A Passion for Clean

February 2, 2008 by Abby Cohn

Rula Deeb (M.S.'94, Ph.D.'99 CEE). Photo credit: Bart Nagel.Rula Deeb (M.S.’94, Ph.D.’99 CEE). (Photo by Bart Nagel.)All too often, water contains much more than H 2 O. Gasoline additives, industrial byproducts and other toxic chemicals regularly contaminate drinking water resources worldwide, posing serious environmental and health risks until someone figures out what to do.

That’s where Rula Deeb (M.S.’94, Ph.D.’99 CEE) comes in. A senior associate at the environmental consulting firm Malcolm Pirnie, Inc., Deeb has helped water and wastewater utilities, government agencies and industries cope with water contaminant issues from California to Tennessee. She specializes in bioremediation, a process that relies on microorganisms to attack and degrade hazardous water contaminants to harmless byproducts.

“What we do is really driven by science. Our technologies are always evolving,” says Deeb, whose doctoral research spurred widely adopted techniques for safely breaking down the gasoline additive MTBE in groundwater supplies nationwide.

Since joining Malcolm Pirnie in 2000, Deeb has continued her work with MTBE while taking aim at other water contaminants. Deeb, in collaboration with researchers at Berkeley, developed strategies for wastewater utilities to control NDMA, a potent carcinogen, when it appeared in treated effluents of a half dozen wastewater treatment plants in California and Arizona as a disinfection byproduct. Similarly, she helped 13 utilities nationwide to control cyanide levels in treated wastewater which is often discharged to rivers and oceans. She is also examining the growing threat to water quality posed by emerging contaminants, especially those resulting from the use and disposal of pharmaceutical and personal care products, such as antibiotics and antibacterial soaps. “I’m very passionate about my work,” says Deeb, the recipient of the 2007 Berkeley Engineering Innovation Award as an outstanding young leader.

Born in Lebanon, Deeb left her war-torn homeland in 1987 for college in the United States. She majored in chemistry and math at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where she was honored in 1991 as the graduating senior who most clearly represented an ideal student. The following year, while organizing educational seminars on environmental issues for a non-governmental organization at the United Nations, Deeb was inspired to study environmental engineering.

At UC Berkeley, she began working in Professor Lisa Alvarez-Cohen’s lab. There, Deeb first explored groundwater issues and the specific problem of contamination from gasoline aromatics (e.g., benzene) and additives (e.g., MTBE). Added to gasoline in hopes of reducing air pollution, MTBE generated widespread alarm in the 90’s as a major groundwater contaminant. Studying a microorganism that transformed MTBE to water and carbon dioxide, Deeb helped demonstrate that groundwater contamination with MTBE “wasn’t as impossible to deal with as initially presumed.” MTBE was subsequently banned as a gasoline additive in many states.

Along with her consulting, Deeb promotes ongoing technical exchanges in her field by participating in or organizing educational conferences. She is actively involved in such professional organizations as the Groundwater Resources Association of California, the Association for Environmental Health and Sciences, and the International Water Association.

There’s plenty of engineering interaction at home as well. Her husband, Marwan Nader (M.S.’89, Ph.D.’92 CEE), designed the suspension bridge portion of the new Bay Bridge, a work in progress visible from Deeb’s 11th floor Emeryville office. The couple has four-year-old twin daughters.

Reflecting on future environmental risks to water quality, Deeb says, “I think we will find solutions to the problems du jour. But there will always be new threats to our water supplies, so we must continue to engineer innovative approaches to making our water a safer product, one less contaminant at a time.”