Melissa Elder: selfless actions, global impact

For Melissa Elder, Honduras is more than just another place on the map. It inspired her career path and her research focus. It’s also her mother’s homeland.

Elder, a senior in environmental engineering, traveled to Honduras as a teenager to visit extended family and says she saw first-hand what poverty looks like.

“Being there really made me appreciate all of the things that we take for granted here,” she says. “Honduras has a special place in my heart, but there are issues with clean water and poverty all over the world.”

Elder wants to end those issues.

Working with Joel Burken, professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, Elder is studying phytoremediation — the use of plants to detect and remove pollutants from the soil.

She is studying the site of the Busy Bee Laundry in Rolla, which used to offer dry cleaning services. By testing core samples from trees in neighboring Schuman Park, Burken determined that some of the cleaning solvents seeped into the park’s groundwater, causing contamination. Elder is trying to quantify the amount of pollutants the trees can take in to mitigate the soil contamination.

“If we figure this out, we can determine how to use plants and the power of the sun and the wind to better protect human health and the environment,” she says.

Earlier this summer, Elder expanded her water research during a nine-week National Science Foundation internship in Costa Rica through the University of South Florida. Her work focused on water treatment practices and food security. And last fall, she joined Engineers Without Borders to help bring clean water to Honduras. She is also president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and a peer mentor for Student Diversity Programs.

In May, Elder received the Donald D. Myers Scholarship for the impact she has made on campus through her service, leadership ability and commitment to serving others. She plans to continue her charitable work after she graduates in December. Selfless service runs deep in her family.

“My mother always put me and my three siblings before herself,” she says. “Because of her selflessness throughout my life, I’ve developed a passion for helping people and improving the lives of others.

“I want to do something that is greater than me,” she says. “Small actions can have such a great impact on those who need it most.”

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