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Research and Innovation

Karen Leonas’ Research Projects Provide a Wide Variety of Real World Experiences for Students

Sustainability graphic

By Raymond Jones

Karen Leonas’ interest in textiles stretches all the way back to the 1970s, when she was studying for her bachelor’s degree in textile chemistry at NC State. She went on to earn a master’s degree in textile chemistry, clothing and textiles at the University of Tennessee, as well as a doctorate in textile chemistry and textile physics. With a background like that, it’s no wonder that one of her early academic interests was “the degradation of polymers.” 

Years later, however, while serving as a department head and faculty member at Washington State University, she found that people were more likely to take an interest in her research if it focused on a more familiar topic. As a result, she zeroed in on sustainability. Now teaching at her alma mater, she’s pleased to see such a high level of interest in sustainability among students and faculty at NC State. And their specific concerns about sustainability in textile manufacturing have had a big influence on her choice of course materials and student assignments. A faculty member since 2013, Leonas currently teaches in the Department of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management, where her research interests are unusually varied. She’s studied the recycling programs that convert used jeans into home insulation. She’s also worked with NC State’s housing office to encourage students’ use of cold water laundry detergents. 

One of her most important initiatives, however, has been helping to create the Wastewater Toolbox 101. This project came about as a result of NC State’s partnership with The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), a group of organizations that collaborate to address important environmental issues. Wastewater Toolbox 101 is a comprehensive website that allows users to learn more about wastewater treatment in the consumer goods industry and to develop new plans of action to address ongoing challenges. The site was specifically designed to make information accessible to plant managers in the United States or abroad who might have few other sources of help. Because Leonas has been a TSC member for so long, she has the connections necessary to provide her students with a wide variety of timely research opportunities. With her encouragement and support, for example, her students continually review existing information on the website and suggest or even develop updated content to fill existing gaps. They also gain familiarity with the various training opportunities and partnerships that have been developed to assist site users. 

Jacqueline Sewell, now an NC State alumna, became familiar with Wastewater Toolbox 101 when she took Leonas’ graduate course in sustainability. Sewell and her fellow students did a comprehensive literature review of wastewater management resources and presented their findings in person at TSC’s yearly summit. 

Sewell also did a summer internship with TSC. 

“My assignment,” she says, “was to pretend I was a plant manager in a developing country looking for information to help me do my job. I then created a mock website and filled it in with suitable content.” 

To think like a plant manager in a developing country, she says, she had to look at manufacturing challenges through a different set of lenses. 

“Manufacturers in the U.S. have access to a lot of resources at the local, state and federal levels. Also, the regulatory framework under which they operate ensures more effective environmental controls. This helps to ensure that highly toxic chemicals are not used and that the chemicals which are used can be properly treated afterward, either onsite or at a local municipal system.” 

“In a developing country,” she adds, “there tend to be few if any regulatory bodies to ensure adequate checks and balances. It may be unclear who has responsibility for monitoring water treatment, and the person given responsibility might have absolutely no training or experience.”

Before working with TSC, Sewell served an internship near Cape Town, South Africa. Her trips in the surrounding countryside, she says, enabled her to visualize clearly what it’s like to operate a rural manufacturing facility with few if any environmental controls and no surrounding infrastructure. 

“For people in places like this,” she says, “Wastewater Toolbox 101 may be the only resource they have.”

Sewell, who has a bachelor’s degree in fashion and textile design and a Master of Science in Textiles, says the opportunity to do “real world research” at NC State provided a valuable jump start to her current career. She works at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center in Natick, Massachusetts.

Her background at the Wilson College of Textiles, she says, provided excellent preparation for her current assignment: helping to design “the next generation uniforms” for U.S. military personnel.