Story by Shruthi Nagaraj, Communications/Administrative Coordinator, UConn SNE IAC
Dr. Li started working at UConn in 2006 and since then she has advanced in her career at UConn from Assistant Professor to Full Professor and she has been working on the full spectrum research including the wastewater treatment process, water sensors, soil sensors, real time in situ monitoring, sensor materials data-driven modeling and membrane systems. She has collaborated extensively with several UConn faculty members, guided 10 doctoral students who graduated under her supervision, and currently advises 10 more Ph.D. students. Her current areas of research include biological wastewater treatment, result recovery, water monitoring, water sensor development, water-soil real time in-situ monitoring, soil carbon and energy efficiency in the wastewater treatment.
Dr. Li’s interest in wastewater treatment technology began during the junior year of her undergraduate program at Harbin Institute of Technology (Harbin, China) and she was constantly nurtured by her professors and fellow researchers. She was amazed by the process and technology used to treat wastewater and its benefits to the environment along with the recovery of nutrients like nitrogen in the process. She was always intrigued by chemistry and microbiology, so she continued to pursue the same field even during her master’s program. She feels fortunate to have worked and learned from some of the best professors and mentors throughout her career. Dr. Li opines that it is very important for a researcher to have a vision about how one can cultivate one’s abilities to broaden the viewpoint of the field. She also says it is important to be multidisciplinary and tailor the work in the direction of ever-changing needs of the industry. She has always been very fascinated by the fundamentals of scientific principles and, as an engineer, she loves solving real world problems. She finds it fun and mesmerizing to be able to find solutions to the problems in the industry with her vast experience in various research areas. Dr. Li strives to work towards finding ways to lower the contaminants in wastewater at a lower cost through her research. She and her team in collaboration with the industry are developing low-cost sensors that achieve longer lifetimes.
Dr. Li’s passion and her area of research align with the mission and goals of UConn’s SNE-IAC to monitor the wastewater contaminants, evaluate and reduce the energy consumption, and improve energy efficiency of the wastewater treatment processes in the industry. There are about 10,000 wastewater treatment plants of all sizes in the United States alone. These facilities contribute towards 1.5% of the nation’s electricity consumption, which is quite significant. This has driven her to constantly look for ways of improving the performance of the processes and increasing the energy efficiency of these plants. Her association with the SNE-IAC has proven to be highly advantageous in understanding the processes involved in the wastewater treatment facilities. She and her team of doctoral students have been working towards developing the procedure for conducting audit assessments for the wastewater treatment plants.
Dr. Li’s extensive work in her field of work has brought her numerous accolades and honors. She has published over 170 high profile journal papers with her students. In 2009, she and her team developed the first pilot-scale multi-anode/cathode microbial fuel cell tester to harvest bioelectricity from wastewater. In 2018, she and her team conducted continuous monitoring for 7 days with nitrogen sensors using solid-state ion-selective membrane sensor technology. During the last several years, her work has been featured on the cover of one of the most prestigious engineering journals, Environmental Science and Technology. In addition, her team has been invited by Environmental Science and Technology for writing three high-impact critical reviews of machine learning in environmental systems, real-time water monitoring, and continuous soil monitoring. Dr. Li was awarded by the Connecticut Technology Council with the ‘Woman of the Year’ honor in the year 2010 for her work on bioenergy research and resource recovery from wastewater treatment. She was honored with the Centennial Professorship for her exceptional impact on teaching and outstanding contribution within the School of Engineering for the term 2017 – 2020. In 2019, she was included in Stanford University’s list of top 2% of national researchers and in 2020, from UConn, she was included in the top 2% researchers internationally.
Dr. Li is proud that most of her Ph.D. students have successfully landed in academic career after graduating from UConn, and earned recognition for their work globally, including NSF Career award. She has to her credit some of the most prestigious grants to continue contributing to the work in her field. She is leading a National Science Foundation (NSF) Signals in the Soil (SitS) project and working with researchers from England for developing sensors to monitor the nitrogen in soil, achieve energy saving in irrigation, reduce environmental pollution. She and her team are participating in several major research projects such as the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) grant from NSF for microplastics removal from wastewater, and the Resource Recovery grant from DOE for anaerobic digestion profiling, modeling, and optimization. These are just a few to name among many others.
Dr. Li is a member of many societies and associations like the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP), Water Environment Federation (WEF), and International Water Association (IWA).
As a closing note, when asked to say a few words about Environmental Engineering to inspire and motivate the younger generation and upcoming engineers, she said, “It is an extremely fun and multidisciplinary major. One can learn about many interesting topics in this field.” She says it is important to keep up one’s passion and vision always.
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