Maggie Carolan takes on Flint, rainwater harvesting, and Stanford

Maggie Carolan’s freshman year spring break was where it all started.

“I was going to IKEA with my mum, because IKEA’s the best,” the Stafford, Virginia native explains, pronouncing her words with a hint of an accent she picked up from her Australian mother. “We were in the car, and I get a call. And it’s Dr. Marc Edwards.”

Edwards is the Charles Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, known nationally as a MacArthur Fellow whose specialty lies in water supply safety. Most recently, Edwards has made headlines for his work uncovering and inspecting the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s water supply.

He was calling Carolan to tell her she’d been accepted to a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program in water science at Virginia Tech. When Carolan had applied for a research experience, Edwards’ program was labeled as the investigative epidemiology program — her first choice, since she’d begun to feel a calling in public health and infectious disease.

Carolan was fully aware of the magnitude of the phone call — which perhaps was why she sounded so eager to accept the research experience position. “I talked to him and I sounded super nerdy, like I didn't know what I was talking about. I was like, ‘I love the water cycle, like that's why I love water!’

“It was so bad," she said, laughing.

Still, Carolan, 19 years old and a rising junior double majoring in environmental science and water: resources, policy, and management, beams when she talks about the call, because it was the start of a transformative — and incredibly public — venture into water research and environmental justice.

By the following spring break, Carolan was on the ground in Flint, going into the homes of despondent residents who, she said, felt “left behind” after mistakes and corruption on the part of government officials led to the contamination of their water supply.

From Saturday through Sunday, Carolan spent her spring break traveling between affected homes, businesses, and large buildings, collecting samples and taking them to a lab at Michigan State University to analyze. Carolan and another team member specifically had the added task of looking for Legionella, a bacteria that can cause Legionnaires' disease, which has seen a dramatic rise in Flint in recent years.

During these sometimes 15 hour days, she’d also take a break every now and then to be interviewed by reporters — or to attend the highly-anticipated March 6 Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

“I swore I made eye contact with Bernie," she said.

After the week was up and 100 samples had been collected, Carolan was right back in the lab at Tech on Monday. And for days after, Carolan was cleaning out the sampling equipment. “My life is mostly dishes,” she joked.

photo of maggie carolan laughing while sitting on her desk in her dorm room

But that’s a humble understatement. Aside from her work in Flint, Carolan was an early adopter of the new interdisciplinary water degree that launched fall 2015, making her eligible to apply for the program’s Sustainable Water Scholarship and the Sustainable Water Undergraduate Research Fellowship. She applied for and won both.

For the fellowship, Carolan partnered with Edwards’ doctoral student William Rhoads, a fellow Flint water study team member, to perform a cutting-edge experiment on rainwater harvesting systems. The pair worked together on the project while simultaneously working on Flint.

"We were like, ‘okay, we want to look at everything,’ because no one has done a big study of a rainwater harvesting system before that looks at chemical, physical, and biological factors," she said. “We found a lot of really gross stuff — which is good. I get really excited about gross water samples." Rhoads and Carolan plan to publish their work.

She’s also traveled to Washington D.C. with support from Tech’s Honors College and Office of Undergraduate Research to present at the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM. Her oral presentation on turbidity, microbes, and flow rates won first place in the tech and engineering category.

In the back of her mind, she’s also thinking about ideas for her undergraduate thesis, a necessary step in obtaining an Honors Baccalaureate degree.

And then there’s her classes. On top of her double major, she’s minoring in green engineering.

Even though for the past two years she has had an inviting room in Hillcrest — most recently stocked with a jar of Vegemite and decorated with multicolor string lights, maps, and a poster from the Democratic debate — she hasn’t been in it much. When she is, she’s still thinking about research, she says. She’s even considered testing the water in her goldfish tank — just for fun.

With such a research-focused mindset, paired with the real-world experiences she already has under her belt, some team members on the Flint water study team joke that she’s already got an honorary Master’s degree. And while she’s well on her way, Carolan always maintains her focus.

“For me, this is all about how I learn,” she said. She credits the mindset with the realization that she needed to be more thoughtful about her approach to swimming back in high school, when she had to relearn how to swim in order to be competitive. Now, she carries that same thoughtfulness into her undergraduate education.

For now, Carolan will bring her passion and expertise to Stanford this summer, where she’ll study in a nine-week environmental engineering program funded by the National Science Foundation.

As for what’s next, Carolan is looking forward to two more years of undergrad, her thesis, and finding more funding for research.

“I have a lot of fun doing research,” she said. “It’s hard work, but it’s fun.”

Written by: Erica Corder