Posted: December 2, 2022

Alumna Faith Kibuye is committed to improving lives through improving water.

Credit: Eric Knape

Credit: Eric Knape

Growing up in Kenya, Faith Kibuye witnessed the struggles of not having access to safe, abundant water. This was especially relevant during a drought when her community had to ration water or travel to the nearest river to fill buckets.

"Water shortage and quality is an issue globally but is a critical problem for some developing countries," she said. "I have experienced those tough times, so I understand what it is like not to have enough water."

Kibuye's mother, a teacher, and father were education-centric and encouraged her to be curious and explore those interests. She excelled at school, especially in biology, chemistry, and physics.

But in high school, her involvement in different science projects that focused on erosion control to protect nearby water sources in the community started her on the path to her future career. "Solving water quality and quantity issues became even more important to me," she said.

After earning a bachelor's degree in environmental health science from Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Kibuye believed there was no better place to pursue graduate studies in BioRenewable Systems than at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Her first experience at Penn State was attendance at the Environmental Chemistry and Microbiology Student Symposium at the University Park campus, during which she presented her undergraduate research work on the remediation of heavy metal-contaminated water using biochar derived from biomass materials.

"Penn State's reputation as a leader in environmental and water research stood out," said Kibuye. "I was confident that the faculty could set me on the right path for further learning and water and wastewater treatment research."

As a graduate research assistant in the college's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Kibuye played an instrumental role in research studies that explored the fate, transport, and influence of emerging organic contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and pesticides in drinking water sources, including the Susquehanna River Basin and private wells.

She also studied pharmaceutical compounds at Penn State's Living Filter, a 50-year-old wastewater reuse system that spray-irrigates treated effluent from the University Park campus's sewage treatment plant on 600 acres of farm and forest.

These projects allowed her to learn more about the effectiveness of conventional wastewater management in removing contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products--the medications we use and the various ingredients in our day-to-day consumer products--before that water goes back into the watershed.

"Ultimately, this water impacts the ecosystem and human health," Kibuye said. "This research was interesting, enjoyable, and enabled me to work with water utility professionals and regulatory officials outside of the University, which expanded my understanding of the process."

Kibuye's adviser, Heather Preisendanz, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, described Kibuye as a devoted student and researcher. "Once Faith was at Penn State, we spent a lot of time traveling together to collect samples from drinking water treatment plants across the Susquehanna River Basin," said Preisendanz. "The running joke in our group became, 'You gotta have Faith in your water.'"

Before Kibuye joined the lab, the group had primarily focused their emerging contaminants research on wastewater and manure. Preisendanz said Kibuye complemented their work by bringing an interest in human health and stakeholder and citizen science engagement.

With support from Preisendanz, Kibuye formed essential collaborations with the Penn State Extension water resources group and the Pennsylvania American Water Company. She also launched the lab's first citizen science project with the Penn State Extension Master Well Owner Network. This study examined pharmaceuticals and personal care products in private drinking water supplies.

"Faith truly cared about the work she was doing and knew that there were people outside of academics, including water treatment plant operators and homeowners with private wells for their drinking water, who relied on her as a trusted partner and resource," said Preisendanz. "Once Faith knew what needed to be done, she made it happen. I often received compliments from those who worked with her about her work ethic, passion, integrity, and kindness."

Some of those compliments came from the University's Office of Physical Plant, whose employees aided one of Kibuye's studies. After the project, Kibuye gave each staff member a thank you card.

"The staff reached out to me to tell me what a wonderful student I had and how much her acknowledgment of their efforts meant to them," said Preisendanz. "I remember telling Faith that I was extremely grateful not only for the scientist she was but also the person she was."

Kibuye, who earned her doctorate in 2019, said Penn State had a tremendous impact on her life. "The faculty, staff, and students had a significant influence on me personally and academically," she said. "The opportunities to conduct meaningful research helped build my knowledge and confidence as a scientist. They also helped me realize the level of leadership it takes to coordinate different facets of a study and work with large, interdisciplinary teams."

After graduation, Kibuye worked as a postdoctoral researcher for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She continued her research pursuits by working with utility stakeholders on studies focusing on early detection and source control of cyanobacterial blooms, commonly referred to as harmful algal blooms due to their detrimental impacts on surface water sources.

In January of this year, she accepted a position with Carollo Engineers, an environmental engineering firm specializing in the planning, design, and construction management of water and wastewater facilities for municipal and public sector clients in the United States.

As the lead laboratory technologist in the company's Boise, Idaho, office, Kibuye engages in laboratory research studies to provide sustainable and safe solutions to water challenges, focusing on drinking water, wastewater, and water reuse.

Looking ahead, Kibuye hopes her work inspires others to recognize the challenges facing the environment.

"It's easy to seclude ourselves from the larger impact that we have on critical issues such as climate change and its impact on water," she said. "People will say, 'that is not my fault,' but we must accept that our actions have a ripple effect on the environment. That is the greatest challenge--accountability and a willingness to change. As for me, I am committed to being a part of that change."

--Amy Duke