“Level-headed” is the way Ludmilla Aristilde describes her father, someone she thinks she takes after. He was the one to resolve family conflicts, to choose being a teacher over a lawyer, to build a school, and to tell Aristilde and her three brothers that education was the way to become something. He also gave his young daughter this advice: “Don’t let your friends choose you, choose them.” And “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.”
Perhaps this man gave Aristilde the tools she needed to leave her home in Haiti at the age of 14, enroll in a tough Brooklyn high school, and then work her way through four academic degrees capped by a doctorate in molecular toxicology from UC Berkeley. Certainly the long journey through the sexism and racism of academic science required an unusually level head. Certainly her mother’s strong will, or that of the Russian Olympian who is her namesake, may have played a part. But most of her success surely comes from her own drive and smarts. She’s an environmental engineer who is serious and articulate enough to change business as usual on the planet, and who embodies America’s multi-racial future.
Aristilde grew up on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, witnessing scenes of devastation that long preceded the recent earthquake. During her childhood, people continued to chop down the tropical trees that once covered the mountainsides surrounding the town—a scene that Aristilde painted as a child. “The changes in the environment had an impact on me as an artist,” she recalls. It is to this deforestation, as well as to tree planting trips organized by her school in Haiti, that she attributes her first spark of interest in the environment. A cholera outbreak started her thinking about the connection between water and health that has permeated her work ever since. Though an extraordinary Jamaican teacher at her school in Brooklyn made her fall in love with chemistry a few years later, Aristilde kept building her art portfolio. By the time she graduated from Cornell University in 2003, she had degrees in both fine arts and earth sciences.
The transition from an urban all-black high school to the privileged halls of Cornell demanded adjustments. At times, students seemed reluctant to work with her because she looked different. A kindly professor called on her more often to make her aptitude more evident to her peers. Several professors served as mentors and provided encouragement. The university’s Christian fellowship offered some refuge.
Aristilde found her professional path on an honors research trip to India. Heading up her own project, she sampled groundwater for contaminants in 14 villages and linked findings to local health problems. But it wasn’t the science that presented the most challenges, it was the oddity of her work in a culture where most women married and settled into domestic life very young. “At that time I thought the experience was tough because of my race, but in retrospect, I believe it was because I was a woman in science, so young and yet in charge. I was only 20, and it was a minefield to navigate,” she reflects. Aristilde grew from the experience. “All the pieces came together for me in India, my interest in environmental health and a sense of professional independence.”
Leaving the cocoon of Cornell also helped focus Aristilde’s ambitions. To better prepare for work on environmental health issues, she studied environmental chemistry and toxicology at Berkeley. Soon she was examining, on a molecular level, how pharmaceuticals interact with plants and soil. Drugs often aren’t fully metabolized, and the remainder enters the sewage system. But wastewater treatment facilities aren’t designed to remove such molecules, so they are discharged into the environment. Agricultural effluent can be an even greater source of pharmaceutical waste, as cows, chickens, and farmed fish get dosed with antibiotics to prevent infections from spreading in overcrowded conditions.
Aristilde’s research suggests that the antibiotic Cipro can inhibit photosynthesis in an aquatic ecosystem. In a study with spinach, she found that Cipro impedes the process by which the chloroplasts in these plants turn light energy into chemical energy. Although low levels of the antibiotic over two weeks had minimal or “sub-lethal” effects, a stronger dose over a whole month resulted in plants with fewer leaves and shorter roots that soon died.
“Antibiotics are here to stay, but we need to do a better job of assessing the potential impacts of their release into the environment,” she says. “My research goal is to use knowledge of a pharmaceutical’s chemistry to predict whether that pharmaceutical will persist, degrade, or be bad for the environment.”
Aristilde works on contaminants that trigger reverberations throughout the ecosystem. Pursuing a 2008-2009 Fulbright scholarship in France, she probed how clay particles may sequester tetracycline antibiotics and diminish their harmful effects on soil microbes. Over the past year, as a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, she has begun an investigation into stresses on marine phytoplankton. These tiny plantlike organisms provide up to 70 percent of our oxygen, but their survival is now threatened by an ocean chemistry altered by climate change.
“You can see the chemistry and environmental health threads in my work,” she says, some of which has been published in journals such as Environmental Science and Technology and Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Aristilde is in the midst of preparing more papers for publication, and the Discovery Channel reported on her Cipro and spinach findings this past spring. “I want to do policy-changing environmental research,” she says.
But that’s not all Aristilde wants. Having inherited her parents’ passion for teaching, she aims to be a professor at a major research university, where she wants to educate young minds about global environmental health issues, as well as be an example for students of every background. “It’s just as important for non-minorities to be exposed to a minority professor as it is for minorities,” she says.