Nelson da Luz is a postdoctoral researcher in the Environmental and Water Resources Engineering group within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UMass.
How did you become involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?
To be completely honest, I didn’t even know what STEM was until I had already decided to go to Manhattan College for engineering, but even without that knowledge beforehand, I had already lived a childhood and adolescence that predisposed me to get involved in a technical profession. Some of my hobbies as a youth involved building with Lego and model rocketry. Around the age of 8, I said that I wanted to be an architect, tying together my interests in both art and construction. I generally excelled in mathematics and the sciences compared to my peers, so my high school guidance counselor suggested that I consider engineering. I gained some experience with the engineering style of design while I was completing my Eagle Scout project which also showed to me that I could possibly be successful in a technical profession. My time in the Boy Scouts also led me to gain a strong appreciation and desire to protect the natural environment. All these things in combination are what led me to become involved in STEM.
How did you choose environmental engineering?
I specifically got into environmental engineering while I was taking the course “Environmental Engineering Principles” as a sophomore at Manhattan College. I became more interested in water topics from taking that class and ended up incorporating those interests into my extra-curricular activities. I was part of the Catholic Relief Services Campus Ambassador program, and because of my interest in water, I was appointed to lead a committee focused on water and sanitation. The pivotal point in my story came in January 2014, on a service-immersion trip to Haiti as part of Manhattan College’s Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience. Throughout our trip, we used 5-gallon water jugs for our drinking water. The water from the tap at the Lasallian Christian brother’s house where we stayed was not safe to drink. A few days into our stay at the brothers’ house we had used 8 of those water jugs. When one of the brothers told Brother Nicolai, the oldest brother in the house, that there were no more water jugs left, he was left in a state of pure amazement. He said it was impossible. I had filled my water bottle three quarters full at this point and when I realized what the brothers were talking about, I stopped filling my bottle. I was both embarrassed and astonished at the amount of water we had used in such a short amount of time. And that was just drinking water. It didn’t include the water we used for washing our hands and showering. I realized that something was wrong, on a higher level. Why was it that the brothers didn’t have a consistently available and quality water source? It was something to reflect on throughout the rest of the day while we were doing a service project in the local community. It was something to reflect on when the people that were helping us from the community asked if anyone had an extra water pouch because they were thirsty and didn’t have one.
After we finished the project, we sat down with the group of men we had been working with throughout the day and had a really powerful conversation. Both sides, our group, and the men we worked with, asked each other some hard questions. One question that stood out to me though was this: “What are your hopes for the future? Your desires?” When it came to my turn, I spoke words that changed the course of my life for good, a defining moment. I replied, “I want to help people get clean water.” I had a chance to think about what I said for the rest of the day, and by the time that our evening reflection came around, I realized something very important. I realized that when I said those words, “I want to help people get clean water”, I truly meant it. They were words that I said before I left for the trip, but for the first time, I knew that I truly meant them. From that point forward, I’ve committed my professional life to be part of the world’s efforts to increase access to clean water in the environment and for supplying folks with clean drinking water.
What is your background before starting at UMass?
Before UMass, as described above, I went to Manhattan College. While there I was heavily involved with campus ministry and social action, particularly on topics related to water and sanitation. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I continued there to earn my master’s degree in environmental engineering doing research under Dr. Kevin Farley. During my master’s work, I was involved in environmental modeling projects including modeling bioaccumulation of hydrophobic organic contaminants in benthic invertebrates and modeling sediment transport in the freshwater-tidal section of the Hudson River in New York. My experiences in graduate research along with the kind support of Manhattan College faculty led me to consider earning my doctorate. I applied to a few institutions, but ultimately ended up choosing UMass, where I’ve now been since Fall 2017!
Why did you decide to come to UMass?
Out of all the programs to which I applied, UMass ended up being the best choice for a few reasons. Firstly, the research opportunities offered by Dr. Kumpel were the most enticing of the different places that I had considered. The reason I found the research interesting was on account of my previous involvement in water and sanitation efforts during my time at Manhattan College. It seemed very cool to me, to be able to do that type of work in an academic setting. Secondly, I found the UMass EWRE community quite welcoming. I remember when I was on my visit to campus before choosing to attend UMass, that some of the graduate students invited the visitors over to their home, which helped me to get a better sense of the community and character of the folks I could potentially be working alongside during my doctoral studies. I had also gotten somewhat familiar with UMass earlier while participating in the Northeast Graduate Student Water Symposium (NEGSWS) twice while I was a master’s student at Manhattan College.