Environmental Engineer Einmo Takes Global Perspective

April 15, 2005

By Gabriel Chen, written in 2005

Chris Einmo Exotic landscapes are not always distant and unapproachable. In 2002, just before the beginning of his sophomore year, Chris Einmo spent a summer in Montenegro, the heart of the Mediterranean, divided from Italy by the Adriatic Sea. Part of the former Yugoslavia, this republic is only an hour flight from Rome or Budapest, and one hour and a half from Zurich.

Einmo, a senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering, did not travel to Montenegro to raft down the canyon of the Tara River or hike the Biogradska Gora. Instead, the Floridian native had a mission -- despite not knowing or speaking Serbian or Albanian, Einmo surveyed 32 farms in different regions and collected environmental samples for analysis in an independent field study.

"I went there alone," Einmo said. "My mother was working for USAID and she knew a cooperative of farmers there that I could contact. USAID provided me with a translator and I went around with him to the communities and villages. The farmers in one region told me a lot of their relatives had cancer. I brought the water samples back to Duke and analyzed them, and found a lot of arsenic and toxic materials in their water supplies, which could explain a high incidence of cancer among the people there."

USAID works in agriculture, democracy & governance, economic growth, the environment, education, health, global partnerships, and humanitarian assistance in more than 100 countries. It became the first U.S. foreign assistance organization whose primary emphasis was on long-range economic and social development assistance efforts for the developing nations of the world.

Recalling the tempo of contemporary lifestyle and the beautiful mountains of Montenegro, Einmo said he also had a great time taking in its pastoral beauty. "For me, it was more of an education than a project. Being in Montenegro was like going into a time capsule from when the world was a different place," he said.

Looking back, Einmo wished he had taken more engineering courses before he went to Montenegro to give him a better foundation and understanding of environmental sampling.

"I was pretty open to the fact that I didn’t know anything," Einmo said. "If I had known more, I would have treated the soil sample on site. When I brought the soil samples back to Duke, we couldn’t analyze the nutrients because they had too much bacteria."

Two years later, after taking a plethora of courses such as biochemistry and microbiology at Duke, Einmo is collaborating with Karl Linden in the Pratt Fellows program to research the effect of ultraviolet disinfection on the toxicity of arsenic during water treatment. Linden, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, received the Stansell Family Distinguished Research Award last year for his work on using ultraviolet light to disinfect drinking water and destroy chemical pollutants.

Einmo’s work includes the design and construction of a bench-scale UV reactor, photochemical experiments using toxic materials, and High Performance Liquid Chromatographic ( HPLC)-UV spectrometry analysis of samples.

"The UV-radiation affects the DNA of bacteria in the water," Einmo said. "This radiation, however, can also affect other chemicals in the water. It’s useful to know about all these other effects because if chemicals that contain arsenic are broken down, then pure arsenic enters the drinking water supply."

Einmo is trying to determine how quickly the arsenic compounds break down because this will give him quantitative information to work with.

"Of course, we had challenges along the way," Einmo laughed. "We had a lot of errors during the first few times we ran our experiments. For example, our analysis showed that the arsenic content in the water had actually gone up even though that was impossible. I felt so frustrated that two week’s work was gone just like that, but the grad student that saw it just smirked and said ‘Hey, that’s research for ya.’ "

Einmo plans to attend graduate school to get his PhD in environmental engineering, albeit in the distant future.

"Right now, I want to go to countries like Mozambique and help the people there," said an excited Einmo, who is hoping to join the Peace Corps as an engineer after graduation. "With civil engineering, you want to be as prepared as you can be because people’s lives are in your hands. Engineering is a means to provide communities with basic needs, and more importantly to help them provide it for themselves."

Mention the word "graduation," however, and Einmo turns crestfallen. His expression shows the disappointment of a passionate senior leaving Duke this year.

"You only live through college once; It’s the best time of your life," he said. "When I leave, it’ll be the people here that I’ll miss most. Whenever I meet up with a couple of my friends, we talk about crazy things we did like stuffing each other into the thrash can of our freshman dorm. And I will remember the wonderful weather here too, which allows me to do everything outdoors. Durham isn’t this gigantic city where you would walk out of your apartment and you’re still in downtown. Here it’s quiet, idyllic, and peaceful. I love this place."

Einmo graduated in May 2005.