Dr. Diana Aga is the Henry M. Woodburn Chair and a State University of New York (SUNY) Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University at Buffalo. She also serves as the Director of RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) Institute at the University at Buffalo. Diana received a B.S. degree in agricultural chemistry from the University of the Philippines, Los Baños and her PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Kansas. Afterwards, she conducted postdoctoral research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. Diana worked on the faculty at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and then in industry at Bayer before joining the faculty at the University at Buffalo. She has received numerous awards for her research, teaching, and mentoring, including the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities, the Koh Lectureship Award in Science from the Philippine-American Academy of Science and Engineering, the Jacob F. Schoellkopf Medal of the Western New York Chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS), a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the Menzie Environmental Education Award from The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, and the Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring Award from the University at Buffalo. Diana has also been named a Fulbright Fellow, an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow, an ACS Fellow, and an ACS AGRO Fellow. In this interview, Diana shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:51)
When it’s warm outside, Diana enjoys biking and hiking, and when it’s cold she spends more time indoors watching movies. Cooking is another one of Diana’s hobbies, and she is particularly fond of making Filipino food, creatively reusing leftovers, and recreating restaurant favorites at home.
The Scientific Side (3:56)
Diana is an environmental chemist. She studies sustainable agriculture and pollutants such as the “forever chemicals” (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS)) that we frequently encounter in our everyday lives.
A Dose of Motivation (5:20)
“You have to know the past to understand the present.” — Carl Sagan. Also, “You have to know the past to understand the future.”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (6:06, 10:16)
Diana’s parents were an important force in nurturing her curiosity, piquing her interest in teaching, and establishing her sense of the importance of working hard. She and her five siblings grew up in a poor, rural village in the Philippines. Her parents juggled multiple jobs to support their family, including being teachers, driving public vehicles on the weekends, and growing vegetables to sell in the local market. Seeing their efforts really inspired Diana and made her want to become a teacher too. In particular, her father was an agricultural scientist who taught kids how to grow crops for food and how to care for chickens and pigs. At the dinner table, he would quiz Diana and her siblings on the scientific names of all the plants they were eating. Diana really enjoyed her first chemistry classes, and she was able to work at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines during college. These experiences shaped her scientific interests in chemistry and agriculture, as did comparing the polluted rivers of the capital city of Manila with the pristine rivers she played in as a child. Diana chose to go to the U.S. to study environmental chemistry, and she continues to work in this research area today.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (25:19)
Some of the challenges that Diana has faced include the rejection of grants that she has worked really hard on, a particularly tough situation with an unpleasant collaborator, and struggles to keep her research going when instruments break in the lab. The instruments she works with are very expensive and specialized, and they are costly to repair when the instruments go down. There was a point in Diana’s career where her department stepped in to provide the support needed to fix the instruments, allowing her to maintain her research program when she didn’t have grant funding. This departmental bridge funding was critical for Diana and is something she was extremely grateful for.
A Shining Success! (29:44)
One of the first major successes of Diana’s career was getting her NSF CAREER Award when she was at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. This was a small school, and she was the first person at the University to receive a CAREER Award. Diana didn’t realize how big of a deal the grant was (or how rare it was to get the award on your first submission) until everyone was celebrating with her afterwards, including the Dean and the Chancellor. She poured her heart into writing that grant, and it gave her confidence that she could be successful in academia.
A recent success Diana is really proud of is an NSF Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant that was funded last year. With this grant, they will travel to different environments around the world conducting research to inform the design of resilient buildings that will allow people to continue to live and operate, even in environments without power or clean water. This project addresses important issues related to climate change, and it will help to develop more climate-aware students.
Book Recommendations (34:18)
The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer
Most Treasured Travel (35:28)
As a postdoc, Diana lived in Switzerland for two years, and it is still one of her favorite places to visit. It is a smaller country, and you can travel from one border to the opposite side by train in a day, but there are four official languages. It is remarkable to see the scenery change from the rolling landscape of the Swiss Plateau to the striking peaks of the Swiss Alps. The city of Lugano is especially breathtaking with its lakes, mountains, and castles.
Barcelona, Spain is another one of Diana’s favorite travel destinations. She goes there nearly every year to meet with collaborators and attend conferences. For her first trip in 2005, Diana was in Spain for three months with a student and her young daughter as part of an NSF grant. They were able to travel around Spain and really learn about the culture during this time. The experience was particularly memorable because the culture of Spain is similar to Filipino culture in many ways, so Diana really felt at home. The people were wonderful, the food was great, and the Sagrada Família was a sight not to be missed!
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (39:55)
Diana’s lab is usually home to about 10-15 students, and being a good mentor is very important to her. It has been a tradition for her to host lab parties at her house throughout the year, including an annual Halloween party. When it comes to costumes, the only rule is that guests can’t dress up as a scientist. It has been great to see how creative the students get with their costumes, and it’s always fun to indulge in karaoke and dancing after dinner.
Advice For Us All (46:37)
Don’t be afraid to mix pleasure with business. For Diana, one of the joys of her job is the travel. On these trips, she tries to plan some time to explore a new city, try local food, go to a show, or otherwise experience the culture. These experiences keep her inspired, give her a chance to get to know people better, and provide valuable opportunities to learn about other cultures.
Also, to enjoy your career, there are three requirements: 1) You should enjoy your work, 2) It should pay well enough to support you and what you like to do, and 3) It has to be legal. Follow what makes you happy, and don’t make money your only driving force.
Diana’s research involves studying the fate, transport, effects, and treatment of Chemicals of Emerging Concerns and Persistent Organic Pollutants in the environment. She is an expert in developing trace analytical methods for organic contaminants and heavy metals in complex environmental matrices based on chromatography and mass spectrometry. She is very active in developing methods for non-target analysis of unknown contaminants in the environment, especially in identifying degradation products and novel forms of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “Forever Chemicals”. Her research includes evaluating the efficiencies of various advanced biological, physical, and chemical treatment processes in removing PFAS, pharmaceuticals, antimicrobials, and antibiotic resistance genes in municipal wastewater treatment plants, and in agroecosystems. She is involved in studies that assess bioaccumulation and toxicity of environmental contaminants in humans, fish, and wildlife. She served as Editor of the Journal of Hazardous Materials for 10 years, until December 2021. Diana recently received a Fulbright Global Scholar award to support her research visits at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa (Porto, Portugal) and at the University of the Philippines at Diliman (Manila, Philippines).
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by LAMPIRE Biological Laboratories.