Lea Winter: Electrified Processes at the Food, Energy, Water, and Climate Nexus

The School of Engineering & Applied Science is proud to welcome its newest faculty members for the 2022-23 academic year. The large influx of faculty members – 13 so far, with more to be announced soon – marks the rapid growth of the School and investment in the research areas illustrated in the SEAS Strategic Vision.

The latest faculty arrivals are valuable additions to the chemical and environmental, computer science, and electrical engineering departments. Their expertise includes sustainability, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, cybersecurity, and optoelectronic materials.

Upon their arrival, we asked these new faculty members questions about their work, their motivations, potential collaborations, and much more:

Lea Winter, Chemical & Environmental Engineering


New Haven, CT.

Prior academic history:

I attended Wilbur Cross High School, next to East Rock, in New Haven and went on to receive my B.S. in Chemical Engineering at Yale. I then received my Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at Columbia where I served as an NSF graduate research fellow with my thesis focused on upgrading carbon and nitrogen to chemicals and fuels using heterogeneous and plasma catalysis.

After graduation, I did my postdoctoral training in Chemical and Environmental Engineering here at Yale where I was a NEWT Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow researching electrified membranes for transformation of nitrate in wastewater.

How would you summarize your research?

My research focuses on electrified processes at the food, energy, water, and climate nexus. We develop sustainable and circularized processes for conversion of CO2 to chemicals and fuels, green nitrogen fixation to fertilizers and nitrogen-based fuels, and transformation of contaminants in wastewater into useful products while recovering fit-for-purpose water. The world is moving toward an electrified renewable energy future, so we employ electron-driven processes such as plasma and electrochemistry to activate chemical reactions, while integrating earth-abundant catalysts and sustainable materials to control chemical transformation pathways. Our efforts span from molecular and atomic level understanding of surface processes to reactor and systems engineering, informing rational design of efficient processes from nano- to mega-scales.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

As a child, I spent many happy hours playing with dolls and taking apart and reassembling pens: I enjoy tinkering and problem-solving, and I've always been fascinated with understanding how things work. I grew up watching my grandfather, a metallurgist, build everything from a bookstand to an enclosure to keep deer from eating our tomatoes, always finding a solution. I also observed my father, an aerospace engineer (and self-proclaimed mad scientist), who did his doctoral work at Yale with Prof. Marshall Long, use physics to design safer and more environmentally-friendly airplanes.

When I got older, I realized that I wanted to apply science and engineering to safeguard people, animals, and the environment. I had the opportunity as a New Haven Public Schools high school student to take some classes at Yale, and I registered for Prof. Anjelica Gonzalez's course "Biotechnology and the Developing World." Prof. Gonzalez encouraged students to use engineering design to solve medical challenges faced by millions of people across the globe. Her class brought into stark reality the extent to which lack of access to clean water, malnutrition, unreliable electricity, and environmental contamination are responsible for causing morbidity and mortality. I was inspired to find ways to use fundamental chemistry and physics to design environmentally responsible technologies that prevent illness by improving access to clean water, reliable energy, and food, while maintaining a clean and safe environment. Environmental engineering allows me to apply my training in chemical engineering to innovate more sustainable and equitable means of producing fuel, fertilizer, and clean water.

Where do you see the field 10 years from now?

Historically, chemical engineers innovated economical and reliable ways to mass manufacture the commodities that enable modern society. These processes have typically involved mining exhaustible resources and releasing enormous amounts of waste to the air, water, and soil. Environmental engineers have been inventing ways to clean up the contamination. I believe that we are shifting toward chemical manufacturing processes that are inherently more sustainable and circular, integrating environmental engineering principles with chemical engineering design fundamentals. I am excited to see how the field of environmental engineering will lead in transitioning chemical manufacturing to a circular economy, especially given the urgency to mitigate climate change and the shift toward electrification of the energy grid with renewables.

What brought you back to Yale?

There are so many passionate and creative people at Yale. I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to come back to Yale to work on developing technologies for the benefit of our world, to teach and mentor students, to contribute to the Department and the University, and to partner with the surrounding community in a vibrant city that has been my home for much of my life. The students and faculty at Yale have been mentoring me since I was in high school: coaching my school's debate team, helping us register to vote, teaching me critical thinking and analysis skills, and mentoring me on my research journey. More recently, I have benefited from the thoughtful research family and excellent mentoring in Prof. Menachem Elimelech's research group. I am honored to have the opportunity to continue to work with Yale's immensely talented students and faculty, and I'm very excited begin teaching and mentoring Yale students.

What areas outside of the Chemical and Environmental Engineering Department do you seek to create impactful research collaborations or partnerships?

When I was an undergrad at Yale, I relished opportunities to explore the social, political, and economic intersections with chemical and environmental engineering. I organized a spring break trip with a few classmates to study the real-world challenges of desalination at municipal water treatment plants in Florida. I learned about the sociopolitical power that accrues to humans due to the appearance of oil scarcity in Prof. Doug Rogers's course on "Culture, Power, Oil" and later published my term paper from the course, applying those ideas to future renewable energy systems. I modeled as the ballerina in a photo taken by the photographer and author Kike Calvo (then an auditor at the Yale School of Art) featured in National Geographic about the "Discovering the Higgs through Physics, Dance and Photography" project led by Yale Profs. Sarah Demers and Emily Coates.

As I work on developing new processes for producing clean water, sustainable fuels, and green fertilizer while mitigating climate change, I hope to partner with others to evaluate which technologies make the best sense from economic, political, social, and other practical perspectives. I'm excited to collaborate with the phenomenal faculty working in these areas at Yale to understand the dimensions of new and evolving technologies beyond the fundamental science, and to incorporate these considerations into the initial designs. I'm particularly looking forward to exploring collaborations across the new Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture through a CO2 utilization project I'll be leading with Prof. Hailiang Wang in the Chemistry Department.

Are there any courses that you look forward to teaching/creating?

I'm creating a new undergraduate course for this fall titled "Water-Energy Nexus." This course will use chemical and environmental engineering fundamentals to explore the links between maintaining clean water supply and energy security globally, as well as implications for environmental contamination and climate change. The course will go beyond classical water treatment to provide students with a skillset to address frontiers in water treatment, such as resource recovery, energy recovery from wastewater, and decarbonization.

In the spring, I'll be teaching another new course at the graduate and advanced undergraduate level called "Engineering Solutions to Climate Change." The goal of the course is to prepare students to apply engineering tools to reimagine chemical processes for impactful climate change mitigation. Current industrial processes that supply essential materials and energy for modern society emit greenhouse gases that drive climate change; this course will develop a framework based on engineering fundamentals to evaluate current approaches for manufacturing chemicals and fuels and to engineer sustainable alternatives as climate change solutions. The content is close to my research heart, touching on the renewable energy transition, storage and utilization of CO2, and emerging sustainable chemical manufacturing and energy storage solutions.

What are your interests outside of the lab?

Dancing, teaching, and choreographing classical and contemporary ballet; hiking; visiting my rescue horse and mucking manure at the horse farm; and spending time with family, friends and pets.

What is the best New Haven Pizza?

For me, it's Edge of the Woods (on their "pizza days"). I'm a vegetarian, so I can eat anything on their menu!

Back to the 2022-2023 New SEAS Faculty Profiles