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A Career at the Intersection of Science and Public Policy

Environmental Engineer at the Department of State
March 23, 2015

Laura Sima (PhD 2012, Engineering and Applied Science) is an environmental engineer at the Department of State. Based in Washington, DC, she works on government development finance policy to promote U.S. interests and sound infrastructure investments in developing countries.

She spends most of her time reviewing multilateral development bank (including World Bank Group, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, European Development Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank) projects and policies. Periodically she also goes into the field to take a first-hand look at the projects. Most recently, she spent several weeks in Malawi, where she inspected the potential impact of a proposed hydroelectric power plant.

Our goal is to visit projects at the feasibility stage to ensure that environmental and social impacts of any infrastructure development are fully considered in the project design,” she says. 

Sima and her team examined the site where the power plant is being considered as well as locations downstream of the development that would potentially be impacted, including villages that might be flooded by the creation of a reservoir. 

Multilateral development banks have strong environmental and social safeguards to ensure that they help, rather than harm, local communities and environments, but the United States is always working to ensure the banks are responsible lenders.” Her job in the Office of Development Finance at the State Department is to ensure that development improves the circumstances in places where it is used, and does not result in unmitigated environmental and social harms.

Sima is fluent in Romanian (her first language), Indonesian, French, and Spanish, knows some Swahili, and is learning Portuguese, but she occasionally has to travel to sites where she doesn’t speak the language. “For some this would be frustrating, but for me, someone who thrives on new experiences and environments, it has been a thrill. I love learning about new cultures and people,” she says.

In addition to sending her to a variety of countries, her job offers a range of interesting challenges. “I have been able to work on executive orders, brief Congressional staff, and visit bank projects to review environmental issues that advance U.S. economic development and environmental objectives. It’s been very satisfying to take advantage of my skill sets and work in areas that I am passionate about.” 

Originally from Bucharest, Sima immigrated to the United States with her family when she was seven. She grew up in and around Minneapolis and majored in chemistry at the University of South Carolina’s Honors College. Her plan was to pursue an MD/PhD and study international environmental public health, but she changed her mind after meeting with Menachem Elimelech, the Roberto Goizueta Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering (who became her adviser) and two of his then-students: Maggie Montgomery (PhD 2009, E&AS) and Allegra Da Silva (PhD 2008, E&AS). Montgomery is now a project manager for the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland; Da Silva is an environmental engineer at CDM Smith, working on water, water recycling, and wastewater treatment.

Environmental engineering gives us the tools to treat and remove pollutants, rather than just study their presence or quantify their impact on public health,” Sima says. “This seemed like a more proactive, applied, and exciting focus for my career than limiting myself to lab work. I wanted to address pollution-related health issues on a global scale, and I needed to move outside the theoretical confines of basic science to do so.”

Coursework and research at Yale integrated aspects of both public health and environmental engineering. Her dissertation, “Decentralized Membrane-based Water and Wastewater Treatment in Developing Countries,” investigated the performance and impact of modular water and wastewater treatment systems in rapidly growing urban areas. Decentralized technologies have advantages over infrastructure in such places, where centralized water and wastewater systems are unable to grow quickly enough to keep up with the population in the developing world. In contrast, water and wastewater treatment systems that use new membrane technology can provide a more flexible solution and can “increase resilience in the face of climate change, reduce energy input, and increase growth in the private sector.”

One part of her dissertation project took her to Kenya, where she designed, found funding for, and analyzed the results of informal water services. Another part took her to Indonesia. During the 2010-11 academic year, she was a visiting scholar at the Environmental Health and Climate Change Center of the University of Indonesia, where she managed a fifteen-person field staff and handled all the financial reporting and logistics for a $120,000 research grant.

Indonesia is incredibly diverse, with thousands of languages and cultures. I love making genuine connections with people, which are not possible unless you spend extended periods of time with them and speak their language. To complete my work, I hired employees – which would have been entirely unaffordable if I had completed my dissertation in the U.S. It was very difficult – but also rewarding – to lead these teams of enumerators and field researchers and mentor them myself,” she says. “I loved the challenge, but it was often frustrating, difficult, and downright infuriating to work in slower-paced areas when I knew that I needed to produce research results for the fast-paced Yale environment.”  

There were physical challenges, too.

Between Kenya, France, New Haven, and Indonesia, my poor body had to adapt to ugali (maize flour cooked to a dough-like consistency), butter-heavy, raw veggie, and rice-heavy diets. I also had problems with the heat. It’s hard to keep focused and working at midday when people traditionally take a siesta in some of the traditional cultures of Kenya and Indonesia, but working on a modern schedule, we had to keep trudging along on those heavy, humid afternoons.” 

Her project in Jakarta involved a longitudinal health impact study that looked at how membrane-based technologies impacted diarrhea risks for children in slums.

Sima focused on water systems and sewage because “diarrhea continues to be a leading cause of death for children under five around the world, and, even when children survive, recent studies show that repeated episodes of diarrhea at an early age reduce nutrient adsorption. Wastewater removal and access to clean drinking water offer some of the greatest returns on investment, in terms of disease prevention, per investment dollar.”

She reports that through it all, Elimelech “was an excellent adviser, because he encouraged me to work on projects that interested me, pushed me to grow, and helped me overcome some of my own limitations. Meny [his nickname] really values his students and postdocs as people first and lab members second, so he was always working to make sure that, given the demands of the lab, we were happy outside the lab so we could be productive inside it. He advised me in my discipline, but also in the broader research process, public speaking, academic writing, and many other areas.” 

She also enjoyed assistance and inspiration from other advisers, including Mayur Desai, associate professor of Public Health at Yale, who helped her analyze the data from Indonesia and “painstakingly helped me correct some of my SAS code and consider new ways to ask questions from the same data set. He was amazingly patient and supportive during this process,” she recalls.

Her research took her out of the country a lot, but when she was on campus, Sima was an active member of the Graduate School community, serving as secretary to the Graduate Student Assembly and representing her department. She also volunteered as a mentor at New Haven Reads and took advantage of Yale’s cultural scene, especially theater.

Yale offered a great environment for me to complete my graduate work,” she says.

After completing her PhD, Sima held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she worked on developing international criteria to measure water and sanitation development sustainability. Last year, she was awarded a highly competitive fellowship administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which “provides the opportunity for accomplished scientists and engineers to participate in and contribute to the federal policymaking process while learning firsthand about the intersection of science and policy.” The AAAS Fellowship provides her the opportunity to work in the State Department on critical development policy issues. Speaking about her current position, analyzing projects with multiple stakeholders and from many viewpoints, Sima remarked, “it’s a perfect fit for my interests and training.”