Michelle Scherer: Solving the Puzzle
As a kid growing up in New Jersey, Michelle Scherer always liked math and problem solving. “Engineering seemed like the logical choice,” she says. “Once I was in college and realized you could actually do engineering in an environmental context, I was hooked!”
Scherer is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, where she is the Robert and Virginia Wheeler Faculty Fellow of Engineering. She is also a faculty research engineer at IIHR.
In a world where women are sometimes discouraged from pursuing careers in fields such as engineering, Scherer skated through untouched. “I haven’t really run into any discouragement,” she says. “Either I was lucky or I simply ignored it—I’m honestly not sure which.”
Quite the opposite, actually—she was fortunate to receive plenty of encouragement. “I have always had lots of people who helped keep me interested and inspired,” Scherer says. She is especially grateful to her master’s advisor, Nikos Nikolaidis, an Iowa alumnus. “He loved environmental engineering, and it was infectious.” This is one infection she is happy to share. “I always try to remember to make sure my students get to see how much I genuinely enjoy the research,” Scherer says.
One of Scherer’s primary research areas is environmental geochemistry. “It is how water and soil interact,” Scherer explains. “Since I am an environmental engineer, I am most interested in how pollutants react with water and soil.” This is an area of concern to everyone, because it affects each of us personally. “Everyone should have access to clean water and safe food,” Scherer says.
Scherer’s current research focuses on a new process in which minerals in soil mix much more than expected. “We used to think that only the surfaces of a mineral reacted with pollutants,” Scherer says. “Picture a lazy susan that you put ketchup or mustard on, and then you take it off. Well, our new findings indicate that the whole lazy susan, or mineral, can interact with the pollutants. That has some pretty significant implications for how things like arsenic, mercury, and uranium are released
from soils into water.”
Scherer says she loves teaching, and she finds it rewarding to watch students master the material and gain confidence. “My career is right where I want it to be,” she
says. “In 10 years, I hope to still be doing research that excites me, and to be working with students, faculty, and colleagues who are curious and engaged.”
Outside of work, Scherer’s interests focus on her family: two daughters, Kelsey (10) and Josephine (7). They have two dogs, a puggle and a great dane, which Scherer
enjoys training. She also works out to stay healthy, and she enjoys reading and playing the piano. “I’m not very good … yet!” she says.
For Scherer the engineer, motivation is never a problem. “It’s easy to stay motivated,” she explains. “I like to figure things out, and there is a lot to figure out!”