Deonarine, a Native of Trinidad, Sets out to Study Environmental Mercury

amrika.jpgIn civil and environmental engineering graduate student Amrika Deonarine’s home country of Trinidad and Tobago, a sunny two-island nation off the coast of Venezuela, education is a top priority.

“Education is stressed a lot,” Deonarine said. “Education and family.”

Deonarine was encouraged early in the sciences by her physicist father and her mother, who is a nurse. She quickly gained an interest in two science-related fields: astronomy and environmentalism. But it was her love for math and physics that made engineering “a foregone conclusion,” she said.

In Trinidad, which regained its independence from the British in 1962, the school system still follows the British structure, she said. Students take a test at the end of primary school, placing them into a secondary school. A subject-based test at age 16 then streamlines kids such that most specialize early, she explained.

Deonarine followed the pure sciences track through high school, studying biology, chemistry, physics and math. After one year of college at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad--where they did not offer an environmental engineering degree--she transferred to Florida International University in Miami as a civil and environmental engineering major.

Water Quality Interest Leads to Mercury

A particularly gifted professor there got her inspired to pursue research in the area of water quality and water resources, she said. Now about to enter her second year as a graduate student in the lab of assistant professor Helen Hsu-Kim, Deonarine is well on her way.

Hsu-Kim specializes in the chemical processes that affect the fate of trace metals, particularly pollutant metals, in natural and engineered environments, including municipal wastewater. Her latest efforts examine the role of sulfide and natural organic matter for the fate of metals in the aquatic environment.

Tiny metal sulfide particles normally settle out of water, but organic matter can keep them suspended, Hsu-Kim explained. While Deonarine looks for a focus for her research, she is already immersed in projects aimed at unraveling the transport of mercury and zinc sulfides in local waterways.

These early experiences in Hsu-Kim’s lab have already sparked Deonarine’s desire to pursue her general interests in water issues through scientific questions related to mercury. Such a line of inquiry also satisfies her interests in public health and policy, she added.

“In some areas of the world mercury contamination and its regulation, or lack thereof, is a very serious problem,” Deonarine said.

To gear up for her research, she is also brushing up on chemistry through her graduate classes. She is particularly enjoying the small classes at Duke, she added, noting that one of her spring courses included just two students.

“It was very informal and relaxed,” Deonarine said. “You could ask questions, discuss. The learning environment is really great.”

Other Outlets

Deonarine has also found other outlets for her interests at Duke. She was the only graduate student to participate in the WERC competition aimed at designing a system to remove arsenic from drinking water (see

A self-described “hardcore feminist,” she also takes time out from her research to work at the Duke Women’s Center as student programmer for the Graduate and Professional Women’s Network. In that role, she is responsible for organizing and hosting a bimonthly dinner discussion series, among other events.

Her passion for women’s issues stems from her grandmother, who she calls “her hero.”

The culturally diverse Trinidad is home to many people of Indian, African and Chinese descent. Deonarine’s great grandparents came to Trinidad from India as laborers. In their day, women married young and were forbidden from going to school, she said.

“My grandmother promised herself that she wouldn’t put her daughter in the position she was in,” Deonarine said. In her mother’s generation, girls went to school, got jobs and married later, she said.

“Now things are much better,” Deonarine said. “The law requires girls and boys to attend school and lots of girls enter the sciences. The number of boys and girls in the sciences are about even in the high schools.

“Attitudes are different,” she added. “Women expect they should have these opportunities and don’t have to fight for them.”

As for a career, Deonarine remains open to possibilities. She might join her family back in Trinidad to continue her research and teach at a local university. She’s also intrigued by the idea of conducting research at a privately owned company or getting involved with an international organization such as the World Health Organization or the United Nations.