Emerging Investigator Series – Roland Cusick

Roland D. Cusick is currently an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He earned his B.S. in Environmental Engineering from the University of California, Riverside (2005), and holds an M.S. (2010) and Ph.D. (2013) in Environmental Engineering, both from the Pennsylvania State University. Roland has published 33 scientific papers (H-index of 21) in high impact journals such as Science, Energy and Environmental Science, and Environmental Science & Technology. The primary research areas of Dr. Cusick’s lab at UIUC include: (i) Electrochemical separations with energy storage materials- materials, process modeling, and systems analysis; (ii) Kinetic process modeling of nutrient recovery from wastewater and grain processing facilities; and (iii) Bio-electrochemical sensing for wastewater treatment system optimization.

Read his Emerging Investigator article “capacitive deionization for selective removal of nitrate and perchlorate: impacts of ion selectivity and operating constraints on treatment costs” and read more about him in the interview below:

Your recent Emerging Investigator Seriespaper focuses on capacitive deionization for selective removal of nitrate and perchlorate: impacts of ion selectivity and operating constraints on treatment costs. How has your research evolved from your first article to this most recent article?

My work has evolved quite a bit since the first two papers I published as an undergraduate. A primary motivation for pursuing an Environmental Engineering degree came from growing up in Los Angeles in the 80’s and 90’s where we regularly couldn’t play on the playground due to high ozone levels. As a junior at the University of California, Riverside, I was fortunate to work with Janey Arey and Roger Atkinson on gas phase reactions redox reactions of organic compounds in the presence of ozone and hydroxyl radicals. I am eternally grateful to these two for encouraging my interest in research and entrusting me with my own projects. While I really loved the solitude and tactile experience of experimental work, I didn’t feel enough passionate for the topic to pursue a PhD in that field of research.

Following the completion of my BS, I spent a couple of years working as an environmental consultant. The experience of managing energy intensive soil and groundwater remediation technologies motivated me to pursue a career focused on resource recovery from waste. I spent five years working with Professor Bruce Logan at Penn State University to develop microbial electrochemical technologies for energy, nutrient, and heat recovery. My graduate research highlighted the need for process modeling and systems analysis of novel treatment technologies.

As an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I have been driven to establish a balance between experimental work with novel materials and systems analysis to guide future research and development. The paper we published as a part of this Emerging Investigator series strikes this balance well by connecting an ion-selective capacitive deionization process model to life-cycle treatment costs for two oxyanion pollutants.

 What aspect of your work are you most excited about at the moment?

I’m very excited by our work that connects the first principles of pollutant removal and resource recovery to cost. We are pursuing these lines of research in both electrochemical separations and nutrient recovery from wastewater.

 In your opinion, what are the most important questions to be asked/answered in this field of research?

In the field of electrochemical separations, I think the most important questions to ask and answer are: (i) what pollutant characteristics create a competitive advantage for electrochemical separations, (ii) what materials exist or can be developed to selectively remove pollutants and extend system lifetime? And (iii) how do we most effectively integrate these technologies with intermittent renewable energy systems?

What do you find most challenging about your research?

I have found it challenging to balance a strong desire for collaboration with the need to develop independence and as principle investigator.

 In which upcoming conferencesor events may our readers meet you?

Given the novel coronavirus pandemic, I am not sure when I will resume attendance of in-person conferences but in the past I have attended meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), Water Environment Federation’s Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC), and the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP). I’d also like to plug the fourth Capacitive Deionization & Electrosorption Conference (https://www.cdie2021.com/) I am organizing alongside my colleagues Marta Hatzell and Xiao Su which will be held at Georgia Tech in May of 2021.

How do you spend your spare time?

I have two small children so most of my free time is spent caring for them. Brief solitary moments are spent practicing yoga and skateboarding.

Which profession would you choose if you were not a scientist?

Most of my early adolescence was spent trying to become a professional skateboarder but I wasn’t good enough to make a living at it! Before deciding to pursue graduate school, I considered culinary school because I really enjoyed working in commercial kitchens. I still get to cook for those I love and skateboard in my free time and things have worked out pretty well so far with research so I’m comfortable with my choices. A more practical answer is I would likely be working for a water technology start-up or a wastewater utility.

Can you share one piece of career-related advice or wisdom with other early career scientists?

One thing I have learned is to not take negative feedback personally. When a response to your work, be it from your supervisor, reviewers, or colleagues, is over the top with negativity, that is an indication of how that person feels about themselves and not a reflection of the quality of your work or your worth as a scientist. Academia is filled with large and overly sensitive egos so keep that in mind as you navigate this institution. Pick out the constructive pieces and keep it moving.

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