HSU Student Receives EPA Fellowship to Study Water Treatment

In many parts of the world, access to clean, safe drinking water is a luxury. But Jairo Luque Villanueva (’15, Environmental Resource Engineering) doesn’t believe it has to be that way.

Earlier this year, Villanueva was one of 33 students from around the country to receive a prestigious Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). GRO recipients receive an internship and up to $50,000 over two years to fund their studies and research in the sciences and math.

Villanueva will use the fellowship to support his research on wastewater treatment and reuse under the direction of Environmental Resources Engineering (ERE) Professor Andrea Achilli. His research is focused on a coupled forward osmosis and membrane distillation system, a process used to treat and reuse wastewater.

Villanueva’s passion grew out of personal experience. He grew up in California and Tijuana, Mexico, where he experienced water scarcity firsthand. “When I was growing up, we had a water reserve tank,” he recalls. As a result, he became interested in the biological, social and economic issues surrounding international water scarcity. According to the United Nations, water scarcity affects about 1.2 billion worldwide.

Villanueva’s personal experience inspired him to earn an associates degree in Biology from MiraCosta College in Oceanside. While he was there, he heard that Humboldt State was a leader in the natural resource sciences and that several faculty members were experts in water resources and water quality.

He entered HSU’s ERE program, where his academic mentors are Margaret Lang and Andrea Achilli. “I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by people who are such experts in their field,” he says.

This semester, Villanueva and his lab partner Lianna Winkler (’14, Environmental Resources Engineering) built and designed a forward osmosis and membrane distillation system, a device that filters wastewater for reuse. The prototype is part of a larger research initiative in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno exploring low energy, large-scale wastewater treatment. If successful, it could be adapted for full-scale use.

Outside of class, Villanueva is a member of HSU’s Indian Natural Resource Science and Engineering Program, where he once tutored students in science and math. He is also active in the university’s Aztec dance group, Chicaucah Tlauh Cuahuitl, and a member of the national Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

Villanueva credits his family, HSU faculty and staff—including professors Margaret Lang and Andrea Achilli, career counselor Cherry Oullette, Jacquelyn Bolman of INRSEP, equipment technician Marty Reed, and lab manager Colin Wingfield —for supporting his success. “You can get where you want, with the help of others along the way,” he says. “I am just one example of that.”