Student Profile-Progga Chirontoni

Chirontoni works to bring clean water to all

Progga Chirontoni, a Lamar University junior chemical engineering and math major from Dhaka, Bangladesh, has been passionate about addressing the issue of water scarcity since the eighth grade, when she researched arsenic contamination in the water of developing countries for a science fair project.

Progga ChirontoniFrom then on, the lack of clean water around the world intrigued Chirontoni, causing her to invest her free time in reading articles and reports about water scarcity. When she moved to the United States as a high school senior and recognized that water scarcity didn’t just affect developing countries, it became apparent to her that desalination was an answer to many of the world’s water problems, but had to be tackled in an innovative, cost effective way.

“As I did more research, it was evident that desalination was an effective solution. However, the desalination plants that are used in the United States are worth well beyond the reach of many developing countries, which poses a problem,” she said. “But I chose engineering as a major because I enjoy solving challenging problems with the ultimate goals of impacting people’s lives positively.”

Now Chirontoni, a two-time recipient of the Lamar University Office of Undergraduate Research Grant for her projects “Electrochemical Measurement of the Toxic Metal Contaminants in the Waters of the Golden Triangle Area” and “Analysis of Hazardous Chemicals in Water Using Liquid Chromatography—Mass Spectrometric Method,” will be able to further pursue her dream of developing innovative water treatment techniques this summer at the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) thanks to a $10,000 Beck Finalist grant. There she will work on membrane distillation, a cost-effective desalination technique, and research ways to prevent membrane fouling.

Translating her passion for clean water into a Beck proposal came easily for Chirontoni, who had learned about the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy during a research program.

“In the summer of 2015, I was accepted to a weeklong STEM research boot camp at MIT led by Ph.D. students. This camp gave me the opportunity to network with postdoctoral students and professors at different engineering labs at MIT,” she said. “While there, I also learned about the MIT Water Club, which seeks to solve pressing challenges in the water sector. It grabbed my attention immediately.”

Upon her return, Progga reached out to John Lienhard, the director of the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy, about her interest in water desalination and her past water research.

“Their response was very positive.” She said. “[The group] interviewed me over Skype and I began work on my Beck Fellowship proposal right away. Now that I’ve been given this opportunity, I’m looking forward to working in a high caliber group at one of the finest labs at MIT while pursuing my research interest in water.”

While in Massachusetts, Chirontoni will be researching in Lienhard’s lab under the mentorship of postdoctoral researcher David Warsinger.

“Progga is the right candidate to work with this group,” Chirontoni’s Beck mentor and research professor Andrew Gomes said. “She has the motivation and the intellect to work hands-on with this new technology, and we will keep in contact with each other as her work develops.”

Safe water is inaccessible to 1 in every 10 people around the world, often due to a lack of access to fresh water sources. Although water is readily available, covering 71 percent of the earth’s surface, around 97 percent of it has a saline content too high for human consumption. Therefore, according to Chirontoni, desalination technology is crucial to equip more communities with drinking water from easily accessed, plentiful sources such as the sea.

“My goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and contribute to addressing water scarcity worldwide. Water scarcity is a significant problem not only in the developing world, but also in industrial societies such as the Southwestern United States,” Chirontoni said. “Desalination and purification technologies are being used widely to turn seawater to drinking water, but the challenge is to design sustainable technologies with minimum cost and energy consumption that are economical for everyone who needs them.”

Chirontoni, who has been involved in research since her freshman year under Gomes, has won two undergraduate research grants, the Larry and Cynthia Norwood Scholarship in Chemical Engineering, the Joseph Baj Scholarship in Mathematics and the Jean and Rudy Williams Academic Enhancement Scholarship.

“Progga has worked with me for two years on metal contamination and pesticide residues in the waters of Southeast Texas, which I think has continued to provide her with the zeal to search for innovative water treatment technologies,” Gomes said. “In my opinion, Progga is an outstanding student who is goal-oriented and focused. She looks for all of the opportunities around her that will help her excel.”

Chirontoni has also presented her works at the 2014 and 2015 National Council of Undergraduate Research conference, the Lamar Undergraduate Research Expo, and the 2014 and 2015 Texas STEM conference. A research paper of hers was published in the National Council of Undergraduate Research 2014 conference journal.

“Being involved in research, student organizations and around campus has been an important part of my undergraduate life and has greatly increased my leadership skills,” she said.

But beyond research, Chirontoni remains involved both on and off campus. She is a member of Engineers Without Borders, the International Student Council and the Reaud Honors College, where she peer mentors honors students. She serves as the event coordinator for the Society of Women Engineers, cultural secretary for the Bangladesh Student Association, secretary of the Student Engineering Council, and is a previous New Student Orientation Leader, Partners in the Parks participant, and LU CHEM-E camp counselor.

Chirontoni devotes the free time she does have to causes outside of the classroom, using her proclivity for music and mathematics to brighten the lives of others.

“In my free time, I enjoy practicing Bengali and Indian classical music and teaching vocal music to children,” she said. “I also really enjoy Math tutoring. I am a regular volunteer tutor at the Math clinic at R.C Miller Library in Beaumont.”

As Chirontoni moves forward in life, she hopes she can combine her varied interests with a career that will be of service to others. She says Lamar is special to her for its opportunities to explore these interests and its accommodating professors and staff.

“All my professors at Lamar have always been eager to help me and even encourage me to pursue knowledge that is beyond the scope of a particular class,” she said. “The faculty and staff that I have worked with have been very supportive. I enjoy the diversity around campus and really appreciate the warmth with which I have been received here.”

And as for Gomes, he continues to enjoy watching Progga grow.

“Progga has many questions about our environment, specifically those centered around water pollution and treatment. I hope her inquisitive nature brings her the answers and solutions to these questions,” Gomes said. “In 10 years, I see her flourishing as a chemical engineer, developing new and better options to make our world safer for all.”