Doctoral student finds meaning in research
Rebecca Kriss is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Charles E. Via Jr Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She works in the lab of University Distinguished Professor Marc Edwards, where her research investigates ways to help residents and utilities detect and address lead and copper contamination in drinking water. She is supported in part by a Doctoral Scholars fellowship from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.
Why environmental engineering?
When I was young, my parents told me I could be any kind of engineer that I wanted to be. My father was a machinist, and my mother had a degree in anthropology. They really stressed very practical careers, so that meant engineering. I’ve always been interested in gardening and sustainability and trying to grow all my own food, so environmental engineering seemed like the right path.
When you started graduate school at Virginia Tech, you already had a master's degree and five years of experience at the Environmental Protection Agency. What appealed to you about pursuing this research for your Ph.D.?
My research at the EPA was related to homeland security — if there was some kind of contaminated water from an attack or disaster, for example, how would you deal with it. It was research you hoped no one ever needed. And then I saw Marc’s research, which is working directly with residents. People really need what we do. Seeing that and getting to know some of the people in the group — it just felt like home.
You’ve said you think it’s important to make science accessible to the public, and even started an Instagram account specifically to document your experience as a scientist. Has science communication always interested you, or is that something that has evolved in graduate school?
Over time, both at the EPA and here, I realized that people didn’t really understand what I did. And when I was watching Marc’s ethics class, listening to him talk about Flint and Washington, D.C., and public trust, I started to think that people aren’t really engaging with science or scientists.
Some of my friends and I have family members who don’t trust science, or the establishment in general. And we’ll say, “But do you trust me?” I’m not saying they should trust all scientists because they trust me. But I think that when you start to humanize science and scientists, you realize that we’re all just here doing our best and trying to help people.
Has there been a part of your experience as a graduate student that has surprised you — something you wouldn’t necessarily have imagined yourself doing?
Calling people to tell them that they have lead in their water. We want them to know right away: Stop drinking this. I don’t think there’s anything that can really prepare you for that. To say, “This is something that is supposed to be life-giving and that you depend on for everything in your life, and I have to tell you that it is not good for you.” I think I was worried that people would be angry or upset, but I think for the most part they were just really thankful. They were just really thankful to have the result and to have someone that cared enough to try to help.
The Wall Street Journal interviewed you for an article about lead test kits. What do you think is important for the public to understand about this research?
My first paper was about lead test kits, ones you can get on Amazon — when they work and when they don’t work. There are three different types of at-home tests for lead in water, and many brands selling each type. The Wall Street Journal covered a portion of my research because they wanted to write about one particular type of test.
I also presented the research to the Water Quality Association because they are advocating for some type of certification for these kinds of tests. Right now there is no certification that these tests actually work — anyone can just put a new test on the market and say anything they want. The reality is that none of the tests on the market is perfect, and some types work better than others. I hope that my research can empower residents to be able to take their water quality into their own hands and help show them what options they have. I also hope that it’ll show manufacturers what gaps there are.
What do you think will be most memorable to you about your experience as a graduate student here?
I think helping people is probably the biggest thing for me. But there’s a lot of different moments and I think you miss them along the way, because you’re so busy. This interview is reminding me of a lot of great things I did, like getting invited to speak at conferences and the Wall Street Journal interview, which was pretty cool.
Grad school is so hard and so unique, and everyone’s experience will be different. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the other grad students in our group, and the community we’ve made. I get to do these great things with people I really care about, and, all together, we get to care for the community around us. I think that is a unique gift that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.