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Finding passion in research that makes an impact

PhD grad Adam Gushgari didn't set out to work in research but became inspired to find solutions for the drug crisis


Adam Gushgari

PhD graduate Adam Gushgari plans to pursue a STEM-field startup company on environmental monitoring after finding his passion working on wastewater research at the Biodesign Institute. Photo by Jean Clare Sarmiento/ASU

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April 30, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

The opioid epidemic is affecting millions across the country. But for Adam Gushgari, who is graduating with his PhD in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, that impact hit closer to home. After two close friends died from overdoses, Gushgari was inspired to pursue a course of study that would help stem such tragedies and have a positive impact on the world.

Today, he is testing wastewater in an effort to understand the level and types of drug use among specific populations. The information they collect can help public health officials identify areas of concern and implement and test strategies that address threats to the population.

“Before we can make a marked change, we need to understand the scope of the situation,” Gushgari said.

A native Arizonan from Scottsdale, Gushgari didn’t initially set out to work in scientific research. His background was civil engineering, which he did for five years after undergrad. Although the money was good, he found the work a bit tedious. He returned to academia looking for a way to feed his intellect and passions.

“I got into research by chance,” Gushgari said, after meeting Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Biodesign Institute. One of Halden’s major projects is analyzing wastewater to learn more about public health.

Currently, Halden’s team of about eight scientists have collected samples from more than 200 wastewater-treatment plants around the world as part of his Human Health Observatory. Gushgari found it refreshing that Halden’s research could be used in a real-world application.

Gushgari’s passion for finding solutions for the drug crisis has fueled his long-term plans. After graduation, he plans to pursue his dream of a STEM-field startup company on environmental monitoring. He credits Halden with helping him lay the groundwork for that startup and for being “an adviser who actually cares passionately about his students and their work.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I didn't have an "aha" moment until after I started my PhD at ASU. My career choices prior to pursing my PhD were made entirely just for monetary gain when I was working as a civil engineer. It wasn't until I began my PhD work that I realized my passion for wastewater-epidemiological monitoring — and since this, I have entirely changed my career trajectory.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: So much — too much to list actually. I think the most pertinent thing that I learned was my mass-spec and wastewater-based epidemiology training, as I will be taking these skills to private industry for a startup company.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I'm a born-and-raised Arizonan; you couldn't pay me to live anywhere else. I went to ASU for my undergraduate degree where I first met Dr. Rolf Halden, and his lab seemed like a good fit for me.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Don't make career decisions based entirely on money; find something you're passionate about and follow that.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: ISTB4 — Room 240: This is where I successfully defended my PhD thesis! Honestly though, I rarely venture outside of the office/laboratory. Grad student life is certainly much different than undergrad.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Pursuing my dream of a STEM-field startup company.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Addressing the opioid epidemic and continuing the project that I pursued during my PhD. This is actually what I plan on doing, but having $40 million in seed money would certainly take some of the personal risk out of the situation for me.

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