Mary-Cathrine Leewis

boren profiles

Mary-Cathrine Leewis

2009 Boren Fellowships

University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Czech, Czech Republic


I first heard about the Boren Fellowship from my dissertation advisor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She had been a Boren Fellow in the Czech Republic, where she had been able to help set up what is now an ongoing partnership between the lab at my university and the Joint Laboratory of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Chemical Technology (ASCR/ICT). I applied for the fellowship, with the intention of going to the Czech Republic to learn Czech while conducting my dissertation research and continuing the partnership between with those institutions. By collaborating with these institutions, I hoped to strengthen relationships between the U.S. and leading eastern European scientists, and to better understand the environmental challenges in the region. 

I had no knowledge of the Czech language prior to departing for the Czech Republic, and I only had a limited knowledge of the culture. While there, I took language lessons at Charles University and worked in a primarily Czech lab, which really helped me to expand my vocabulary. I also actively immersed myself in experiences that would help me to learn more about the intricacies of Czech culture. Going with my Czech friends to various cultural events, such as the opera, the philharmonic, and multiple museums, helped us to bond over the shared experience of a great cultural heritage. 

My dissertation research is based on the phytoremediation (the use of plants and their microbes to degrade organic substances) of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are highly toxic chemicals, which are now banned, but were widely used during World War II and the Cold War. There is a legacy of PCB contamination throughout Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, and the United States, including Alaska. While in the Czech Republic, I investigated which plants species help microorganisms to degrade PCBs faster. The professors and students at ASCR/ICT, where I conducted most of my research, are excellent scientists and experts in phytoremediation. The Boren Fellowship allowed me to learn techniques from them and to teach them techniques we use at the University of Alaska.

Upon completion of my graduate studies, my career goal is to work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While working as an environmental consultant, I had the opportunity to work closely with the EPA at hazardous waste sites in the U.S. and to fully experience the environmental challenges that the U.S. faces. I hope to apply some of the ideas and processes I developed during my Boren Fellowship so I may foster international dialogue on contamination related issues. 

Written: November 2010

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