Environmental Chemist

Dianne D. Gates-Anderson

Dianne D. Gates-Anderson works at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory outside of San Francisco, where she and her coworkers develop treatment technologies for “really nasty wastes.”

It’s her job to combat the harmful effects of both hazardous and radioactive waste, and at the moment she is working on the clean-up procedure for a worst case scenario in a large city – the explosion of a nuclear bomb.

Recently she worked with explosive experts to build a small bomb and then detonate it in a controlled area so they could see what happens to certain materials when a bomb goes off.

“I like the fact that because I am a researcher and an engineer my job never becomes routine or boring,” she said. “I get to move from one challenging problem to another, so there is always something new and interesting to look forward to.”

Gates-Anderson’s work, however, also deals with more ordinary waste-related risks. Most households, for example, have some type of hazardous waste -- old batteries, mercury thermometers, pesticides, she said, and it would be extremely dangerous if these materials ended up in municipal landfills where they could potentially pollute the soil and groundwater.

“I work to develop processes to treat these types of waste,” she said, “so they become less hazardous and help keep our community, families and the environment safe.”

To treat hazardous waste scientists use a combination of chemcial and physical processes. They would use chemical processes like oxidation (what happens when you use bleach on dirty clothes) and neutralization (like mixing lemon juice or vinegar and baking soda) to treat contaminated solids and liquids.

The physical proccesses include absorption (what happens when liquid is sucked into a sponge) and evaporation (what happens when you boil off a liquid), she said, and they “can be combined with chemical processes or used by themselves to treat many of the different waste that I encounter on my job.”

Gates-Anderson has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, and she received a great deal of special training before she started working with hazardous and radioactive materials.

Her interest in science began in the ninth grade with her first chemistry class. That’s where she first learned how to find the answers she needed “so I could understand what was going on in the world around me.”

She recommends that youngsters today “take all of the math and science courses that you can. Don't see chemistry (or any science course for that matter) as being hard,” she said. “Just think of it in terms of all the things around you that you can understand based on scientific prinicples.”

“I like the fact that because I am a researcher and an engineer my job never becomes routine or boring because I get to move from one challenging problem to another, so there is always something new and interesting to look forward to.