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St. Kate’s experience shaped chemist’s life and career

Deepa DeAlwis ’93 cleans up contaminated lands for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Deepa DeAlwis ’93 cleans up contaminated lands for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Photo by Rebecca Zenefski '10.

Deepa DeAlwis ’93 got her first taste of Minnesota in 1985 when she was a teenage foreign-exchange student in Grand Rapids, Minn. DeAlwis, a native of Colombo, Sri Lanka, struggled to feel comfortable in this cold, new land — but "Auntie Cynthia," a relative of her host, offered great emotional support.

After a year in Minnesota, DeAwis returned to Sri Lanka. She graduated from an all-girls high school, but her dream of attending college was dashed when civil war broke out in her country, and all universities were closed.

“I wrote to Auntie Cynthia, and she thought St. Kate’s would be perfect for me,” DeAlwis says. (Auntie Cynthia, it turns out, was a graduate of a private college for women on the East Coast.)

DeAlwis earned a degree in chemistry from St. Kate’s, and in 1997, went on to earn a masters in soil science from the University of Minnesota. 

Today, she’s a leader at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Superfund Program.

Q: Tell us about your work. What do you do?
I use science to help make the environment cleaner. I am the Superfund project manager for the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP), which is an over 2,300-acre site in the suburbs of Arden Hills and New Brighton that was used to manufacture and test ammunitions for the Army from WWII until the 1980s. The proposed Vikings stadium location was only about one-quarter of the site I oversee. 

The soil at TCAAP — and groundwater, under and downstream from the site — is contaminated with organic pollutants (mainly trichloroethene/TCE, an industrial solvent) and metals (mainly lead). The groundwater plume extends to the wells that supplies the City of New Brighton’s drinking water.

Currently, the Army is using granulated carbon filters to remove TCE and other organic pollutants from the drinking water. My job is to oversee the cleanup activities — and to make sure the Army does everything it agreed to do in the past.

Q: You are a proud Katie. Where does that pride come from?
When I learned about St. Kate’s history, and especially about its founder, I was hooked. I have three heroes in my life. They are my paternal grandmother, my maternal grandmother and Mother Antonia McHugh.

I really identify with Mother Antonia’s drive, her education and her unwillingness to back down in the face of adversity. She stood up to the powerbrokers of her time. For example, when the mayor of St. Paul wanted Prior Avenue to cut though campus, Mother Antonia boldly built Mendel Hall blocking Prior — and she put the science program in the building.

It was like she was saying, “You don’t think women should go to college? You can’t stop us, and as a matter of fact, we will teach them science right here.”

Q: Did your future career goals align with those your parents had for you?
My father always wanted me to become a doctor. He was very clear about that. And for a time, I thought that was what I was going to do. Then one day in high school, I watched a teacher perform a basic chemistry experiment. That was it. I decided I wanted to be a chemist. 

Q: What was your father’s reaction?
My dad and I had many fights about that. He did not understand chemistry. So he wrote to a friend who just happened to be an inorganic chemist. His friend wrote back that chemistry would be a good field for me. He also sent one of his old textbooks. It impressed my dad enough that when I arrived at St. Kate’s, I was a committed chemistry major.

 Q: Are there any professors who made a big impression on you?
Sister Mary Thompson was an immovable object. (She was a department chair and faculty member for 39 years prior to her retirement in the late 90’s.) I arrived in Minnesota during the second semester, and Sister Mary required me to complete a 12-to-15-page paper on a chemistry-related issue in the community before that semester was over.

I had never written a paper like that. I had no idea how to do the research. But I set to work. Sister Mary wrote in red ink across the top of a draft I turned in: “Your writing is horrible.” I was crushed, but I kept working to improve my writing. And thanks to her, I became a capable writer and researcher. The skills Sister Mary taught me set me apart from my classmates in graduate school. To this day, I still meet Sister Mary for lunch. She is a very important part of my life.

Dr. Patricia Fish (who’s retired) was another professor who made a big impact on me. She taught me to be meticulous. Her work ethic rubbed off on me. She made me a good chemist.

Q: Has your liberal arts education contributed to your career as a scientist?
Taking English, history and art classes helped me become a more well-rounded individual. The broad requirements for graduation also taught me communicate successfully. In my job, I need to be able to understand science and also effectively convey scientific concepts to the general public. That’s where my liberal arts education comes in.

Q: What was it like being a Buddhist and attending a Catholic University?
I have a very strong social-justice streak, and the emphasis on social justice at St. Kate’s spoke to me from the start. It was clear to me that concern for others was inspired by Catholic teaching. That’s what I love about the Catholic Church, even though I am a Buddhist.

I spent a lot of time in the Chapel on campus. My father died during my first semester at St. Kate’s. The staff at the Counseling Center, my professors and my friends were there for me. In times of crisis, I still go to the Chapel. I sit there and cry, do what I need to do. That’s where I gather myself. It’s a refuge. It a sacred place. 

Q: Your two sisters followed you to St. Kate’s. Will your young daughter do the same?
While I loved my high school in Sri Lanka, I don’t have the same affinity for it as I do for St. Kate’s. Every time I sing the hymn to St. Catherine I cry. St. Kate’s is near and dear to my heart. My daughter has told me that she wants to go to St. Kate’s when she grows up. This makes me so happy.

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April 4, 2012 by Andy Steiner

See also: Alumnae/i, Liberal Arts, Students