College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

TED Scholar, professor and sanitation researcher

Francis de los Reyes III
Francis de los Reyes III

CE alumnus reaches 450,000 with an important message about sanitation concerns in developing countries

Although biological waste treatment processes are advanced in the Western World, Francis de los Reyes III (MSCE’94) knows the same is not true for everyone. In fact, he has first-hand experience of a lacking sanitation infrastructure.

In his home country of the Philippines, de los Reyes says some citizens have no access to clean toilets. In Africa and South Asia, manual emptying of full pit latrines is common. This is a dangerous and unhygienic business, and in some parts of the world, lower castes are condemned to emptying latrines.

That’s why de los Reyes, a professor at North Carolina State University, is working on a two-part research process to create a machine that would eliminate the worker going into the pit.

De los Reyes said, “This research, as well as my interests, started me down the path of sanitation issues, including all of the steps from the human user interface process to the collection, treatment and possible reuse of human waste.”

In 2009, he was chosen as a TED Fellow and last year gave an 8 1/2 minute talk about sanitation research at the TED Fellows Retreat. He never imagined his message would reach 450,000 viewers.

His TED talk comes with a warning: “This talk might contain much more than you’d ever want to know about the way the world poops. But as sanitation activist (and TED Fellow) Francis de los Reyes asks — doesn’t everyone deserve a safe place to go?”

Solving sanitation issues is part of the reason de los Reyes enjoys his field. “Being an engineer, you feel like you have the tools to analyze the situation to develop and implement solutions.”

Before de los Reyes became involved in this research, he attended Iowa State to pursue a master’s in civil engineering with a concentration in environmental engineering. His advisor was the late Dr. Richard Dague.

When he was deciding where to attend graduate school, De los Reyes had a scholarship from the Rosary Foundation that allowed him to pick any university. “I chose Iowa State because my college dean at the University of the Philippines and several professors got their Ph.D. from Iowa State. Based on my high regard for them, I decided Iowa State was a good place. It was,” he said.

He adds that he still uses the knowledge he learned during his education while teaching graduate-level courses at North Carolina State.

Although de los Reyes initially believed he would pursue industry, he decided to become a professor because of his love of research and teaching. His skills and experiences are also a good fit for academia, and he gets to work on a variety of problems that are important to him. “It’s a great job because you get to make an impact on students and the rest of the world.”

De los Reyes says Iowa State will always be a special place for him, especially after meeting his wife, Josephine, who received a master’s in computer science from ISU in 1995. They have four children together – Mia, Miguel, Mireya and Yonsoo.