Clean Water Wasn’t Always a Given for URI Graduate Student

Coming from a small island in Cape Verde, Jacira Soares wants to help rural communities have access to clean drinking water. (URI photo by Nora Lewis)

By Neil Nachbar

sister, cousin, Jacira Soares
From left: Jacira Soares’ sister Mikilhene Ramos, cousin Fretson Duarte, and Jacira Soares when she was approximately 10 years old. Photo courtesy of Jacira Soares.

Jacira Soares knows the importance of clean water all too well.

Growing up in a poor community on the island of Sao Nicolau in Cape Verde, Soares had to walk a mile or two from her home as often as three times a day to access clean, drinkable water. Sometimes she returned home with 3 to 5 gallons of water of water in a jug or bucket that she would balance on her head. Sometimes she returned home empty-handed.

Now, a M.S./Ph.D student studying civil and environmental engineering at the University of Rhode Island, Soares is working in engineering Professor Joseph Goodwill’s Water for the World Laboratory, researching ways to make clean water accessible to communities such as the one where she grew up.

“I always wanted to earn a Ph.D. so that I could help others,” said Soares. “I want to travel the world to help underdeveloped communities with their potable water scarcity. I would like to make their lives a little bit better than they were before.” 

Overcoming obstacles

Soares’ educational path has not been easy. She moved to the United States in 2011 when she was 18 years old, having completed only one and half years of high school. Knowing very little English, she started taking classes at the Community College of Rhode Island.

Jacira Soares
Jacira Soares prepares samples to run on a total organic carbon analyzer. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

Due to some personal struggles and mental health issues, Soares dropped out of CCRI in 2015, one semester shy of completing her associate’s degree.

A couple of years later, Soares returned to CCRI to complete her degree, but this time as a single mother, having given birth to her daughter Olivia since she was first enrolled.

In 2018, Soares transferred to URI to pursue a bachelor’s degree. She started as a mathematics major but switched to civil engineering.

“I was the first child on my mother’s side of the family to go to a four-year college,” said Soares. “I wanted to make my mom proud and provide for her one day because she gave up so much to raise me and my siblings. We were very poor. Having food and water was a challenge.”

Jacira Soares
Jacira Soares oxidizes natural organic matter using potassium ferrate. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

Having to provide for herself and her infant daughter, Soares took classes at URI during the day and worked overnight in Rhode Island Hospital’s Andrew F. Anderson Emergency Center. She also served as a statistics teaching assistant for URI Associate Teaching Professor Soheyb Kouider.

“There were many times when I wouldn’t sleep for two straight days because I would work nights and go to school right after,” Soares said.

If life wasn’t complicated enough, the pandemic introduced a new set of challenges.

When COVID hit, everything became 10 times harder,” said Soares. “Because I was working at the emergency room through the pandemic lockdown, I would be there for 36 per week. I lost the babysitter I had, so while I was taking my classes virtually during the day, I had to take care of my 4-year-old daughter. I could never concentrate. I was taking seven courses in the spring 2020 semester and on top of that, I was still working as a teacher assistant for about 20 hours per week.”

Finding a support system

Jacira Soares NEWWA scholarship
Jacira Soares was this year’s winner of the New England Water Works Association George E. Watters Memorial Scholarship. She is working on a National Science Foundation CAREER project focused on a new approach to advanced oxidation. Photo by Joseph Goodwill.

When it started to feel impossible to juggle work, school and being a single mother, Soares received some much-needed support from faculty and staff at URI.

“Thanks to my academic advisor Michael Lambert, Professor Joseph Goodwill and other professors who were in my corner the entire time, I was able to finish my bachelor’s degree,” said Soares. “They believed in me even when I did not believe in myself.”  

Having a unique perspective

Goodwill, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, approached Soares about joining his research group as a graduate student.

“When Professor Goodwill explained that the focus of his Water for the World Laboratory is to bring clean water to underprivileged people, a subject I’m passionate about, I felt grateful to have the opportunity to learn under him,” said Soares. “I always wanted to get a Ph.D. that would enable me to help others.”

Soares’ experience with having a lack of access to safe drinking water as a child makes her uniquely qualified to contribute to the research in Goodwill’s lab.

“Jacira has directly experienced water stress and has a visceral understanding of its terrible effects,” said Goodwill. “This drives her passion for helping others and makes her a better environmental engineer. Her research is focused on alleviating water stress in rural regions and her unique perspective makes the potential impact obvious. I never had to lecture Jacira about the motivation for our research because she already understood it better than I did.”

Having someone such as Soares who has had first-hand experience with the water issues studied in Goodwill’s lab has benefited the entire group.

“The Water for the World Laboratory is better with her as a member and we’re lucky to have her,” Goodwill said. “Helping people with water stress is the principal mission of our group and Jacira is critical to our ability to execute that.”

Higher education at its best

Soares’ perseverance through adversity is inspiring. Goodwill is proud to have played a role in her educational journey.

“Jacira’s past includes innumerable obstacles,” said Goodwill. “However, she is thriving in a Ph.D. program at URI and will soon be Dr. Soares, forever changing the trajectory of her life and her family’s. This is higher education at its best: enabling willing students to make dramatic improvements in their lives by acquiring valuable knowledge and skills. It means a great deal to me to play a part in Jacira’s story.” 

Writing the next chapter

Soares’ story is far from over, as she wants to take what she’s learned to help others.

“After I earn my Ph.D., I want to work for a water treatment plant to gain hands-on experience,” said Soares. “Then, I want to travel the world to underprivileged places and help people with their potable water scarcity and hopefully make their lives a little bit better than they were before. I want to give back to others.”

Soares hopes her accomplishments make a lasting impression on her daughter.

“To imagine that the little girl who grew up on the islands would be here today, having accomplished so much despite all the challenges, is very surreal,” said Soares. “I want my 6-year-old daughter to look at me and see that nothing can stop you from achieving what you set your mind to, and that hard work really does pay off. I also want to make my mom and grandma who raised me proud.”