How did you become interested in chemistry?
I became interested in chemistry when I was an undergrad student. I was fortunate enough to have two excellent professors for general chemistry and organic chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico. I became fascinated with chemical mechanisms. In grad school, I became interested in environmental chemistry and the role chemistry plays in solving environmental problems.
How do wildfires change drinking water?
You can have more sediments, more organic compounds in the water. You may not be able to remove everything. If you have higher levels of dissolved organic matter, you can form more disinfection byproducts. You still have to treat the water to the same standards, but with more contaminants, more particles in it, it becomes more difficult to do so.
What methods do you use to study the impact of wildfires on drinking water?
We collect samples of soil from the watershed, and then we combust them to simulate what would happen during a wildfire. We put those samples in a rainfall simulator to simulate different rainfall intensities. Then we look at the amount of sediments in the runoff, how much water gets infiltrated through the soil and the quality of the infiltration. Then we figure out why we observe the changes in water quality.
What we’re hoping to do is scale our work to a watershed size. If we can provide this to drinking water utilities, they might be able to predict how badly a wildfire will affect water quality.