21:15 PM

Alumni Spotlight: Lisa Stabryla (CEE PhD ’21)

“It has been empowering to work with strong women who are at the top of their fields, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering.”

Lisa Stabryla

Lisa Stabryla was excelling in her AP math and science courses at Carrick High School in Pittsburgh when her teachers suggested she look into engineering as a career.

She knew she liked math and science, but engineering? She wasn’t sure.

“I didn’t really know what it meant to be an engineer,” she said. “I went in kind of blind. I didn’t know exactly what kind of engineering work I would want to do.”

But today, Stabryla is a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where she works in the Complex Microbial Systems group as an environmental engineer. Her time at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering helped her shape a career path that was just right for her. 

When deciding on an engineering program, she thought the Swanson School stood out from other schools in the area because of the many paths it offered her and the different opportunities she could pursue there. 

“I felt I could learn the most the quickest here,” she said, referring to Pitt’s faculty, state-of-the-art labs, research opportunities, and other resources she saw available to her. 

Stabryla chose to enter the Engineering Science program, which allowed her to design her own interdisciplinary curriculum around interests like materials science, nanotechnology, and bioengineering. She didn’t realize it at the time but this would equip her with the fundamentals for her graduate studies and eventual work in the environmental engineering field.

“I was taking a bunch of different courses and trying to figure out what exactly I was passionate about,” said Stabryla. 

During her studies, Stabryla completed three co-op rotations and an internship. Those experiences showed her what she didn’t like—an important part of anyone’s journey—but also what she did like: open-ended, discovery-based research. She pursued several undergraduate research opportunities in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and her path became clear.

After graduating in 2015, she joined Associate Professor Leanne Gilbertson’s lab as a graduate student researcher. There, she was introduced to the idea of using nanomaterials for water treatment and bacterial disinfection. Stabryla’s Engineering Science track, with its focus on materials science and nanotechnology, provided solid footing for her to pursue interdisciplinary work beyond the traditional tenets of environmental engineering on nanomaterials. 

“Traditionally, you might think of environmental engineers as designing and managing drinking water and wastewater treatment systems,” she said. “But my work uniquely combined materials science and microbiology to guide sustainable design of next-generation antimicrobial agents using nanotechnology, like nano-enabled antimicrobials, to combat antimicrobial resistance.” 

Stabryla says she never would’ve considered graduate school if it wasn’t for the support and encouragement of Pitt EXCEL, the Swanson School’s undergraduate diversity program, and her undergraduate research advisor, Dr. Kyle Bibby.

“As a commuter student, Pitt EXCEL helped me feel like I had developed a family on campus,” said Stabryla. “And importantly, they encouraged me to continue on to graduate school, something I had never even considered a possibility before until my final semester of undergrad.”

Today, Stabryla has a PhD in environmental engineering, which she completed in 2021. Her work at NIST employs molecular and culture-based microbiological methods to study and enable better detection of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, which pose a serious threat to global public health. It specifically addresses measurement challenges associated with antimicrobial resistance, an important part of NIST’s core mission

Stabryla says working with early- and mid-career female faculty members in engineering during her graduate work solidified her passion for engineering and a career in academic research. She hopes her work at NIST will give her a unique perspective to bring back to a university setting, where she plans to continue exploring creative solutions that protect public health and the quality of the environment. 

“I had a female advisor (Leanne Gilbertson) and my PhD committee was made up entirely of female experts in their fields. It has been empowering to work with strong women who are at the top of their fields, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering,” said Stabryla. ”That has given me the confidence I need to pursue my own career in academic research.”