Welcome April Gu

Professor April Gu
  • New Faculty Year: 2018

Professor April Gu has joined the faculty of Cornell’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). Gu’s major research interest is understanding and applying biological agents and their functions to detect, transform, or mitigate environmental pollutants in both natural and engineered systems. She brings a unique combination of experiences to the job. “I lived in a developing country for more than twenty years,” says Gu. “Now I have lived in a developed country for more than twenty years. I was a process engineer in industry and now I am an academic. I am able to combine these experiences into a clear vision for the future.”

Part of that vision is a sharp focus on recovering phosphorus from wastewater—especially agricultural wastewater. “The number one reason for water degradation in many parts of the world today is eutrophication caused by an excess of phosphorus,” says Gu. One well-known example of this process is the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone that exists each summer due to high-nutrient runoff coming down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf. However, dead zones are not limited to the Gulf of Mexico. They happen all around the world in both saltwater and freshwater.

Currently, the most often used methods of phosphorus removal are based on chemical processes and are insufficient. Gu is working on an approach to phosphorus removal that is chemical-free and sustainable and uses microbes. In addition, the final products can be recycled and reused. 

Gu grew up in Xi’an, China. Her father is an electrical engineering and her grandmother is a medical doctor. “There was a strong emphasis on education in my family,” says Gu. “I got a lot of inspiration and influence from my grandmother. She believes strongly that whatever you do has to be for the greater good.”  Gu has fully embraced her grandmother’s belief in doing work for the greater good. “I have a personal passion for water,” says Gu. “Through my work I want to help ensure that more people have access to clean water. I want to advance knowledge and technology for both monitoring and remediation.”

Gu received her B.S. in environmental engineering and science form Tsinghua University in Beijing. She earned her Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Washington in Seattle. She then worked as a process engineer and research scientist for HDR Engineering, specializing in water and wastewater treatment processes design. Gu was a faculty member in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Northeastern University from 2006 to 2017.

“I am excited to be at Cornell,” says Gu. “Much of my current work involves agriculture and Cornell has such a great agricultural tradition.” At Cornell, Gu will focus on the following specific areas of research: applying biotechnology to improve and develop more sustainable wastewater treatment and remediation processes to maximize nutrient recovery and, minimize the energy consumption and carbon footprint; investigating the impact of climate change on global phosphorus cycling, particularly biological processes, and associated implications in phosphorus utilization efficiency in agriculture; and developing next-generation toxicogenomics-based toxicity assessment technology platform, in combination with data science, to enable risk-based water quality monitoring and technology efficacy assessment, and to elucidate the causal environmental matrices.

In addition to her research, Gu is excited about teaching. “This is a university—part of what we are here to do is to inspire students,” says Gu. “And if I see a student’s eyes sparkle, it is inspiring to me as well.” Gu tries to change her class material every year to keep up with current research and also to better match the particular needs of that year’s students. “I believe that I have a responsibility to give back and making sure my teaching is the best it can be is one way for me to do that.”

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