Isabel Escobar: “I was born in Brazil and lived in Rio de Janeiro until I was 18 years old. In talking about my journey, I have to start with my grandmother. She married my grandfather at the age of 16, while he was 27 years older than she was. From the early days of their marriage, he would tell her that she would become a young widow (she became a widow at the age of 45), so she had two choices, make something of herself and care for herself and her two daughters, or marry another man in the hopes he would take care of them. She chose the former, so in the early 1930s, she would leave their young daughter with him, take a train to go to the big city, and go to school. She eventually became principal at the school where he was a Math teacher. I was named after her, and had her influence in my life for nearly eighteen years, so I grew up thinking that the natural progression was K-PhD. She would always tell me not to rely on anyone but myself, that education was mine and could never be taken away, and that an intelligent and strong woman could do anything. Add to this going to Catholic schools from the beginning of preschool to the end of high school, where the nuns shared my grandmother’s philosophy that an educated woman could achieve anything.
I moved to the US when I was 18 years old to go to college. I enrolled at the University of Central Florida, where I felt fairly comfortable with the large LatinX student population. My aptitude for Math and Science had me go into Engineering from the very start, and soon I received the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research, which was life changing. I decided to go on and obtain a Master’s Degree, and applied to the highly prestigious US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship to go on for a PhD. I have since forgotten the odds of becoming an EPA STAR Fellow, but it was incredibly competitive, and I was over the moon because that would fund my research. It opened doors I didn’t know existed. I was the first student at UCF to receive the award. With my STAR Fellowship, I had funding to present my work at both national and international conferences, where I interacted with leading experts in my field. In that way, I developed my scientific skills and formed a strong network. It was a powerful award that enabled me to research new lines of inquiry that led to writing some 10 papers as a Ph.D. candidate and separated me from so many equally stellar applicants.
After getting my PhD, I accepted a faculty position at The University of Toledo to start in July of 2000. Becoming faculty was rough at the start with writing proposals, leading a research team and teaching students who were at times older than me. However, by 2002-3, grants and publications started to come, teaching evaluations became better and better, and my confidence started to return; then, in 2006, I was tenured and promoted to Associate Professor. Between the fall of 2006 and the fall of 2009, I published 17 papers, was awarded several competitive grants, and decided that it was time to become Full Professor. In 2009, I was awarded the Northwest Ohio YWCA Milestone Award for Education, the Toledo 20 Under 40 and became the Associate Editor of Environmental Progress and Sustainable Energy Journal, a quarterly publication of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. In 2011, I received the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Separations Division FRI/John G. Kunesh Award.
In May of 2010, I became Full Professor and Associate Dean for Research Development and Outreach for the College of Engineering. This was a new position created for me as a result of my consistent efforts in both areas. I was charged with organizing and coordinating multi-investigator and interdisciplinary grant proposals, working with funding agencies to identify grant opportunities, and developing junior faculty. I specifically worked with faculty requiring dedicated assistance from the College in putting together larger external grant proposals that needed coordination with key administrators both inside and outside the college, industries and government. I helped put together teams and was the central point of contact in pulling together information and approvals. My charge also included enhancing geographical and ethnical diversity within the College of Engineering by developing a broad impact plan for outreach and engagement. I was the first woman and minority to be in leadership at The University of Toledo College of Engineering.
Simultaneously, from August 2010 to July 2011, I was the Acting Director of The University of Toledo Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women. The Center is named in honor of Catharine S. Eberly who served on the Board of Trustees from 1974 to 1977. It specialized in helping women who are in transition (e.g., going through a divorce, recently widowed, empty nesters, women coming out of an abusive relationship, or recently laid off from a job) consider returning to college to begin or complete a degree. We also worked to advocate on behalf of UT women students, staff and faculty. Efforts led during my tenure included the Women In STEMM Excelling (WISE) mentor program which was aimed at increasing the number of undergraduate women majoring in STEMM, and the Forward to Professor Grant in support of increasing the diversity of women faculty in STEMM.
In 2014, I was invited to give a seminar at the University of Kentucky (UK) and chat with the faculty about the possibility of moving. I fell in love with UK from the second I arrived for my first visit, and while I had interviewed at other universities over the years, only UK felt right. Soon after arriving, I became Associate Director of our Center for Membrane Sciences and co-Director of the College of Engineering Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. To date, I have received competitive research funding from several federal sources (National Science Foundation, Department of Interior, US EPA, and Office of Naval Research) and state sources (Ohio Department of Education). I have published over 75 articles in peer-reviewed journals, have made over 200 presentations at national/international conferences, and have edited two books, Sustainable Water for the Future—Water Recycling versus Desalination (ISBN: 9780444531155) and Modern Applications in Membrane Science and Technology (ISBN: 9780841226180).
I have also been actively involved with professional organizations over the years. I chaired the 2006 American Water Works Association (AWWA) Desalination Symposium, Honolulu, Hawaii, 21-22 May 2006; the NAMS 2007 Annual Meeting Chair, Orlando, FL, 11-16 May 2007; and the NAMS 2012 Annual Meeting Chair, New Orleans, LA, 9-13 June 2012. With Dr. Jamie Hestekin of the University of Arkansas, I co-Chaired the Engineering Conferences International: Advanced Membrane Technology VII in Cork, Ireland, 11-16 September 2016. With Dibakar Bhattacharyya of the University of Kentucky, I co-Chaired the NAMS 2018 Conference in Lexington, KY; and was the Vice co-Chair of the 2018 Gordon Research Conference on Membranes: Materials and Processes. More recently, I was the co-Meeting Program Chair of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting, which hosted over 5000 participants.
In September of 2015, I gave a TEDx talk on Worldwide Water Issues. During the 2014 water crisis in Lake Erie, I participated in the community outreach in addressing and responding to the issues, and have made numerous media appearances, including the Wall Street Journal, NPR and Al Jazeera America. I am Past-President of the North American Membrane Society, and I am the faculty advisor of the University of Kentucky Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). Lastly, between January of 2018 and December of 2019, I Chaired the Association for Women In Science (AWIS) Chapters and Affiliates Committee (CAC), which oversees and coordinates activities for nearly 40 Chapters and over 50 Affiliates for the organization. In October of 2020, I was elected to become a Councilor of the Governing Board of AWIS due to the leadership I’ve provided to the organization over the years.”