La Saponara Lab Safety Award Winner

College of Engineering Lab Safety Award Winner

Dr. Valeria La Saponara is a professor in the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the founder of the Advanced Composites Research, Engineering and Science (ACRES) lab.

La Saponara lab
Undergraduate student researchers Andrew Westle (left) and Chris O’ Keefe are in full PPE needed to handle samples that have to be immersed in a toxic chemical, aerospace-grade hydraulic fluid, heated up in a tank.

Dr. La Saponara’s lab studies the durability of polymer composites, including smart composites with embedded sensors, and sustainable/biodegradable composites.

The lab’s top safety risk is their work with chemicals.

“Our composite materials require chemicals that are toxic, flammable and carcinogenic,” noted Dr. La Saponara. “If they are not labeled as such now, they may be identified as such some years down the road.”

Lab safety matters to Dr. La Saponara who didn’t recall using PPE as a graduate student, or seeing a box of gloves anywhere in labs. “Since I started working with composite materials as a graduate student, my own threshold has been lowered considerably,” shared Dr. La Saponara. “I now have to pay attention to the smell of sunscreen, because I could become queasy.”

This personal focus on safety is part of the reason Dr. La Saponara serves as the lab’s safety officer, in addition to Principal Investigator. She’s been working to replace toxic chemicals with their less toxic counterparts, whenever possible.

“Our lab recently started working with compostable materials for engineering applications in place of conventional oil-based composite materials,” remarked Dr. La Saponara. “I feel a lot better composting unsuccessful samples, knowing they won’t have any long-term health or environmental impacts.”

Dr. La Saponara spends a lot of time working in the lab and talking with students about safety. She believes that demonstrating safe practices in every single interaction really helps build a strong safety culture.

Dr. Valeria La Saponara in full PPE for working with toxic chemicals - fire-resistant lab coat, respirator, gloves, safety glasses. “I’ve done chemical work for over 24 years, beginning as a graduate student who was never provided PPE or a knowledge of safety. I have become sensitized to chemicals to the point that I am sensitive to particular components of sunblock. Hydraulic fluid will give me an instant headache. In my lab, using proper PPE is essential, every single time.”

“I’m like a parent who always makes their kid wear a helmet on a bicycle, but I wear one too,” affirmed Dr. La Saponara. “You cannot expect the student to reach out for eye protection and gloves, every single time, unless that expectation is set from day one.”