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On March 26, for the first time in the history of Riga Technical University, a doctoral student will defend the doctoral thesis simultaneously at RTU and Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH Royal Institute of Technology). The young scientist Brigita Daļecka studies the use of microscopic fungi in the treatment of municipal wastewater from pharmaceutically active substances.
«Four years ago, I accepted the biggest challenge of my life and enrolled in two universities at the same time – RTU and the Royal Institute of Sweden,» she admits.
«When I started my thesis project, with both scientific supervisors – Professor Tālis Juhna at RTU and Professor Rajarao at KTH, we decided that the topic would be how to treat wastewater using microscopic fungi, with a special emphasis on how to treat wastewater from pharmaceutically active substances. This problem is growing – the number of people is increasing, the consumption of pharmaceutically active substances is increasing, provoking their widespread occurrence in wastewater. It is important to think about how to treat such waste water in the future. One of the methods could be the usage of microscopic fungi.»
The idea of using microscopic fungi had already been discussed in the scientific literature, but there were still many unknowns.
Over the course of four years, numerous laboratory-scale experiments have been conducted, testing the efficiency of microscopic fungi in combating various pharmaceutically active substances under controlled conditions, and a pilot bioreactor has been built to investigate their performance in real conditions.
The scientist has studied various microscopic fungi and found one that already naturally lives in the wastewater. «The fungi have two great characteristic properties. They are able to release enzymes – active substances that break down pharmaceutically active substances, thus purifying wastewater. Moreover, they are able to absorb pharmaceutically active substances with their biomass, thus reducing the concentration of these substances in wastewater,» says Brigita Daļecka.
Brigita Daļecka spent the first two years of her doctoral studies in Sweden. There she performed laboratory or flask experiments. «These are the experiments that are conducted in small volumes under closed, controlled conditions. In trivial terms, I took different types of fungi, took the sewage, provided sterile conditions and added one of the pharmaceutically active substances. And then I watched whether the chosen fungus was capable of reducing the pollution or not,» she explains.
In order to get the sewage for the research, Brigita Daļecka has put her rubber boots on and went to the treatment plant herself to collect it.
«In the remaining two years, when I returned to RTU, I have switched to larger volumes. The results obtained in the flask experiments were rather promising. Fungi are able to apply their properties as enzymes and as biosorption. The question arose as to what would happen if we increased the volumes and if we used real conditions, real non-sterile wastewater, as it comes from a wastewater treatment plant. Will the fungi be able to do their job, which is to treat the wastewater from pharmaceutically active substances, or will there be any improvements or adaptation of the environment necessary to make fungi work.»
She has improved the alternative purification method in her doctoral thesis. However, in order to start using it in the treatment of wastewater, further research is required.
She hopes that by assessing the potential of fungi in wastewater treatment and other biotechnology-related processes, her doctoral thesis will serve as a basis for other young researchers to conduct research.
Brigita Daļecka had the opportunity to study at two universities simultaneously provided by an agreement between the RTU and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
«How is it to study in two universities at the same time? It is difficult as well as pleasant in certain aspects at the same time. There is everything in double: two scientific supervisors, two universities, two different ways of conducting the doctoral study process. If someone asked me whether I would change my decision, I would not. I would do exactly the same thing. I am very pleased that I have had this opportunity, and that Professor Tālis Juhna and Professor Rajarao have believed in me and given me the opportunity to be here – a double doctoral student in both universities at the same time.»
She hopes that her example will be encouraging for other young scientists because, as Brigita Daļecka says, science opens up a lot of opportunities, it is dynamic and exciting.