Pittsburgh, PA,
17:00 PM

Engineering Solutions for Mexico’s Water Crisis

CEE PhD candidate María José Jiménez received a prestigious award for her published work in water remediation

María José Jiménez, a PhD Candidate at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, came a long way.

Jiménez, who was born and raised in coastal Mexico, wanted to find solutions to her home country’s water and sanitation crisis. The country, which is home to 129 million people, struggles to provide clean water to more than half of its population – particularly in rural areas. 

She noticed at a young age that there was a stark difference in accessibility to clean water in her home country. Vizcarra’s family, who were middle class, were able to afford bottled water; however, some of her friends weren’t as fortunate and had to rely on a public well system. 

“The problem is that these contaminants are still entering groundwater,” Jiménez explained. “A large population of Mexicans are facing health issues because of this water and most of them can’t access safely managed sanitation practices in their homes. The problem is cyclical.” 

Developing a safer water system for her home country would eventually lead her to the Swanson School’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

María Jiménez in the lab

Jiménez is the first in her family to receive an accredited undergraduate degree, but she realized early in her career that to better understand and improve Mexico’s environmental engineering practices, she needed to come to the United States first. She pleaded her case with the Mexican government, which in return awarded her a prestigious three-year scholarship to continue her doctorate studies in the United States. 

Her mother is particularly proud as she dreamed of becoming a dentist, but wasn’t able to attend college as a young woman. Both of Jiménez’s parents wanted to ensure she was able to take steps towards her career that they weren’t able to and encouraged her from a young age to pursue STEM. 

“My family was worried, of course, because I was going to be so far away from home,” Jiménez said. “But they understood the value of the work I needed to do to help Mexico. Despite their fears, they were so proud.” 

Carlos Verdugo, a PhD student in Pitt’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Jiménez’s boyfriend, received the same scholarship to continue his studies. His mother, also a researcher, influenced his dedication to pursuing an education. During his time at Pitt, he published a journal article in Geoenergy Science and Engineering about multi-material wellbore plug placement. His research revolves around computer fluid dynamics, software development, data science, and machine learning. 

María Jiménez and Carlos Verdugo

Together facing the challenges and successes of graduate school has been a real boost for both Jiménez and Verdugo. 

“We both understand what it’s like,” Verdugo said. “We’ve got each other’s back and keep each other going.” 

Like Verdugo, who hopes to continue working in a laboratory setting, Jiménez’s sacrifice and work are paying off. Her project, “Manganese Peroxidase supported by metal-embedded silica sol-gel,” was recently published In Bioresource Technology and received the AEESP 2023 Best Poster Award

Manganese peroxidase is commonly used in industrial water treatment, but it has limitations because of its reliance on ions  – which aren’t always available in certain environments. Her research uses manganese peroxidase coupled with a silica gel in environmental remediation practices and industrial catalysis processes. Jiménez was able to immobilize the manganese peroxidase and the needed ions to create a large removal rate of contaminants. 

“Maria’s work is outstanding,” said Meng Wang, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “This could have a significant impact on the use of manganese peroxidase for sustainable water contaminant removal, lignin degradation in the paper industry, and biofuel production, among other applications.”

Her time at Pitt is just the start for Jiménez. She’s hoping to apply her research and expand her knowledge in the United States before returning to Mexico – taking advantage of all the opportunities and skills the United States offers to her. 

“I want to build my education in the United States and bring it back to Mexico,” Vizcarra said. “Mexican culture is rooted in family, and I can’t wait to be surrounded by them again.”