January 21, 2016 After five years at the University of
Utah, Otakuye Conroy-Ben has returned to the state where she became
the first Lakota to earn a doctorate in engineering.
As an assistant professor of civil, environmental and sustainable
engineering at Arizona State University, her research interests
surround water and wastewater treatment and reuse ranging
from understanding what pollutants exist in wastewater to what adverse
effects they have and why they sometimes survive treatment efforts.
This is the first year at ASU for Conroy-Ben (whose first name
is pronounced "Oh-TOCK-oo-yay"). She earned two masters
degrees and a PhD from the University of Arizona, where her doctoral
research focused on studying endocrine changes caused by human hormones
in wastewater. She also earned a bachelors degree in chemistry
from the University of Notre Dame.
After her doctoral studies, she worked as a project engineer
at the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, where she studied
odor control in wastewater treatment systems.
She returned to academia with a postdoctoral co-appointment
at the University of Arizona, where she studied metal and drug-resistant
In 2009, she was a research fellow at the National Congress
of American Indians, where she evaluated climate and renewable-energy
policy and adaptation affecting tribal nations.
Advancing research in wastewater pollutants
Conroy-Ben's research quantifying organic pollutants found in
sewage and wastewater-impacted water that have been proven to have
adverse effects on animals, including the feminization of male fish.
Disturbingly, sometimes these pollutants (a new class of androgens
that her team discovered) have been detected at low levels in drinking
water, Conroy-Ben said.
Another project looked at understanding a specific communitys
drug usage or abuse trends by using sewage as a dilute urine sample.
Focused on Salt Lake County, she was able to identify that prescription
pain medications were more prevalent in affluent suburbs, while
methamphetamine abuse was inversely proportional to neighborhoods
where the population lacks educational training.
As a faculty member in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
at ASU, Conroy-Ben aims to build on these efforts by starting a
research lab that allows certified work with bacteria and controlled
Mentoring minority populations
Conroy-Ben has a passion for working with Native American and
female students to build their presence in engineering.
She was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota,
annually one of the most impoverished places in the United States.
In high school, a physics teacher exposed her to the American
Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), which helped her
to channel her prowess in mathematics toward engineering. Decades
later she became an officer on AISES Board of Directors.
While an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, Conroy-Ben
did not encounter a single female or minority faculty member in
her science curriculum and had no female faculty members in her
environmental engineering doctoral program.
Female faculty and faculty of color in STEM are severely
lacking at institutions of higher education across the country,
Conroy-Ben said. In addition to an excellent environmental
engineering program and faculty, I came to ASU because of the opportunities
to work with under-represented students in STEM."
Conroy-Ben found her way to academic success regardless, but
she says working with a female or minority mentor would have made
the path to success easier.
I want to continue to mentor students who want an excellent
research experience and are willing to work hard, Conroy-Ben
She is married to Colin Ben, a researcher in ASUs Center
for Indian Education and a doctoral student in Educational Leadership
and Policy at the University of Utah.