Laurie LaPat-Polasko, Vice President, Matrix New World Engineering

Dr. LaPat-Polasko has a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Maryland, a M.S. and Engineers Degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University, and a B.S. in Biology from Chatham University. She combines her knowledge of biology, environmental engineering, and microbiology to develop and design innovative “bioremediation” approaches to clean up contaminated sites, creating a green, cost-effective method to degrade diverse contaminants, such as chlorinated solvents, explosives, fuel compounds, and emerging contaminants. Laurie also provides expertise related to microbial pathogens. She is the Vice President/National Director of Remediation at Matrix New World Engineering.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Laurie shared her professional trajectory, insights on one of the biggest challenges encountered by her on environmental projects, the secret mantra behind her success, her favorite quote, future plans, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Hi Laurie. Please tell us about your background and areas of interest

When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to become a U.N. interpreter, because I had taken 5 languages: Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latin and German. However, when I arrived at college, I realized that I was really fascinated by marine life in the oceans and lakes around the world. Each time I visited the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and watched the diver in the coral reef tank describe the sea creatures, I was mesmerized by their beauty and grace. After becoming a certified scuba diver, I wrote a letter to the Director of the Shedd Aquarium asking about the opportunity for an internship.  A few months later, I was the person diving in the coral reef tank giving the lecture. Halfway through the lecture, I was watching the visitors through the glass while feeding one of the sharks some shrimp, when suddenly he bit down on my hand and blood spurted out. That was the end of that day’s lecture.  I’m happy to say that there was no permanent damage to my hand and there were no hard feelings between me and the shark. In fact, a few weeks later I was back in the tank feeding him again.

During my sophomore year at Chatham College, I wrote a letter to the head of the Marine Biology Department at University of Florida Gainesville inquiring about the possibility of doing independent research at their Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory. A few months later I received a letter from Dr. Maturo informing me that I could conduct an independent study at their marine lab. The following January I was heading out to the marine lab, where I was going to study a small fish that lived in relatively high and low salinity environments.  Upon arriving at the island, I quickly learned some key information about living there—first there were Water Moccasin snakes all around the island, which were poisonous, and secondly, all of the graduate students were conducting their research back in Gainesville and therefore, I would be all alone on the island for the month.  During the first few days on the island, I was extremely lonely and would walk around talking to myself and the animals.

One afternoon, I decided to walk around the whole island, which was only a few miles. I threw on my waders and began walking in the surf, when after a few steps I began sinking in this mud-like material. The more I tried to pull my feet out of the mud, the deeper I sunk.  As the sun was setting and the tide was coming in, I stopped moving for a few minutes and reflected on my situation.  I decided that squirming my feet around or trying to pull them out was not going to work, so instead I leaned forward and laid down into the ocean until water was filling up my waders. I then wiggled out of my waders and swam over to an area where the beach front was solid ground. That evening as I sat alone and ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I took a few deep breaths and realized how lucky I was to have each of these experiences that pushed me to my limits.  More importantly I began to recognize and appreciate the many individuals who had a positive impact on my life.

Over the years, I realized how the power of the pen opened-up new and exciting opportunities for me. Yet, when I told my mom I was going to write Jacques Cousteau a letter and ask about working at his Oceanographic Institute in Monaco, she thought I was nuts. But she also knew I was crazy enough to do it. So, off the letter went to Captain Cousteau and several other Directors of Marine Biology and Oceanographic institutes around the world. More than six months went by before I heard back from Captain Cousteau, and I was overcome with joy when he informed me that he would be happy to have me join his team and that I could even live in one of the small rooms for visiting scientists in the lower level of the aquarium.  What an incredible experience it was to work for Jacques Cousteau and his team.  I was part of a team that studied water pollution in the Mediterranean Sea.  Every week, we would take out one of Cousteau’s research boats and collect Mediterranean Sea water samples along the coast of Monaco, France, and Italy. We would then come back to the laboratory and analyse the samples for chemical pollutants and microbial pathogens.  Through this research effort, Jacques Cousteau was able to demonstrate the importance of wastewater treatment and the negative impact in areas that did not provide secondary treatment for wastewater.

