At the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, we’re training the next generation of changemakers. Our faculty and students are constantly making new discoveries which lead to new publications and solutions. We took a closer look at not only the research, but the people who make it all happen. This is one in a series we’ve titled, Up Close.
Silvina Di Pietro traces her passion for chemistry directly back to her high school chemistry teacher, whose zeal for science left a lasting impression.
After graduating from FIU with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, Di Pietro was eager to pass that same passion forward. She found a position as a substitute teacher at the International Studies Charter School in Little Havana where she taught sixth and seventh graders advanced science. She then went on to work as a chemistry tutor at Broward College where, unbeknownst to her, her career trajectory would take a new turn.
Surrounded by faculty, Di Pietro kept hearing the same advice: “You need to go back to school. You’re young! You could tutor or teach any time in your life.”
After almost a year of hearing the same refrain, she made the decision to apply to graduate school in the beginning of 2015. By the fall, she was admitted to the environmental chemistry PhD program, not just as a student, but as a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Fellow at the Applied Research Center. The competitive position provided funding for most of her graduate school costs and opened the door to experiences she hadn’t imagined.
Di Pietro’s role as a DOE fellow and the purpose of her research is to remediate (reverse or stop the environmental damage of) uranium at the DOE Hanford Site in Washington. The Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear production facility which originally housed the first ever full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, has an issue with radioactivity.
“After World War II and the Cold War, a lot of the radioactive material that they were working with went into the soil,” Di Pietro explains. That’s where she and other scientists come in—to examine and remediate the issues being caused by uranium in the soil surrounding this site.
Over the course of two 10-week internships with the DOE at the Hanford Site in 2016 and 2018, Di Pietro worked at the unique location alongside prominent industry scientists.
“This is something that I tell students they need to do at least once while they’re working toward their bachelor’s degree, because I did it too late. I did it in my grad school years, but I should have done it before because I learned so much. The experience really gives you an idea of whether or not you want to work in the lab,” Di Pietro said.
Throughout her unexpected journey toward becoming an environmental chemist, she has honed a range of skills. Beyond her rigorous course work and research in the lab, Di Pietro learned how to express herself as a scientist.
Migrating to the U.S. in 2002 from Argentina science always came naturally to Di Pietro, but developing the skills to share this in English took practice.
“Because of the exposure I’ve had presenting my work at conferences every year, I’m very different from who I was during my bachelor’s. Although I still don’t speak as clearly as I’d like and have an accent, I’m not afraid to speak to people about my work now,” she said.
Di Pietro is diligently analyzing data to finalize her poster for the upcoming March 2020 Waster Management Symposia Conference. She recalled some of the obstacles she’s overcome to get to where she is today.
“I was pretty shy when I started and didn’t want to talk in front of people. That’s why I love presenting at conferences so much— it has given me that boost.”
Di Pietro wants others to know that they too can overcome their obstacles. As her chemistry teacher did for her, she wants to inspire other students to pursue their passion in STEM while showing them the many available routes.
“I like giving back. I’ve done some [STEM] judging competitions as a volunteer because I think that [is] something that is very needed in the science community… to guide students, and talk to them – something that we don’t often do.”
To Di Pietro, connecting with students and communicating her work with fellow scientists and the public are not only things she enjoys, but also feels is her responsibility as a scientist.
In 10 years, she sees herself working in a lab—perhaps departing from academia to pursue industry research—while, of course, stirring up as much excitement for science as possible along the way.