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Sustainability Leaders at Harvard: 3 Questions with Mona Dai


Written by May Jung, REP

Mona Dai is an environmental science and engineering PhD student in Professor Elsie Sunderland’s Biogeochemistry of Global Contaminants group studying environmental contaminants in drinking water.

Her work mainly involves exposure modeling and chemical risk assessment. She is passionate about solving environmental health challenges using systems that can help remediate issues regarding climate change, the built environment, or water. Dai has a special interest in bridging public health and environmental engineering as related to children’s health.

*Interview has been summarized for length and clarity.

Can you give a brief introduction of yourself and what you study?

Mona Dai: I am a fourth-year PhD student and I work with Elsie Sunderland. I specifically work on drinking water contamination across the United States. So, I look at mapping out where levels of heavy metals are across the United States, where those levels are high, and where those are low.

Specifically for my first project, I am trying to figure out if those levels are associated with the proportions of people from disadvantaged backgrounds: for instance, whether it is related to socioeconomic statuses, like poverty rates or income, or if it might be related to demographics. So, if there are certain subsets of groups, like people considered minorities who might be more likely to have contaminated drinking water.

Then, for my second project, I am still looking at those vulnerable groups but specifically pertaining to drinking water. I am looking at mercury emissions from coal fire power plants across the United States, which are related to Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) from the US Environmental Protection Agency. There was some back and forth with MATS, as it was reversed during the Trump era and recently reinstated. Now, we are trying to look at whether everybody across the United States equally benefited from the implementation of MATS.

What motivated you to delve deeper into these two projects? What was your journey?

Mona Dai: I have a civil engineering undergraduate degree. So, I worked on wastewater treatment and drinking water. I have a big interest in water in general. After I graduated from college, I worked at a civil engineering firm in Richmond, Virginia. I was a sanitation engineer, which means I was grading landfills, making sure they were meeting all the proper specifications. For example, ensuring leachate does not flow out and contaminate rivers. While I was working at that firm, I realized that the day-to-day engineering job was not what I was passionate about.

It was a lot of following regulations and doing it in the cheapest way possible. So, it did not feel as innovative or research-based. I wanted to pivot my career out of ‘hardcore’ engineering. I went and got a Master of Health Sciences degree focused on public health in Baltimore, which was a really great experience.

Specifically, for these two projects, I was interested in the question relating to environmental justice. Because there have been historically many structural inequities at the federal level that caused certain groups to be disadvantaged when it comes to housing or proximity to chemical facilities. There are usually certain groups that are adversely affected, which motivated me to work on these types of issues.

What are the next big steps for you?

Mona Dai: My main goal is to work in the government. I used to be a research fellow at the EPA in the Office of Children’s Health, and I really, really liked that experience. Going back and working at the EPA is something that I think I would really enjoy, and that is probably my number one career goal right now. Also working on water issues or environmental justice issues, or any environmental health issues at the state level would be amazing.

There is also the Harvard GSAS Science Policy Group, which I am involved with. They are doing a trip in the spring to go to D.C. to meet with different government agencies, nonprofits, and thinktanks to see what the environmental policy world or science policy world is like. Overall, I definitely want to work with public issues in the science policy sphere.