New director wants CU to be the destination for research into global engineering solutions
Evan Thomas is the type of leader who will speak passionately for hours in support of his projects, team and vision with little need for breaks — mental, breathing or otherwise.
It’s an admirable trait—doubly so, given that you can tell he believes deeply every word he says about the work the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities has done and will do around things like clean water, sanitation and disaster resiliency.
Thomas took over as director of the Mortenson Center in summer 2018. Since then, he has outlined significant changes to the center’s research and teaching, and advocated for recruiting students from all engineering departments, as well as outside entities like the Colorado School of Public Health.
Those changes, paired with a plan to dedicate space on East Campus for global engineering research, are all part of his goal to make the center the preeminent education and research destination for engineers who want to make a positive global impact.
“It’s more and more obvious that engineers will play an important role in poverty reduction around the world, especially in the face of a changing climate,” Thomas said. “This is a growing field and a clear need. The passion is here—the challenge is identifying what our appropriate role and contribution should be.”
Over the next year, Thomas hopes to break the center’s curriculum into one-credit modules, making it more customizable and accessible to students across CU Boulder. The addition of lab space will open new opportunities, as well, including a dedicated space to develop and validate technologies in areas like air and water quality.
“We are keeping everything the center had, but dramatically increasing our portfolio of projects and practice,” he said. “Our goal is to work at the interface between implementers and policymakers, improving the technologies, methods and evidence base in global engineering.”
Thomas, who is also an associate professor in the Environmental Engineering Program, has a long history with CU Boulder, stretching back to 2001, when he began his undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and joined the newly created Engineers Without Borders chapter.
Both EWB and the Mortenson Center were founded by Distinguished Professor Bernard Amadei, whom Thomas considers a mentor.
“EWB-CU and EDC unearthed this latent passion among engineers and engineering students. Up until that point, there weren’t well-established programs to train engineers to participate in these global challenges,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ career has followed two parallel paths—one as an entrepreneur starting companies working in global health, the other as a researcher in the same area.
His résumé includes time at the NASA Johnson Space Center developing water and air quality technologies for spacecraft. He also held a faculty position at Portland State University and the Oregon Health and Science University, where his research team began monitoring the water supplies for over a million people in Kenya and Ethiopia using satellite-connected sensors developed through his company, SweetSense Inc.
Thomas’ research and field team are now based at CU and have overlapping partnerships with a $15 million United States Agency for International Development grant run through the Mortenson Center with professors Karl Linden and Amy Javernick-Will as the principal investigators. This partnership has enabled students from the center to work in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya alongside professional organizations and community partners.