Female student in civil engineering leading by example

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Crista Cerda, civil engineering sophomore and president of the Society of Women Engineers. Photo by Deandra Gonzalez

Students in STEM disciplines can apply for an undergraduate research program for this summer through the Alamo Colleges.

By Bismarck D. Andino


Water is an important source of life. It is also a mediator for life’s chemical reaction.

Without water intake, humans cannot live for more than three to five days, said the Healthy Hydration report by the Project WET Foundation, Water Education for Teachers.

In fact, about 60 percent of the adult body weight is due to water; however, as the human body gets older, this percentage drops.

On the other hand, the hydrologic cycle teaches us that this universal solvent is constantly moving and changing in forms, sometimes causing droughts.

A bigger concern, however, is wastewater and water preservation. According to the United Nations Water Development Report, Wastewater: the Untapped Resource, launched on March 22, 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is left untreated.

These wastewaters are later released into water bodies, potentially affecting the quality and availability of freshwater supplies.

Civil engineering sophomore Crista Cerda, one of few female students in this field at this college, said she wants to change this.

Cerda, who grew up in Mexico, realized the importance of water at a young age when she had to get up early in the morning for a two-hour trip to have access to it at the nearest town.

Her interest grew when she came to this country and realized water was not only Mexico’s problem.

“I never thought water was going to be an issue here … but seeing in the news that the whole state is in a seasonal drought, where even rich people don’t have water — or sometimes they do, but it’s not clean enough — that’s when you realize that it is a necessity,” Cerda said.

“Flint, Mich., for example, they had lead in their water because a treatment plant was not cleaning it good enough,” she said.

Cerda speaks of Flint’s water crisis, which according to National Public Radio began in 2014 when thousands of residents were potentially exposed to high levels of lead in tap drinking water. Criminal charges were filed against nine former state employees for misleading information about Flint’s water treatment plant, which was not in compliance with the lead and copper rules.

“You don’t have to go that far, look at what happened in Corpus Christi,” she said.

Cerda said last year, an industrial plant in Corpus Christi caused a water crisis due to a backflow problem that ended up contaminating that city’s public waters. This event caused a citywide water use ban for four days and fear among citizens. According to BBC News, the water restriction affected more than 300,000 people.

Cerda believes basing civil engineering in water resources can help her make a bigger impact in today’s society.

Last summer, she worked with the University of Texas at San Antonio through the Alamo Colleges STEM research program (CIMA-LSAMP) for 10 weeks doing a research project on water quality in the Edwards Aquifer.

“It was an interesting research because UTSA is located on the top of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone,” Cerda said. “San Antonio is growing a lot and UTSA has a lot of parking space, and what that means is that when it rains there, the water spreads out and gets contaminated. Then, it goes to the river and possibly reaches the aquifer.”

Cerda also said this project included the testing of accumulated rainwater from that university’s sand filters to check its cleanliness and quality.

However, for a better response, UTSA wants to change the ‘sands filter basin’ flanked by two ‘storm boxes’ for something more effective to decontaminate and replenish this city’s drinking supply, she said.

“They want to change the sand filter to have a bio retention system,” Cerda said. “Instead of just the sand, they would have plants, mulch and gravel … so that the water would be cleaner and recharge the aquifer from there instead of keep moving.”

Cerda said this project paid her $3,000 for those 10 weeks and on top of that she was offered a scholarship to UTSA.

This is an opportunity for any student in STEM disciplines because no degree or experience is required, Cerda said.

For information about the research project with CIMA-LSAMP and how to apply for this summer’s undergraduate research program, students can call 210-486-0085 or visit https://www.alamo.edu/cima/.

Because Cerda has not decided what university to attend, she is waiting to hear from the office of scholarship and financial aid at Texas A&M University in College Station. Whichever school offers her the most will determine her decision in the fall.

To female students considering this discipline, she advises to keep pushing through and not to feel discouraged just because this is a career primarily dominated by males.

She said not participating in this type of program and being shy would not help to overcome these barriers.

“The research at UTSA helped me a lot because there were a lot of male students who were already working on their master’s degree,” Cerda said.

“If I survived that, I can do more. Now I’m just looking for my next challenge because once I overcome it, it will make me … well grounded and help me empower others.”

Cerda, who is currently the president of this college’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, is preparing to take on a new journey for the summer at Northern Illinois University.

The eight-weeks research will consist of four weeks at university to learn about the use of equipment and four more in Cancun, Mexico, to collect data and take pictures to understand underwater geophysics.

Cerda told The Ranger that not a single penny has come out of her pocket. Not only will she get paid to do this research, she will receive a complementary four-day vacation to Cancun.

For more information on the society, visit the MESA Center in Room 204 of Chance Academic Center or email sac-swe@alamo.edu.


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