Professional development pathways for women at Edith Cowan University have led to groundbreaking work addressing plastics in water supplies.
Dr Masoumeh Zargar at Western Australian-based Edith Cowan University (ECU) is leading research that could make the world a better place. Zargar and her team are working on ways to prevent microplastics and other emerging contaminants from entering waterways. She says this important work was made possible by the university’s professional development pathways for female engineers and early career researchers as well as by funding from the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council (ARC).
“From the moment I walked through the door, the school has been focused on gender equality and supporting the careers of women in STEMM (the academic discipline of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine),” Zargar says of the School of Engineering where she is a lecturer, Vice-Chancellor Research and ARC DECRA Fellow.
An estimated 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics — the equivalent weight of around 30 billion 500 ml plastic water bottles — are currently polluting the world’s upper oceans and could take centuries to decompose. Some 400 million tonnes of plastics are produced each year, a number expected to more than double by 2050.
“The reality is that wastewater treatment plants are one of the main pathways by which microplastics enter the aquatic environment, accounting for over 25 per cent of total microplastics entering into the oceans,” Zargar says.
Zargar’s ECU School of Engineering research team is working on microplastic filter membranes.
“We change the membrane structure, composition and surface properties — any modifications that will make it better able to remove microplastics – and create more resilient materials that won’t be fouled by microplastics.”
The researchers work with different types of functional materials and membranes, including reverse osmosis membranes that are used for desalination, as well as forward osmosis membranes that do not require high pressure operation membranes and other filtration membranes such as ultra, micro and nanofiltration.
“Most treatment facilities are currently already using filtration membranes.
We change the structure of the membranes by modifying their physicochemical
properties,” Zargar says. “We also use inorganic and organic additives such
as nanomaterials, and metal-organic frameworks for membrane optimisation.
The choice of materials and modifications vary depending on the application of
individual membranes in the water and wastewater treatment process targeting
higher efficiency of the separation process as well as the longevity of the
The good news so far is that these tailored modifications have been shown to be more readily adopted by industry than other non-traditional techniques, making them easier to commercialise.
“Our research is challenging, and sometimes things require a lot of repeat trials — but that’s the nature of research,” she says.
In 2021, Zargar received a prestigious grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC): a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) worth more than $410,000 over three years to support her work. Together, with the ECU research support, this has helped her to not only focus on this research, but also to take on research assistants and PhD students.
She says being part of ECU helped her secure the grant – ECU was one of Australia’s first institutions to win an Athena SWAN Bronze Award in the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) pilot program. It is recognition of how ECU is proactively redressing gender inequalities and improving education and opportunities for women, particularly in STEMM.
“Since joining ECU, I’ve been strongly supported with establishment grants from the School of Engineering, as well as additional research grants from the university itself,” Zargar says.
Find out more about career pathways and engineering courses at ECU.