Environmental engineering was a natural fit for Katherine Peter.
“I liked math and science in my younger grades, so I always knew I wanted to do something in engineering,” Peter said. “And I spent a lot of time outside as a kid, so I've always been a bit of an environmentalist.”
She was drawn to the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis due to its unique combined chemical and environmental engineering program. It also didn’t hurt that her brother attended the university.
“That was my original motivation for considering the school,” she said.
During her time at WashU, Peter performed research in the lab of John Fortner, former assistant professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering. She also worked with Jay Turner, vice dean for education and the James McKelvey Professor of Engineering Education.
“He has been a fantastic mentor and friend,” Peter said. “He’s the one who originally encouraged me to apply for grad school, so I'm forever grateful for that encouragement.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a minor in Spanish in 2013, Peter went on earn a doctorate in environmental engineering from the University of Iowa. She now works in the Biochemical and Exposure Science Group for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the nation’s top measurement group.
“NIST develops materials and methods that help researchers and industries know what they’re measuring in terms of chemicals in environmental samples or food samples so they have a way to accurately benchmark what they’re doing,” Peter said.
Her work focuses specifically on developing methods to better analyze and understand the sources of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment. These chemicals, which can be found in man-made materials such as Teflon and fire-fighting foam, are also known as “forever chemicals” since they don’t break down and can build up in the human body. PFAS have been linked to certain cancers, autoimmune disorders, Parkinson’s disease, birth defects and other serious diseases.
She performs nontargeted analysis of these chemicals using high-resolution mass spectrometry, a technique she first used to analyze stormwater while working as a postdoctoral research scientist at the University of Washington Tacoma, Center for Urban Waters. Rather than focusing on a specific chemical, nontargeted analysis aims to detect as many chemicals as possible in a sample. This provides a broader understanding of the sample’s chemical fingerprint.
“Within the last decade, there's been an explosion in growth of people using this technique to understand chemicals in the environment,” Peter said. “Working at NIST is a cool space to help develop the fundamentals that underpin this interesting research.”
Recently, Peter was awarded the 2021 James J. Morgan Early Career Award by the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The award recognizes researchers who are early in their careers, who “are seeing the farthest horizons and leading the fields in new directions.”
She was honored for her work creating new applications for analysis using high-resolution mass spectrometry, specifically in the field of urban water quality, treatment and management.
“I’m honored and humbled to be grouped with other people who are doing such interesting research,” Peter said. “It’s a cool recognition of the other excellent researchers that I’ve had the opportunity to work with and be mentored by.”