M. Katherine Banks: Combines Biology, Environmental Engineering

Kathy BanksGraduation Year: 1989

Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science
PhD

Major/Program:
Civil Engineering
Environmental Engineering

Career Highlights:

  • Purdue Bowen Engineering Head and Professor of Civil Engineering

When I came to Duke, I was able to study the fundamental principles of systems that I couldn’t have done anywhere else. With all of the specialized labs across Duke’s campus, I immersed myself in the basic sciences.

Kathy Banks has a tough time come college basketball season. She grew up in Kentucky, did her undergraduate work at the University of Florida and earned graduate degrees in environmental engineering from two schools separated by eight miles and different shades of blue—University of North Carolina (M.S.E.E.) and Duke (Ph.D. ’89).

“It’s always difficult to choose, so I usually root for whoever is the underdog. But I am pretty much guaranteed getting a team in the Sweet 16,” she says with a laugh.

Now in the School of Civil Engineering at Purdue University, where she has served as Bowen Engineering Head for the past four years and Professor of Civil Engineering for the past 12 years, Banks said that during her graduate studies at Duke, faculty encouraged her to take classes outside of engineering, which permitted her to combine her passions for biology and environmental engineering.

During her time at Purdue and the prior eight years on the faculty of Kansas State University, Banks established an international reputation in the burgeoning field of biological remediation, harnessing the capabilities of plants and microbes as a tool for mediating pollution.

“The Duke faculty always encouraged my expanded interest in biology,” she said. “I worked on applied research in the area of wastewater treatment at UNC, and when I came to Duke, I was able to study the fundamental principles of systems that I couldn’t have done anywhere else. With all of the specialized labs across Duke’s campus, I immersed myself in the basic sciences.”

As her career has progressed, the balance between the applied and fundamental research has ebbed and flowed.

“After graduation, I moved away from a fundamental focus to more practical applications because of the availability of Superfund funding,” she said. “Over the last 20 years, I’ve conducted quite a bit of field research, but for the past three or four years, the pendulum for me has swung back in the fundamental research direction. It’s been fantastic! I felt in last few years that I needed to focus on basic scientific questions, closer to what I worked on at Duke. It’s been great fun.”

Originally published Summer 2009