Graduate Member Spotlight: Rachel Tenney

Graduate Member Spotlight

Rachel Tenney


Civil Engineering (Environmental Program)

Expected Graduation Date: 2023

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Rachel Tenney first became involved with the Society of Women Engineers as an undergraduate student at Lafayette College. She held roles on the board, including Vice President in 2017, and served as a Civil Engineering SWE department representative. Rachel also participates in SWE as a member of the LGBTQ Afinity group.  Rachel attended the annual conferences in 2016 and 2017 and was able to participate in the career fair and career development sessions. In 2017, she served as a Middle School Role Model for Invent it, Build it. She plans to continue volunteering this year at WE18 as well! At WE18, Rachel will also be presenting her research in the Graduate Student Poster Competition on Thursday, October 18th – be sure to check out her poster and learn more about her research! In addition to continuing her work with SWE, Rachel remains involved with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, serves as an Alumni Admissions Ambassador for Lafayette College by conducting admissions interviews and representing the College at fairs, and has become involved with Queer Science, an organization committed to support LGBTQ high school students in STEM.

Rachel Tenney_2

Thesis Topic: Outstate Wastewater: Improving Nitrogen Removal in Treatment Ponds


In Minnesota there are over 1,000 small communities with unmet wastewater management needs, ranging from no treatment to inadequate treatment. If inadequately treated, wastewater discharges can contain high concentrations of nitrogen species. Ammonia and nitrate can negatively impact surface and groundwater quality by decreasing oxygen levels in the receiving water body, causing eutrophication, and rendering well water unsafe to drink as a result of contamination. It is therefore important to remove these nitrogen species by efficient and effective treatment. An option for treating wastewater in small communities is treatment ponds, which are very simple to operate and relatively low-cost, relying on phenomena such as wind to provide oxygen, and thereby stimulate bacterial treatment of nitrogen species in the wastewater. Unfortunately, 23% of Minnesota’s over 300 existing treatment ponds under-perform with respect to total nitrogen removal, especially during the winter and spring months. Rachel is proposing to study how pond systems operate with respect to nitrogen cycling under conditions of low oxygen and/or low temperature. This work will be performed on the laboratory scale at the University of Minnesota and will be coupled with samples from full-scale treatment ponds with the assistance of project partner Minnesota Rural Water Association (MRWA). Laboratory research will focus on how simple interventions such as mixing and oxygen addition affect nitrogen cycling. Recommendations based on the laboratory work will be provided to MRWA to assist in developing and, in the future, field testing improved nitrogen removal practices. The overall goal of this research is to better understand nitrogen cycling in wastewater treatment ponds, improving their management, so that they can serve as a well-operating solution for Minnesota’s small communities in need of wastewater management.

Rachel’s hard work has been recognized through numerous awards. In 2015, she received the Chief Executives Network of Manufacturing scholarship and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Freshman Recognition Award. The following year, she was identified as a Clare Boothe Luce (CBL) Research Scholar. The Clare Boothe Luce Program provides support for women seeking to study in STEM, and at Lafayette, the program provides research and travel funding for women studying engineering, as well as professional development opportunities. As a CBL Scholar, Rachel conducted research on non-Newtonian liquid mixing and developed an instructional laboratory protocol that was successfully piloted in 2017 in an upper-level unit operations course. In 2017, Rachel placed first in the environmental division of the Undergraduate Poster Competition at the American Institute of Chemical Engineering Annual Meeting, and was also awarded the Daniel P. O’Neil Award which provided financial support for her honors thesis research. This year alone, Rachel has already been awarded with an Honorable Mention at the David and Lorraine Freed Undergraduate Research Symposium, and the Mattachine Award, which recognized her tireless efforts to advance LGBTQ rights at Lafayette College. She developed Lafayette’s first LGBTQ mentoring program for students, faculty and staff, facilitated a confidential, student-led support group, and helped organize community-building events.

After completing her PhD, Rachel plans to become a professor or find another way to devote her career to research. Outside of research, Rachel enjoys reading, biking, and community-building. She can also often be found snuggling her cat, or attending performances from opera and musical theater to comedy and open mics.

Fun Fact from Rachel: She hates wearing shoes!



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