Edgerton Award Citation for Desiree Plata, Written by Dr. Tami Kaplan

Monday, May 3, 2021

“Doc Edgerton” was a remarkable innovator and leader, and he was dedicated to the successes of junior faculty. MIT has a special annual award in his memory for junior faculty who have an outstanding record in research, teaching and service. On April 21, it was announced that Desiree Plata is one of the winners of the Edgerton Award for 2021. This is one of the Institute’s highest honors and the granting of the award includes a citation that highlights the award winner’s accomplishments. Dr. Tami Kaplan organizes the Edgerton Award nomination process, and she writes the citation that is read at an Institute Faculty Meeting. Members of the committee in 2021 included Professor Bevin Engelward (Chair), Professor Alessandro Bonatti, Professor Amy Glasmeier, Professor Tim Swager, and Professor TL Taylor.

We thank Dr. Kaplan for her leadership. Her outstanding summary of Desiree Plata’s many contributions is recorded here.

“The Selection Committee is delighted to announce Desirée Plata, Gilbert W. Winslow (1937) Career Development Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, as a recipient of the 2020-2021 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award.

Professor Plata received a BS in chemistry from Union College and a PhD in chemical oceanography and environmental chemistry from the MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program. After receiving her doctorate, Professor Plata held positions at Mount Holyoke College, Duke University, and Yale University. She joined the MIT faculty in 2018 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and was promoted to Associate Professor without Tenure in 2020. The senior faculty colleague who nominated her wrote: “She is one of the most remarkable individuals I have encountered in my years at MIT, and an exemplary member of our faculty.”

Professor Plata is motivated by the common good, especially with regard to keeping people safe from hazardous chemicals in the environment. She feels particularly strongly that we have a responsibility to serve underprivileged persons who are disproportionately impacted by hazardous chemicals.

In alignment with her passions, she is the global leader in proactive environmental engineering – the development of sustainable practices guided by fundamental science, industrial practicality, and concepts such as “green chemistry”. Her work is leading us away from the clean-up mode of environmental protection and toward smart and sustainable innovation that aims to prevent future negative impacts on the environment. In the area of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional drilling, she has provided perhaps the most complete and best-grounded study of potential water quality impacts from this technology and is publishing geospatially-referenced guidance for avoiding compromising chemical reactions. Professor Plata is also making important contributions to carbon nanotube manufacturing – not only with regard to the mitigation of waste product formation, but also to the enhanced growth of desired carbon nanotube products, and she was a driving force behind two patents related to carbon nanotubes from her doctoral time at MIT.

Recognition for Professor Plata’s work includes an NSF CAREER Award as well as being named a National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Fellow and – twice! – a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow.

Professor Plata is known as an enthusiastic and energetic teacher who presents material clearly and has a deep commitment to ensuring her students’ success. Her exemplary record as a research mentor is similarly impressive. In addition to her dedication to the professional development of her students, she serves as an inspirational model for them in personal development issues such as work-life balance. A former student commented that she “…leads by example and bestows confidence in those she mentors”. Her excellence in these areas has been recognized by the MIT School of Engineering’s Junior Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Mount Holyoke College Student Government Association Mentoring Award.

Professor Plata’s leadership is also evident through her service. At MIT, she is the incoming Deputy Director of MIT’s Superfund Research Program and has helped in the development of educational materials for the Environmental Solutions Initiative. She is also highly proactive with regard to strengthening diversity and inclusion. Outside the Institute, she is a member of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Decarbonization Academic Steering Committee, which has been commissioned to inform strategies for 80% emissions reductions by 2050. She is also an Associate Editor of the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts, and has served as session chair and organizer for several Gordon Research Conferences on Environmental Nanotechnology and one on Environmental Sciences: Water.

Continuing the legacy of Professor Harold E. Edgerton, this award honors achievement in research, teaching, and service by a non-tenured member of the faculty. The Selection Committee recognizes Professor Desirée Plata for her innovative approach to environmentally sustainable industrial practices; her inspirational teaching and mentoring; and her service to the Institute, the Commonwealth, and her professional community.”