3° with Lupita Montoya

by Michael Mullaney on June 18, 2009

Lupita Montoya

We asked Lupita Montoya, assistant professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer, about her research:

1. You have a sharp focus, in your research and in your classes, on sustainability and raising the global standard of living. What drives you?
At the bottom of everything I do is my love of knowledge and of people.  As I child, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had a very simple answer: I want to know everything and I want to be happy.  While I have accepted that I won’t ever know everything, being in research and higher education brings me as close to that first goal as it is humanly possible. My personal happiness comes from using this knowledge to help people, from the poorest to the richest.
2. One of your most recent projects involves working with students to design and build a solar-powered pasteurization system, toward the goals of raising public health and creating new economic opportunities for rural communities in Peru. Why don’t more engineers and students get involved with similar projects?
These projects are very effort-intensive and people often give up. These are also very complex problems because they often involve areas that span from technical to economics and to health and not everyone feels comfortable tackling them all at once.  I enjoy the complexity because I can usually see interconnections that may escape others. It is clear to me that in order to reach any level of success in development, we must approach it in a holistic manner. My own background in mechanical and environmental engineering combined with environmental health gives me a good starting point to seriously look at these problems. I am now working with the entrepreneurship community to add a new layer to my approach. 
3. Another research stream of yours deals with air quality and the potential harmful effects of exposure to nanoparticles. Why is it important to study nanotoxicity?
As we develop new products, particularly those based on science at scales not well-understood, like the nanoscale, we have the responsibility to do it in a safe way.  It all comes down to doing science and development in a responsible way so that future generations do not pay for our shortsightedness or disregard for the environment and human health. We are at a point in time when we need to be smarter about how we do science and do business. The quality of life of our children and grandchildren depends on that. That is what sustainability is all about.
4. What else are you working on this summer?
We are working with researchers at the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) developing hydroponics-based systems for improving indoor air quality in the built environment. Here, we are trying to improve indoor air quality at a minimum energy cost, using nature and technology in creative ways. In addition to hydroponics, we are also studying the use of synthetic jets – commonly used in aerospace engineering – to enhance the performance of our systems. It is a beautiful integration of several fields and I often wish I could be a student again to do it myself. Instead, my graduate students get to have all the fun…
5. Growing up, when did you know for certain that you wanted to be a scientist or engineer?
It is hard to say, since I did not have role models in those fields until I was in high school and met a teacher who was a chemical engineer. I had one civil engineer in my family but I did not know what he did.  In retrospect, now that I have been an engineer for so long, I could not imagine being anything else. This is the best career for me or anyone who likes to solve problems. Now that I think of it, my grandmother and mother always accused me of wanting to “fix” everything. I guess, some things never change…
6. Switching gears, what’s your favorite restaurant in the Troy area? Second favorite?
My favorite family restaurants are Ali Baba (Middle Eastern) on 15th Street and Pancho’s (Mexican), both in Troy, because my sons are always welcomed very warmly there. When I want to have a relaxed dinner with adults only, I like Milano’s in Latham.