Making Our Mark

Desiree Plata '03

Desiree Plata '03
Photo by Lillie Paquette (MIT)

Desiree Plata '03 majored in chemistry at Union College before earning a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry and chemical oceanography from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She’s now the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, where she educates undergraduates and trains graduate and postdoctoral scholars. Desiree’s research mission is to change the way people invent materials and processes – to incorporate environmental metrics during the design phase to avoid environmental damage. Her group’s work focuses on energy technologies and carbon-based materials. Dedicated to the professional development of her students, Desiree created a workshop to help them navigate bias (gender or other) in the workplace. She is an active symposium organizer for the Gordon Research Conferences and the American Chemical Society. Also an associate editor of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal, Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts, Desiree is married to Dr. Ricky Misiaszek ’03.

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your career or volunteer activities?

My career is demanding in the sense that it is really three or four careers. We are researchers. We are educators. We perform services to the university to keep it running and to our academic community to push the boundaries of discovery. We are mentors and coaches to young people. This requires a lot of time and effort that is functionally unrecognized as part of the job, but critical to building the workforce, thought leaders and good humans of tomorrow. All of these are also the most rewarding aspects of my job. I love each facet of the work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love discovery, I love sharing that discovery and I love seeing people advance in pursuit of their dreams. I am so fortunate to be able to use my skills to improve our world (and human’s impact on the Earth). I get paid to do something I love, make the world a better place and grow the people in it. How lucky am I?

Who inspired/inspires you, both professionally and personally?

I have many inspirations in my life. To speak specifically to my Union professors, there is a long list. Bill Zwicker (mathematics) and Les Hull (emeritus, chemistry) showed me what excellent and elegant college instruction should be; these are artists. Mary Carroll (chemistry) taught me almost everything I know about professionalism, and I translate that to my own students. Tom Werner (emeritus, chemistry) built a foundation for undergraduate research at Union that lit the way for my own path, and has been a shining national example. Leo Fleishman (biology), Rob Olsen (biology) and Dave Hayes (chemistry) taught me how to design great laboratory experiments and to communicate results like a pro. I use these tools every day. Without these people, I would not be the scientist I am today.

I think on some level I am also inspired by people I don’t know. I think a lot about young people out there who have visions of a better future and a desire to put those good ideas to work. I want to fight to create opportunities for them, as someone created opportunities for me. I believe that access to clean air and water are fundamental civil liberties, and I work to preserve those for all people, irrespective of their demographic descriptors.

What advice would you offer today’s women students, not just at Union, but across the country?

The magnet on my office door reads, “One person can make a difference. Everyone should try.” This John Kennedy quote captures the idea that people have the power to change the world and to change each other. Progress comes from individual discoveries, ideas and people supporting one another. Do not forget this. Realize your importance on Earth and the value in every individual person. As an extension of this, don’t let anyone else tell you, “No.” You should be the only person who decides what you can and cannot do. Gender bias is pervasive and you have to work to overcome that, but stay positive. Don’t get bitter. Pursue excellence. Excellence is hard to dismiss. Fight for your opportunity to show that excellence.

What was your most formative experience at Union?

My most formative experiences at Union were two-fold: my undergraduate research opportunities and my terms abroad. I had no idea that you could be an academic researcher. Undergraduate research opened me up to this world of possibility! Scholarship, discovery, mentoring, writing, teaching and service are all things I love. I can’t imagine a better job for myself, and I would not have pursued it without the research opportunities Union gives very young students. I will always be thankful for my research experiences at Union and the people who worked to create them.

I came to Union on scholarship, and I was able to apply those funds to my term abroad in Africa and a mini-term in Panama. Never in my wildest dreams would I have been able to go to Africa to teach or to Panama to do research in a tropical forest! I learned that those activities, which I had seen as viable career paths before, were not things I truly wanted as a full-time career. This really helped me refine what I wanted to pursue in life and what I wanted to research. I am forever thankful to the Union alumni who made my participation in those terms possible through their generous donations to the school.