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International ASU grad uses experiences to undo waste

Portrait of ASU grad Nivedita Biyani.

Nivedita Biyani

November 29, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

At 8 years old, Nivedita Biyani watched a woman remove the plastic underlining from a paper packing and throw them in separate bins in Austria. That prompted her to ask difficult questions, such as “Where does waste go?" and "What does 'throwing away' mean?” Ever since, she’s been determined to find the solution to waste.

“That is why I did my PhD in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on circular economy of materials and rethinking how to do undo waste,” says Biyani, an international PhD student working in waste and resource management.

During her time at Arizona State University, Biyani won a $150,000 award with her principal investigator Rolf Halden for the nonprofit startup OneWaterOneHeath, which tested for COVID-19 in wastewater. This led to a $1 million award from the Rockefeller Foundation to help the Navajo Nation deal with COVID-19.

“Where else could I have done the research that interested me, start a for-profit company and a nonprofit company? ASU does not say ‘no’ to students who are willing to challenge the status quo,” Biyani said about the opportunities ASU has provided her.

Following graduation, Biyani plans on pursuing her dream of undoing waste and landfills by working in the recycling industry and continuing work on her startup.

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

Answer: ASU has given me the opportunity of a lifetime. First, with funding my master's in the School of Sustainability, and later funding my PhD in civil engineering. Can I just say how pivotal the school of sustainability was for me! They taught me how to un-think a linear A-to-B engineering mindset that creates wicked problems. Classes by Rimjhim Aggarwal, Chris Boone, George Basile, Nalini Chhetri, Kathy Kyle, Brad Allenby and Arnim Wiek were pivotal to my worldview and development. I wish every engineer could take those classes. Sometimes you need to unlearn to relearn.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Quite simply, it is the best university in the world. It was the only university that offered a degree in sustainability. The opportunities here are unparalleled. Professors like Rolf Halden, who let me pursue my interests and gave me the space to fail, fall and rise again. Earning a PhD is a winding road with a lot of ups and downs. ASU and Rolf Halden supported me through all of it. I am forever a very proud Sun Devil.

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

A: 1. Take it all in and say "yes" to opportunities that scare you. 2. Your peers are as important as your mentors and professors. They are your support system and can make or break your PhD. (Shoutout to Dr. Erin Driver and Dr. Adhikari for playing a part in making my PhD!) 3. Be a team player and learn how to delegate and help those around you. A PhD can seem like a solo endeavor, but be part of your lab as a team. These relationships will last long after your PhD.

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

A: Biodesign Institute C had the best kitchen with coffee and chairs. I really loved my office there. I would stay there late into the night to study and work. I loved it!

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

A: Undo waste. Undo landfills. Undo the linear take-make-throw economy because there is no "throw away.” Having seen landfills in 18 countries and counting, I can tell you those are not pretty places. Waste is just heterogeneous materials in the wrong place. To view the same thing as a resource, make it homogenous material piles and you have a resource.

MORE: Read about other exceptional graduates of the Fulton Schools’ fall 2022 class

Written by Anna Hague

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