Natalia Milovantseva
“Smartphones, tablets, air-light laptops … we’re seduced by amazing new technologies, but we seldom stop to think that many of these devices contain potentially toxic chemicals such as cadmium, lead, mercury and halogens,” says doctoral candidate Natalia Milovantseva. Camerone Thorson, Graduate Division

Ask UC Irvine Ph.D. candidate Natalia Milovantseva why research intrigues her and she’s apt to quote T.S. Eliot: “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 2012-13 Fulbright-Schuman grantee with a B.S. in economics, a B.A. in international studies and an M.A. in demography, Milovantseva is pursuing a doctorate in social ecology, with a concentration in environmental analysis & design. Her dissertation is about electronic waste and ways to more effectively repurpose the billions of electronic devices manufactured each year.

E-waste is electronic equipment and products, including batteries and power cords, that are nearing the end of their useful life. Globally, 20 million to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated every year. Scientists estimate that in the U.S. alone, 70 percent of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics.

As technology evolves, new products become outdated almost as soon as they go on the market. “The need for proper recycling and safe disposal of e-waste is at an all-time high both here and abroad,” says Milovantseva, who’s originally from Russia.

“Smartphones, tablets, air-light laptops — we all love our electronics because they make our lives faster, easier, more efficient and fun,” she says. “We’re seduced by amazing new technologies, but we seldom stop to think that many of these devices contain potentially toxic chemicals such as cadmium, lead, mercury and halogens.”

Milovantseva is especially concerned about how consumption choices and the pursuit of instant connectivity affect vulnerable populations in Africa and Asia. “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,” she observes.

As a Fulbright-Schuman grantee, Milovantseva has been studying how the European Union handles the problem of e-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.”

Milovantseva will travel to Europe this fall to delve into the EU’s environmental regulations. The U.S. once set the global standard for laws protecting the environment, she notes, but in the past decade, other countries have taken the lead. The EU, for example, has created a new wave of comprehensive and innovative industrial legislation aimed at safeguarding public health and the environment.

“While the U.S. recycles about 25 percent of its e-waste, Germany captures 50 percent,” Milovantseva notes, “and the EU goal is to collect up to 85 percent of consumer electronics sold annually.”

Recognizing that such contemporary issues are multidimensional, she takes an “out of the box” approach to interdisciplinary research – creatively drawing from various fields to explore a subject.

“With predoctoral 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,” Milovantseva says.

In UCI’s School of Social Ecology, she found just that – and more. “With its unparalleled resources, UCI has provided me incredible opportunities,” Milovantseva says. “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, Switzerland.”

She credits “extraordinary” professors – among them Jean-Daniel Saphores, Oladele Ogunseitan, David Feldman, John Whiteley and Ivan Jeliazkov – for helping her successfully map her academic career. “I’m amazed at the generosity of the human spirit as demonstrated time and again by my professors and colleagues here at UCI,” Milovantseva says.

Her ultimate goal, though, is to promote responsible e-waste policies.

“We need a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach,” Milovantseva says, “that removes toxic substances from electronics engineering; prevents illegal shipments of junk from developed to developing areas of the world; and captures e-scrap to avoid ecological harm and to harness resources contained in old gadgets.”