For the past three decades I have been cleaning up contaminated sites around the world from the Exxon Valedez oil spill to highly contaminated chlorinated solvent sites in Australia, Brazil and Europe.

What do you like most about being an environmental leader and what motivates you at work?

My professional career is never a dull moment, one day I may be designing a remediation system to clean up a major oil spills in Valdez, Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico or serving as a microbiology detective to determine how a pathogen caused the death of two young boys in the Phoenix area. During the few past few decades, I have had the opportunity to work with real pioneers at developing creative solutions to cleaning up contaminated water and soil around the world. Many people call me the “Bug Lady” because I Isolated a bacterium that can biodegrade the carcinogenic compound, methylene chloride in groundwater while I was a graduate student at Stanford University. My fascination with microbes has continued throughout my career and I am often off to unique parts of the globe, such as the rain forests of Costa Rica and Brazil and the chilly environments of Alaska and Antarctica to find microbes that may be capable of biodegrading harmful chemicals in our environment.

I truly enjoy motivating college and graduate students to learn more about our planet and develop innovative remediation approaches to the complex environmental problems we are now facing.  I work on projects around the world, and I especially enjoy watching our team of environmental engineers, geologists and scientists at Matrix New World Engineering clean up very contaminated soil and groundwater sites back to native conditions.

In your current role, what are some of the challenges you encounter and solutions you’ve come up with?

One of the biggest challenges that we encounter on environmental projects is making sure that we have strong communication lines between our team members, and therefore, I set up weekly meetings to understand the status of each project and how we can prevent potential issues occurring on a project proactively. For example, I do many bioremediation projects, which involve injecting a food source and microbes into the groundwater to biodegrade pollutants, such as tetrachloroethane, a dry-cleaning contaminant, in the groundwater. However, often times the food source that is added can produce fatty acids as a byproduct, which lowers the pH of the groundwater and may have a negative impact on the microbes that breakdown the contaminants.  To prevent this from happening, we add a buffering agent with the carbon source, and this helps maintain the groundwater in an environment that is conducive for the microbes to grow and keep degrading the pollutants.

Also, it is extremely important that we have good communication with the regulatory organization overseeing the remediation of the site. Often times, project managers do not realize how important it is to develop clear and appropriate language when communicating with the general public. Our communication should not be about trying to impress the public with big words that 99% of the people have never heard of, but providing information and analogies that the public understands and can relate to.

What are some unique characteristics that make successful people in your sector/discipline stand out?

Some of the most unique and beneficial characteristics for those people involved in environmental engineering work include strong communication skills and the ability to translate complex chemical, biological and physical processes into a language that the general public will understand. In addition to effective communication, highly successful people are able to develop innovative cost-effective solutions to very challenging environmental conditions, such as emerging contaminants like Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the “forever chemicals”. Successful people are good listeners and effective team builders. A great team leader knows how to motivate the team and appreciates the value of each team member.

If you could have a one-hour meeting with someone famous who is alive or dead, who would it be and why? 

Rachel Carson. She was an American marine biologist, writer, and conservationist whose sea trilogy and book “Silent Spring” were essential with advancing marine conservation and the global environmental movement. Rachel Carson and I both went to Chatham College, which was a women’s college.

You were recently recognized as one of the Top 50 Women Leaders in Arizona for 2024. Our readers would love to know the secret mantra behind your success. 

Focus on the journey, not the destination. You can do it!

What is your favorite quote?

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future” Steve Jobs  For sure, I can relate to this quote, because throughout my career, I took many different paths, such as switching from marine biology to civil engineering to microbiology and genetic engineering and along that path I stopped to do my Masters in Documentary Film at Stanford University and then worked at KTEH public television doing documentary shows.

If you aren’t in the office, what would we most likely find you doing?

Snorkeling with humpback whales or killer whales around the world.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Identifying and developing microbes to biodegrade current and emerging contaminants and mentoring the next leaders of the state of Arizona.

What advice would you give to someone who feels inspired by your journey and wants to do similar work?

Study hard and get undergraduate and graduate degrees in science or engineering and then go out and get real world experience.

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