Natalia Milovantseva

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If you ask University of California, Irvine Ph.D. candidate Natalia Milovantseva what it is about research that intrigues her, she is apt to quote the words of T.S. Eliot, who said, “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” A 2012 Fulbright Scholar, Natalia is pursuing a doctoral degree in the School of Social Ecology where her dissertation is focused on electronic waste (e-waste) and solutions to more effectively repurpose the billions of electronic devices manufactured each year.

E-waste can be defined as electronic equipment and/or products including batteries and power cords, which are nearing the end of their useful life. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 70 percent of heavy metals in landfills come from discarded electronics. Natalia recognizes that as technology continues to evolve, new products ironically, seem to become outdated almost as soon as they are available for purchase. “The need for proper recycling and safe disposal of e-waste is at an all-time high both here and abroad,” she notes.

With her passion for learning and a strong background in research and statistics, Natalia is looking to better understand the factors that influence policy initiatives intended to encourage environmentally responsible production and consumption of electronics. “As a researcher, knowledge creation is an important part of the equation,” she states.” “Equally important is the creative process – and this, in my opinion, is the glue that keeps the equation intact.”  
With a B.S. in Economics, a B.A. in International Studies and an M.A. in Demography, Natalia is using her multidisciplinary background to help solve this complex problem.

Searching for Solutions to Complex Problems

The amount of electronic waste discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tons generated every year.“Smart phones, tablets, air-light laptops…we all love our electronics because they make our lives faster, easier, more efficient, and fun,” Natalia acknowledges. “We are seduced by the amazing new technologies, but we seldom stop to think of the fact that many of these electronic devices contain potentially toxic chemicals such as cadmium, lead, mercury, or halogens. Because electronics can be richer in precious, base, and special metals than ores, technologically sound mining e-scrap ‘deposits’ presents significant environmental advantages over primary mining.”  The result - electronic discards are one of the fastest growing segments of our nation's waste stream - where it becomes both an environmental hazard and a lost opportunity for economic prosperity.

Natalia has been working on this problem with her academic advisor, Jean-Daniel Saphores, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, of Economics, of Planning, Policy & Design, and Faculty Associate of the Institute of Transportation Studies. She points out that it is his, “unwavering support and mentorship, along with his guidance in the craft of research” that has allowed her to flourish in this academic undertaking.

Linking Ideas With the Real World

As a Fulbright Scholar, Natalia has been conducting research on how the European Union (EU) handles the issue of electronic waste.  “The Fulbright Fellowship has opened many doors for me,” she says.  “I cherish this opportunity to be an ambassador of academic cultures and to work in an international environment linking the universe of ideas with the real world.”

Fascinated by how consumption choices and the pursuit of instant connectivity affect poor and vulnerable populations, Natalia hopes to utilize her Fulbright to understand how European regulatory standards for environmental protection affect technological innovation in order to foster green electronics consumption.

This fall, Natalia will leave for Europe where she will delve into environmental regulations of the European Union. “Millions of tons of e-waste are shipped annually, purportedly for reuse, to the poorest areas of the world where local people, mostly women and children, are exposed to high concentrations of toxins when they ‘harvest’ raw materials from e-waste to sell them,” she observes.

According to Natalia, the US once led the world by implementing protective environmental laws, but in the past decade, other countries have taken the lead.  She points out that the EU has created a new wave of comprehensive and innovative industrial legislation aimed at protecting public health and the environment. 

UCI and the Generosity of the Human Spirit

Recognizing that many contemporary problems are multi-dimensional and complex, Natalia has taken an ‘out of the box’ approach to interdisciplinary research. Using this approach, she is able to creatively figure out how to draw on various disciplines for exploring research questions.

“Having a career in finance and international business, and pre-doctoral studies in commerce, economics, psychology, international relations, and demography, I was seeking a research program where I could hone the skills of incorporating several branches of science for focusing on one question at a time,” she states.

In UCI’s School of Social Ecology, she is able to move beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries in developing approaches to critical issues.  “With its unparalleled resources, UCI has provided me incredible opportunities,” she states. “I have been able to chat with a Nobel Prize laureate, share conflict resolution techniques with Los Angeles gang intervention workers, and represent UCI at the World Resources Forum in Davos.”

In addition to Professor Saphores, Natalia credits the team of ‘extraordinary’ professors - Dr. Oladele Ogunseitan, Dr. David Feldman, Dr. John Whiteley and Dr. Ivan Jeliazkov – who have been instrumental in helping her to successfully map her academic career. She stresses the collaborative nature of the UCI community. “I am amazed at the generosity of the human spirit as demonstrated time and again by my professors and colleagues here at UCI.”

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