Civil engineer connects materials research to sustainability — and her family’s history

Karina Alventosa, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering, reflects on her career path, graduate research and leadership roles at Princeton.

Molly Sharlach

Karina Alventosa wants to make buildings more sustainable and resilient. As a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering, she is researching new forms of cement, the production of which currently accounts for about 8% of carbon emissions globally.

Portrait

Karina Alventosa

Frank Wojciechowski

In the laboratory of Claire White, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Alventosa is investigating a lower-emissions, fire-resistant cement. Her work connects climate change mitigation to adaptation — potentially helping to slow warming while also making structures more durable in the face of natural disasters. This year, she was one of two students selected for the Andlinger Center’s Maeder Graduate Fellowship in Energy and the Environment.

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, Alventosa recently spoke about her path to graduate school, her goals for making change in the construction industry, and her work to foster community for all graduate students at Princeton.

What was your path to graduate school at Princeton?

My path has been a little different from most students, but I think it’s fortuitous that I ended up studying sustainable cements. My family has always been very sustainability-oriented. My parents went solar when I was younger, and my mom, my siblings and I started a recycling program when we were in high school because our school district didn’t have one.

My dad is from Spain, and when his family escaped [the dictatorship of] Franco and came here, my grandfather took a job as a cement mason. When I was growing up we would drive around Long Island and my dad would point out structures that my grandfather had worked on. So, it was always something that was in the back of my mind, and I developed a fascination with infrastructure and building design.

I studied structural engineering and building design at Brown University, and I interned on various sustainability projects at NASA all through college. I ended up doing a master’s right out of college in solid mechanics [also at Brown], trying to figure out where my interest in materials was. Then I decided I wanted to work on buildings, so I got a job as a structural engineer in Manhattan. For four years, I was seeing that process, seeing the waste, seeing how many areas of construction could be improved. I decided that a Ph.D. program was the best way for me to understand and address these issues.

I was fortunate that professor Claire White specializes in alternative, sustainable cements, and I am very privileged to work with her. It feels like I’ve come full circle, connecting with my grandfather, who unfortunately passed away when I was 5. He came here and worked hard to create enough of a family structure that my dad could go to college, and we could all go to college after that. I come from four immigrant grandparents, which is very humbling, and I feel fortunate that they worked so hard to get my parents to where they needed to be, and to make it possible for me to do a Ph.D.

Can you tell us a bit about your work on sustainable cements?

We’re projected to more than double our use of cement by 2050, so mitigating the use of cement is a real way that we can make a difference in combating climate change, as well as degradation of the ozone layer and the atmosphere.

Also, cement is a fine building material but it performs terribly in fire and in coastal areas. What if we could break the destruction-rebuilding cycle? What if people’s houses could withstand a disaster and make it to the next one without having to rebuild?

I’m designing an alternative cement made of calcined kaolin clay, the most common clay in the world. Known as metakaolin, it doesn’t require any mining and requires minimal energy compared to ordinary portland cement. Portland cement is heated limestone, and it requires extremely high amounts of energy and a long heating time, which is where all the carbon dioxide emissions and electricity use come from.

I’ve been experimenting with different ways to make [metakaolin] perform well at high temperatures, especially in fire scenarios. Watching people lose everything after one devastating event, you know you can’t prevent some of it, but if you could prevent even a small fraction just by changing what material you’re using to build, it seems like a no-brainer. But we have to change the construction industry first.

What sort of role do you envision for yourself in that change?

I’m thinking of going back into industry, and I’m thinking about affordable housing and real estate development. That seems to be the place where you have the most power to change what materials and processes you’re using. I’ve always felt that I would like to make the biggest change I can everywhere I go, and I would like to be part of those decisions. There’s a huge gap between industry and the research field, which is hindering the use of more sustainable building materials that are being developed. I’m passionate about trying to bridge that gap.

What have you focused on as a leader in Princeton’s Graduate Student Government (GSG)?

I started as communications director, and I was in charge of the GSG email. I would hear all the things that students were asking questions about, what they were upset about, what they were happy about. I started to notice that grad students felt disconnected from one another, but also didn’t know the resources that were available to them.

Then as vice president and eventually as president, I worked on bringing different departments and University offices to graduate students. Before COVID, I started a happy hour series — it’s running again now — where students could branch out and meet their peers from other departments. Each happy hour I would also bring people from a different office, like the diversity team from the Graduate School, the Office of Sustainability, GradFUTURES, the Keller Center, University Health Services … it’s all about creating awareness and bringing all of this to the students.

I was sworn in as president the day before the University shut down [in March 2020]. I sat down the next day and felt a little hopeless. But what I did that day was create a Slack workspace. I thought, if I can’t be there in person to help people and send them information or create community, I’m going to make a virtual community. I did this with the hope of getting maybe half the grad school, and now we’re up to 1,900 out of the 2,500 [Ph.D.] students. It’s a thriving space that has provided grad students with a unique community experience and ability to ask each other questions. There are different channels — there’s even a memes channel, and there’s a bunch of different cultural student groups. I’m proud of it, and I hope it continues to work and grow with the community.