Behind the PhD-degree: Małgorzata Roman

Cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and pesticides – many harsh and hard-to-break down chemicals are flushed down the drain. Harmful health effects due to accumulation have been observed, yet there is a lack of efficient solutions to remove organic micropollutants in wastewater treatment plants. But Małgorzata dared to walk the path no one had ventured before. A path full of unexpected bends, turns, and surprises.

The person behind the science, and the science behind the person.

100,000 pollutants

“Wastewater is no waste anymore – It is a resource,” Małgorzata – better known as Gosia – starts explaining, “and as drinking water is becoming scarcer, it will become crucial in drinking water production.”

With an ever-growing population and more severe droughts, we need to generate more drinking water. Treated wastewater is an excellent stream for drinking water production since it is characterized by properties comparable with groundwater. However, direct production of drinking water from wastewater is still beyond reach.

A solution would be to use seawater as the primary water source and treated wastewater for its desalination process. However, that requires quite some challenges to be overcome.

One of which, was to know how small household contaminants act in such a system. Gosia researched the effects of organic micropollutants on membranes used to remove the dissolved salts. “In the EU-program REvivED, we investigated the process of making drinking water, “Gosia tells. One way to do so is from seawater by removing the salts. “But we need an ion sink for that,” she says, “and that is where we can use wastewater.”

“Wastewater is no waste anymore – it is a resource

But in doing so, the two types of water come into contact with each other via a membrane. “And over 100,000 fragments of organic micropollutants – like medicine fragments and cosmetics – are known to be found in wastewater,” Gosia explains, “and no one knew whether these could cross the membrane.” And if they did, they could end up in our newly made potable water.

The micropollutants consist of man-made molecules that are hard to break down by natural processes, that’s both great by design and terrible for pollution.  Gosia: “That there are so strong is quite logical, as they are made to withstand biological systems.” Yet that too is why they could accumulate in your body, causing adverse health effects.

Clinging cosmetics and flowing pharmaceuticals

But how do you trace thousands of different particles in a complex system? To study the behavior of organic micropollutants in desalination systems, Gosia had to start from scratch and work her way up. “We started with the simplest system there is: a container with water that is divided by a semi-permeable membrane,” Gosia explains, “through this membrane, only certain particles can flow.”

Using twenty model compounds, she investigated the particles’ behavior in increasingly complex systems, with a surprising outcome. “As we went to systems with charged membranes, we saw a difference in the behavior of positive and negative ions,” Gosia says, “oddly enough, where negative pollutant ions flowed right through the membrane, the positive ones tended to stick.” In comparison, positive and negative salt ions behaved equally. “No one had ever expected that!”

“At first, we thought it was because of the difference in the charged membranes.” The membrane consists of polymers that span in one direction. “Similar to putting all the string of a thread parallel next to each other,” Gosia elaborates. The particles can slip through the strings. It was assumed that the negative membrane had larger gaps, but we proved that there was hardly any difference, she says. Instead, the difference lay in the membrane pollutants’ interactions.

The unknown and underestimated

“Researching the completely unknown was at times rather a nightmare, but often great, as it is full of surprises.” That is how Gosia describes her fundamental research. “I like a challenge,” she says, “but for me, it is about the process, not the achievement.”

And one of the challenges that came with the research was proving herself. Gosia: “there was so little known on the topic. People didn’t realize how important the effects of these micropollutants are.” Though she grew to cope with it as she got more confident with her research. “After we did the first tests, we could show that truly something was going on.”

Researching the completely unknown was at times rather a nightmare, but often great, as it is full of surprises

Sneaky beginnings

The willingness to take on a challenge has always been with Gosia. Already from a young age, she was endeavoring. “My grandfather was a chemist, and he had made his shed into a lab. As kids, we sneaked in and messed around in grandpa’s lab, especially because we were not allowed there. Which was, in hindsight, quite risky. He had lots of dangerous chemicals in there,” Gosia tells jovially.

And that truly sparked her interest in chemistry. After high school, she joined the Warsaw University of Technology to pursue a degree in chemical engineering and eventually landed here to join the Wetsus Academy. Gosia: “I already did some internships in Poland, but we never got to see the processes we were working on. We just had to do what we told. In the end, my mentor knew I was looking for a challenge, and through email contact with Petra, I got here.” Soon she found her interest in the membrane sciences, and “it was only natural that I was gonna do my Ph.D. in it too,” she says.

As kids, we messed around in grandpa’s lab, especially because we were not allowed there

As for what Gosia will do next, she is unsure. “I am just glad that I can finally have some more time to myself. After, I would like to get more into the applied sciences. But who knows where I will end up. Though we can try to make assumptions, I have learned from my research that results can be quite the opposite of what you’d expect.”