Michelle Moffa: Providing Access to Clean Water

2017 NAE Grand Challenge Scholar Profile

Michelle Moffa, a Duke Grand Challenge Scholar

  • Major: Civil and Environmental Engineering 
  • Grand Challenge: Engineering Better Medicines
  • GC Advisor: Professor Marc Deshusses
  • Project Title: Access to Clean Water 

How did you get into engineering?

I have wanted to be an engineer since I was 13 years old. It all started when I was in middle school doing science projects on little water filters that I could make in my kitchen. Eventually this grew into a passion, not just for water and water access and water purification, but also for the science around it. I realized going through high school and college that I loved science. I think it’s fascinating, exciting and ever-changing, and I think engineering is a way to use science to help improve society and make a difference in communities throughout the world.

How did you get involved with the Duke Grand Challenge Scholars Program?

I think it was through one of the emails that we get about different programs in Pratt. It caught my eye because I’m interested in shaping my educational experience here at Duke around clean water access, sanitation, hygiene and development, and the Grand Challenge Program fit into my goals for college to challenge myself on this single issue and look at it from a lot of different perspectives.

What is your project for the Grand Challenge Program?

I’m working with Dr. Marc Deshusses and using photocatalysis for water purification, disinfection technique to get rid of bacteria and viruses. I’m also working with Dr. Marc Jeuland in the Sanford School of Public Policy, where I’m creating a water-balance model of the Jordan River Valley. We’re trying to use this model to understand both policy implications and infrastructure changes and how they can change the water balance in agricultural and urban areas. It’s a good combination of looking at larger areas and policy changes, but the lab component is looking at the nitty-gritty science of all of it.

What did you learn through the Grand Challenge Scholars program?

The Grand Challenge has global learning and service components, and that was eye-opening for me. The summer after my freshman year I worked with two NGOs [non-government organizations] in rural Kentucky. I did two main projects with them – the first analyzed data about their waterways to see the impact of coal-mining runoff and the second project involved working with a city that had a wastewater treatment plant that was way over capacity, and I helped with a funding report for the city. This past summer I also completed my global experience, where I worked with an NGO in Uganda to help spread sustainable water technologies and install bio-sand filters.

What is your favorite experience from the Grand Challenge Program?

Since middle school I’ve been fascinated with the problem of water as a global issue, and I’ve taken so many courses and read so much about it. But finally being able to talk to community members in Uganda and see how it was impacting their daily lives and understand it from a new perspective was really eye-opening for me. It just confirmed that this was the career path that I want to be taking.