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Rachel Tenney, Ph.D.(c) : Featured Queer Engineer

Rachel Tenney is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Engineering at the University of Minnesota. At UMN, Tenney runs the group "Queer Science" in addition to conducting research on wastewater treatment applications. Read on to learn more about Tenney's exceptional work as an engineering researcher, LGBTQIA+ and environmental advocate, and beyond.

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QE: What is your current job?

I am a PhD candidate studying environmental engineering in the department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

QE: Where did you complete your education, and in what disciplines?

I obtained my Undergraduate degree, a BS in Chemical Engineering, from Lafayette College in 2018. I then obtained my MS in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota in 2020. Now, I am wrapping up my PhD at the University of Minnesota.

QE: In your own words - what kind of engineering do you do? What does a typical day in your life usually look like?

I consider myself an environmental engineer because that seems to encompass the biological, chemical, process, and justice aspects of my current research and professional interests. I'm really passionate about creating efficient, sustainable solutions to water and wastewater infrastructure issues in partnership with under-resourced communities.  environmental larger biological and chemical processes occurring in engineered systems. 

QE: What has your experience been like as an out LGBTQIA+ engineer?

Academia tends to be welcoming to folks with different lived experiences, ideologies, and identities. I've been very fortunate to have cultivated a really supportive community in my personal and professional lives. When I was deciding where to spend this stage of my life, the local queer community and atmosphere of my program were very important to me. Because of my multiple privileges, I made sure to explicitly ask potential advisors and colleagues about the department's and local culture. I feel lucky that my lab group and colleagues are welcoming to me and my partner, so we're fully included in department social affairs. However, being one of just a handful of LGBTQ+ people in the department means that I've been tapped to serve on various diversity committees. This is both personally fulfilling and emotionally and logistically laborious, taking time away from my research activities, and it has taken some time to learn to balance those.

QE: Why is it important to you to bring your whole self to work? In other words - how do your intersectional identities impact your work?

My identity and experiences as a queer woman in STEM bring unique characteristics to my work, and these qualities provide me with distinctive perspectives that inform my research practice as well as how I navigate my environment and interact with others. This positionality inspires the justice lens I apply to my research and service. My research motivation comes from the fact that my work contributes - however incrementally - to addressing the effects of anthropogenic climate change, especially surface and groundwater quality, which disproportionately affect low-income communities. On another note, LGBTQ+ identities are often invisible and assumed irrelevant to technical fields, which erases our lived experiences. I believe that generally, it's hard to be what you can't see see, so without explicit exposure to LGBTQ+ role models in STEM, young people, including myself, retain the notion that queer people are unwelcome. That's why I'm so passionate about STEM education and outreach while being unapologetically myself.

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QE: Can you tell us a bit about your work with Queer Science?

Thanks to my friend and former colleague Julie Johnston's (the founder of Queer Science) mentorship, I have been involved with Queer Science since arriving at UMN in 2018. Queer Science is a UMN affiliated organization dedicated to building community with LGBTQ+ high school students to help them explore their passions in STEM fields. (Importantly, we employ the most inclusive understanding known to us of both “LGBTQ+” and “STEM.”) We organize and participate in frequent events to engage with our community. Twice a year, we host Queer Science Day, during which we invite LGBTQ+ high school students from the Twin Cities area into our labs to participate in immersive, hands-on workshops and experiments. Modules are developed by and as diverse as our “volunqueers,” ranging from flower dissection with plant scientists to video game design with a programmer to a demonstration of tree-sitting with an indigenous environmental activist.

 

Unfortunately, Julie’s departure from the University coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and left Queer Science reeling. Volunteer and participant involvement tanked with our morale. In 2021, with vaccination as a beacon of hope, it became clear to me that Queer Science may never recover from the social and organizational losses of 2020. I began to work on restructuring the organization’s leadership. Since then, I have recruited a team of graduate students, faculty, and community members committed to Queer Science’s mission and ensuring the long-term vitality of the organization. Together, we’ve designed and assembled roles in a leadership team, taken steps to formalize our relationship with the University of Minnesota, been awarded more than $10,000 in grants, developed Queer Science’s first volunteer manual, re-launched our website and social media, formed partnerships with prominant local and regional partners, and hosted several successful events. I'm thrilled that the organization is thriving and beginning to get the recognition it deserves so it can continue to serve queer high schoolers interested in STEM long after I've graduated. Ultimately, my goal is to reduce barriers to entry and show all LGBTQ+ youth interested in STEM that they can achieve success enhanced by, rather than despite, their identities.

QE: You've been conducting research on rural wastewater treatment applications. What have you been doing for this and why is it important?

Effective, sustainable infrastructure and reliable service, including wastewater treatment, are essential to communities of all sizes. However, low population density and funding in rural areas pose unique challenges for wastewater treatment. Inadequately or un- treated wastewater discharges contain high concentrations of nitrogen compounds: Ammonia and nitrate can harm surface water quality by (i) decreasing oxygen levels in the receiving water, (ii) contributing to eutrophication, and (iii) causing toxicity to human and aquatic life. As local nitrogen delivery impacts downstream waters and communities, reductions in nitrogen loading in Minnesota will improve water quality throughout the state, affected watersheds, and globe. Facultative wastewater treatment pond systems (ponds) have been successfully implemented in rural areas. These simple, low-cost systems serve as the first line of defense against source water contamination, as the most common type of treatment in the U.S. However, ponds are not optimized to withstand cold temperatures and decreases in dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations associated with ice cover—or to achieve increasingly stringent treatment requirements. Poor understanding and management of ponds limits their ability to support social and economic development in affected communities. Thus, I am examining nitrogen cycling in ponds under varied environmental conditions to improve their performance. State agency and operational personnel as well as environmental consultants can use results from this research to achieve TN removal in wastewater treatment ponds, maintaining the low-cost, low-infrastructure attributes that make ponds an attractive solution for rural wastewater treatment.

QE: You're also very passionate about STEM education. Why is this a topic that everyone should care about?

I believe that increasing STEM education and outreach is the greatest factor in improving science literacy among the general public. STEM fields often produce research that is inaccessible to the general public because of the way scientific publications are written and because of a general lack of knowledge of how to digest STEM materials. Our publications often use extensive jargon and assume a level of background understanding that's not appropriate for non-STEM-ist audiences. That's intimidating, so people end up getting their information from non-scientific sources. We need much better science communication and science literacy to address some of the most important issues facing society today, especially climate change. More accessible science would produce more responsible and ethical citizens.

QE: What has your career trajectory been up until this point? What does the future look like for you and your career? Do you have any goals that you are looking to achieve that you would like to discuss?

My priority right now is finishing my PhD, of course. Over the course of my education and professional development thus far, I've learned that I love teaching, and I love direct service. 

When I entered my PhD, I intended to pursue a career in academia. More recently I have been reconsidering what my career trajectory will be. I am not sure that academia is the right fit for my passions and lifestyle, so I am considering jobs outside of the academic sector. While I've always wanted to be a professor - just like my dad! - I am driven by my work with Queer Science to consider careers in STEM education, non-profit work, or government agencies. I'm not yet sure what my next steps will be, but I've learned that I can bring my commitment to justice and lifelong learning  with me wherever I go next. 

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