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Biologist who found natural ways to clean up water dies at 43
STANFORD -- Microbiologist Dunja Grbi'c-Gali'c, the first scientist to unequivocally demonstrate a biological route for the transformation of hydrocarbons in conditions without oxygen, died Aug. 20 of heart failure brought on by scleroderma, an auto-immune disease. She was 43.
Grbi'c-Gali'c, a Stanford University associate professor of civil engineering, was known internationally for her research on biological treatment of contaminated groundwater and also known in her native Croatia as an author of fiction.
As part of a Stanford research team led by civil engineering Professors Perry McCarty and Paul Roberts, Grbi'c-Gali'c established in laboratory and aquifer experiments at Moffett Naval Air Station that naturally occurring bacteria could be cultivated to clean up trichloroethylene and other chemically similar pollutants in groundwater supplies.
More broadly, her research dealt with pinpointing the complex microbial transformations of organic solvents and pesticides into simpler, safer molecules. Those processes form the basis for ongoing research at Stanford and elsewhere sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others.
In a 1987 interview, Grbi'c-Gali'c said that the microbial processes she studied were "more unpredictable but more promising" than more conventional chemical or physical treatments of contaminated water. Physical treatments, she said, tended merely to transfer pollution from water to air, and chemical reactions were generally slower and more expensive.
Some of her most cited work overturned decades-old conventional wisdom, said the faculty committee that recommended her for tenure in 1989, by showing in detail the complex and slow nature of hydrocarbon degradation under anaerobic conditions; that is, conditions without oxygen. She and her colleagues also were able to demonstrate that they could speed up degradation by feeding methane and oxygen to methane- eating bacteria, called methanotrophs, already living in aquifers.
She was the published author of short stories in her native Croatian language, as well as a good pianist with a beautiful trained voice, and an amateur artist in oils and pastels, colleagues said. Her short story collection, Oporuka (which translates to "Testament" in English), is listed in the U.S. Library of Congress catalog.
Grbi'c-Gali'c's colleagues described her as brilliant, gentle and sensitive, not only to the needs of her students and family, but also to plants and animals.
The recent war in her homeland strongly affected her, friends said, and she was involved in organizing a December 1991 "vigil for peace in Croatia" on the Stanford campus.
Grbi'c-Gali'c was born April 21, 1950, in Zagreb. Recipient of the "best student of the university award" as an undergraduate at the University of Zagreb in 1968, she went on to earn a doctorate in microbiology from the same university in 1977. She began postdoctoral work in 1980 in Stanford's Civil Engineering Department, where she greatly impressed faculty, said civil engineering Professor James Leckie.
"At the end of a year, she gave a seminar that stunned us all," Leckie said. "Within nine or 10 months, working almost entirely alone, she had done almost the equivalent of two Ph.D. theses. We invited her to apply for a faculty position."
She joined the faculty in 1983, and was promoted to a tenured position in 1989.
"She was brilliant," said Professor Paul Roberts, another colleague in the environmental engineering section of the civil engineering department. "In addition to her research, she was a gifted musician who spoke four languages, and she was the most gentle person any one of us knew.
"She was also a good amateur artist. She sketched and painted portraits of children," Roberts said, and "she was consistently rated at the top of the civil engineering faculty for her teaching by students."
One of 12 women on the School of Engineering faculty, Grbi'c-Gali'c was called "Big Mom" by many of her students, recalled Jae Ho Bae, a former student who is now a professor at Inha University in Korea. She was "so kind to every student," he said, which eased his transition to Stanford.
Rebecca Kauffman, a recent graduate student, added in a letter that Grbi'c-Gali'c "gave of herself unselfishly. All of us who took her classes wished we had even half of her strength, determination and understanding. I can never thank her enough for the education I received from her. Not only in microbiology, but in life as well."
Grbi'c-Gali'c also was well known in the Engineering School for her rose garden outside her office window and as caretaker of the Terman Pond ducks.
"She had great respect for all living things, but more than anything else, she loved birds and flowers," said Hrvoje Gali'c, her husband, who was a physicist at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center until he left earlier this year to care for his wife.
"She was the one to buy food and wade out into Terman Pond to feed the ducks," said Grbi'c-Gali'c's secretary, Jan Dyche. "Whenever she found a bird that was hurt, she took it to a woman in Palo Alto who nursed it back to health."
"She was a first-class example for all of us," said James Gibbons, dean of the School of Engineering. "She made very significant contributions to her field without minimizing her role with her family or her interest in humanitarian causes."
Grbi'c-Gali'c discovered in 1990 that she had scleroderma, a progressively debilitating disease in which the body attacks its own tissue, especially the heart, lungs and kidneys. Hers was a particularly aggressive case, and so she went from teaching aerobics in 1989 to not being able to walk three years later, Leckie said. She managed, however, to teach a full load of classes through fall and winter quarter last year, and last came to campus in April to participate in the oral examination of one of her graduate students.
Her heart failure occurred while she was at Stanford Hospital as an outpatient for kidney dialysis, her husband said.
Grbi'c-Gali'c is survived by her mother, Ivana Grbi'c of Zagreb; her husband, Hrvoje Gali'c, and her children, Domagoj, 15, and Mirna, 13, all of Palo Alto.
A Mass was held in St. Ann's Chapel in Palo Alto on Aug. 25, and the family suggested memorial contributions be made to the Croatian Refugee Fund, 901 Lincoln Ave., San Jose, CA 95126.
In addition, the Engineering School has created a civil engineering scholarship fund in her honor with all donations to be matched by a School of Engineering scholarship fund.
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