Good chemistry: Protecting lakes and streams with natural chemical compounds

By Meghan Chua


Doctoral candidate Sarah Balgooyen’s hobby and career came together when she started graduate school.

“I have always been interested in the environment,” Balgooyen said. “I love spending time outside and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to preserve and take care of.”

Combined with her undergraduate expertise in chemistry, Balgooyen found that the Environmental Chemistry and Technology program at UW–Madison was a perfect fit.

Sarah Balgooyen
Sarah Balgooyen

As a graduate student, Balgooyen has researched phenolic contaminants and their presence in water systems. Phenolic contaminants such as BPA – the chemical commonly known from plastic water bottles – enter lakes and streams where they harm the ecosystem. Other phenolic compounds often come from pharmaceuticals or personal care products.

Balgooyen focuses on a mechanism that could help break down these chemicals before they reach the ecosystems at all: oxidation by manganese oxide. Manganese oxide already naturally occurs in the environment, breaking down some of the phenolic contaminants on its own.

“The problem is we put out so much BPA that it’s constantly there, and it’s at pretty high levels. It’s one of the most frequently and highest detected contaminants of emerging concern in the United States,” Balgooyen said. Contaminants of emerging concern have been discovered in the environment, but recently enough that they are not yet regulated as a contaminant.

She studies how manganese oxide breaks down BPA under different conditions, from varying pH levels to the presence of oxygen and other characteristics of the water. Understanding this mechanism gives researchers better information about possible reactions and uses before putting it into place in wastewater treatment systems.

“It’s not just BPA,” Balgooyen said. “There are tons of other things that it can react with. So, we really want to make sure we have this reaction fully described before we move forward into looking at, can we actually put this in our wastewater treatment systems.”

The Environmental Chemistry and Technology program at UW–Madison has its origins in wastewater engineering on the UW campus. Since then, the program has become an interdisciplinary mix of experts on water pollution, soil pollution, and air pollution, with ties to the geology and the environmental engineering programs on campus.

“It is unique in that we have our own program that actually mixes chemistry and environmental work,” Balgooyen said.

Her ultimate goal as she continues her career in science is to work with environmental policy. She plans to graduate in May.

“What I want the impact of my studies to be is to use this environmental chemistry knowledge that I have to make as much change as possible,” she said. “We, as a society, know that we can make the world better by making these changes, but how do we make those changes? Do we necessarily want to make those changes? Maybe not. I think policy is a big way that you can push that forward.”

As a student, she has found opportunities to learn more about science policy and what a career might look like by attending events on campus, many hosted by the student group Catalysts for Science Policy (CaSP). She also received a Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) grant in 2015, which funded women scientists to visit campus and speak with graduate students across programs.

“That was really a lot of fun and definitely really helpful for all of our career outlooks as women in science, because not everyone has a female role model in science,” Balgooyen said. “It was really great to spark those conversations and build everybody’s confidence being a woman in science.”

She added that students are lucky to have the opportunities on campus to attend workshops and events like these.

“That’s been helpful to get that well-rounded education,” she said. “Not just spending time in the lab and doing your research, but also getting all of these other experiences that you might not get if you were at a smaller school – there’s so much here.”