Katya CherukumilliScholar Profile

Name: Katya Cherukumilli
Country: United States (Orlando, Florida)
Field of study: Engineering

Background: “As a child I was always obsessed with nature and the environment,” says Katya Cherukumilli, an environmental engineering doctoral student who still finds time to enjoy hiking camping, and rock climbing when she’s not working in the lab of Professor Ashok Gadgil.

In 2015, Katya received a Big Ideas @Berkeley prize when she teamed up with four other graduate students to develop a bauxite-based defluoridation technique that could change the world for communities whose water source contains dangerously high levels of fluoride. The toxic water she studied in rural India causes anemia, tooth decay, and skeletal deformation. Her project also received first place in UC Irvine’s Designing Solutions for Poverty Contest.

As an undergraduate in environmental science, policy, and management at Berkeley, Katya conducted climate change research in the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado with ESPM Professor John Harte. “It was a wonderful opportunity to be on my own while working alongside other scientists doing their own projects,” she says, noting that interdisciplinary collaboration and mentoring are what make Berkeley unique. When she completes her Ph.D. in environmental engineering in 2017, she hopes to work at a national lab, university, or for a nonprofit.

In her own words

I chose Berkeley for my graduate work because the research topics of the professors at Berkeley are so application based, very impactful, and the professors here care about implementation of technology rather than just progressing the intellectual part of it. Also Berkeley’s environmental engineering program is the best in the country—our professors are unmatched anywhere else.

I first had exposure to Professor Ashok Gadgil’s lab as an undergrad working with the Darfur Cook Stove Project as a stoves tester, testing the contaminants coming out of the stoves from Haiti and Ethiopia. When I joined his lab group as a grad student, I began research on fluoride, which is a big problem in India and Africa, and specifically even in the state where I’m originally from in India. So it seemed to make sense that if I were ever to do field work, to do it where I’m from: Andhra Pradesh. It seemed to me that even though the fluoride problem has existed there for so long — almost a century — most technologies that are available don’t target the poorest population. And so it seemed there was room for some sort of a breakthrough.

Our lab proposes to develop a technology that is locally sourced and affordable, highly effective, culturally appropriate, and requiring minimal manpower to operate and maintain. We are investigating bauxite ore, the raw material for producing alumina and aluminum, as a potential sustainable method of fluoride removal. In the time it takes to earn one Ph.D., you can’t tell how good the solution will be because, in five years, you can’t develop the technology, test it rigorously, show performance, implement it in a community, and build a business plan. But I’m doing what I can and, based on preliminary lab reports, it looks very promising. It looks like it could be a very efficient, cost-effective way to remove fluoride. So there’s a lot of hope.

Honors and awards

  • UC Irvine Designing Solutions for Poverty Competition Winner
  • Big Ideas @ Berkeley Award
  • National Science Foundation Fellow