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U. ENGINEER CLEANING UP DESPITE THE ODDS

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Who'd waste time on waste?

JoAnn S. Lighty devotes her professional career to it - and doesn't consider it a waste of time.Neither does the National Science Foundation. It recently named Lighty, 30, recipient of a 1990 White House Presidential Young Investigator Award to advance her research on the thermal treatment of hazardous wastes.

No small honor for the assistant professor of chemical engineering who's netted a big bonus for research: $25,000 per year for five years from the foundation for her work at the University of Utah.

Additionally, the National Science Foundation provides up to $37,500 annually to match contributions from industrial sources.

President Reagan started the Young Investigator Program in 1984 in an effort to attract and retain the nation's best young scientists and engineers to academic careers of teaching and research.

Lighty this year was named one of 200 winners of the prestigious award from 1,500 applicants nationwide, yet she pooh-poohs pomp and publicity.

The interview she reluctantly gave had the flavor of an acceptance speech, with the researcher crediting dozens of other people for her success.

Her dad was among those credited. A professional engineer, he talked with his children about his work. Lighty understood at an early age what an engineer does and decided she also wanted to do it.

Thanks to the influence of her dad and many others, Lighty jumped from the frying pan into the fire and today is perfectly at home working with the small controlled volume rotary kiln incinerator in the U. lab.

Using the incinerator, which simulates a full scale rotary kiln, she is doing fundamental experiments on the removal of hazardous organic materials from solids.

In addition, she's investigating what happens to lead, chromium and other heavy metals that are treated at temperatures as high as 2300 degrees in rotary kiln incinerators.

Incineration tends to be an expensive dispensing proposal and one that hasn't exactly received kudos from the public fearful of toxic gases escaping into the air.

But Lighty and company are monitoring the gases being emitted after incineration and before the gases go through an after-burner.

On other fronts, she's also working to solve the problem that plagues the earth and its inhabitants: disposal of hazardous waste.

Lighty is the U.'s academic coordinator with the National Science Foundation's Advanced Combustion Engineering Research Center, a joint effort between Brigham Young University and U. researchers to develop computer models for the combustion of coal. They are also doing studies on hazardous waste incineration.

The center is funded by the National Science Foundation, the state, the U.S. Department of Energy and 25 industrial sponsors.

One would expect nothing less from the New Jersey native who joined the U. faculty in 1988 after graduating magna cum laude in 1982 with a B.S. degree in chemical engineering and earning her Ph.D. in the same field at the U.

She's the first woman to fill a faculty position in the Department of Chemical Engineering. As an undergraduate in 1982, Lighty was the first woman to win the outstanding senior award (started in 1956) in the department. In 1988, she was named the College of Engineering's outstanding teaching assistant.

But in many ways, Lighty, who's lived in Utah since the early '70s, is just like any other Utahn who's joined the bandwagon to save its pristine landscape.

"Environmental engineering is a nice area to be in simply because you feel like you are helping the environment - helping some part of humanity live in a better place," she said.

One visit to her office en route to the lab and you see proof of her sincerity.

Diet-Coke, Pepsi and other soda cans are neatly lined on up on one shelf, ready to be bagged. On another is a stack of scrap paper - also headed for a recycling bin.