was open to working with me to develop the research topic of my choice and had the state-of-the-art instrumentation that would let us approach research questions in new and exciting ways. 

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
During my PhD, I fostered three dogs through Cayuga Dog Rescue. They were great writing buddies who forced me to take walks no matter the weather! 


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