Published: Aug. 14, 2018 By
Evan Thomas

There are a billion people in the world who don’t have access to clean water while 2 billion people don’t have safe sanitation. Almost half of the world’s population still uses firewood daily. 

These are some of the global development challenges that Evan Thomas, the new director of the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities, says engineers can help find solutions for in their work.

“Engineering alone can’t solve these challenges, but we can contribute to the solutions through developing and proving tools and processes that positively impact vulnerable people,” he said. “The Mortenson Center is poised to become the preeminent destination for engineers wanting to apply their skills to these challenges.”

The Mortenson Center was established by Engineering Professor Bernard Amadei, with a generous endowment from Alice and Mort Mortenson. Thomas became director of the center in July. He has a long history with CU Boulder and the College of Engineering and Applied Science stretching back to 2001 when he began his undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering, and was one of the first Engineers Without Borders-CU students with Amadei. Today, Thomas has a PhD in aerospace engineering from CU, is a registered professional environmental engineer and has a master’s in public health from the Oregon Health & Science University.

His resume includes time at the NASA Johnson Space Center developing water and air quality technologies for spacecraft. He later conceived and managed a $25 million public health intervention in Rwanda that provided 350,000 households with cookstoves and 102,000 households with water filters - a venture that grew out of an Engineers Without Borders-USA project during his undergraduate years at CU. It is now one of the largest implementations of household water filters and cookstoves, and data has shown that over 30 children's lives are saved every year as a result.

Before taking the new position, he was an associate professor at Portland State University and the Oregon Health & Science University and the founder of the Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Lab.

Thomas’ research team is currently monitoring the water supplies for over a million people in Kenya and Ethiopia using satellite-connected sensors developed during his time in Portland through his company, SweetSense Inc. That company will now be affiliated with CU and has overlapping partnerships with a $15 million United States Agency for International Development grant run through the Mortenson Center with CU Professors Karl Linden and Amy Javernick-Will as the principal investigators. This partnership has enabled students from the Mortenson Center to work in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya alongside professional organizations and community partners. 

All of this experience makes him a great choice to serve as director for the Mortenson Center, which combines education, research and outreach to provide sustainable and appropriate solutions to endemic problems like lack of clean water in developing countries. The center’s educational program offers multiple pathways for engineers to get into the field of development engineering and understand its inherent challenges from a variety of angles. 

Since his arrival, Thomas and his team have been working to identify the most appropriate and impactful ways for CU Engineering students to engage in global development. One of the first steps, Thomas said, is to align the teaching and research missions of the center with impact goals and merge the education role of the center with a larger focus on research. 

New facilities on East Campus in the Sustainability, Energy and Environment Community will take advantage of this alignment. 

“We are building lab and office facilities where we’ll be able to offer courses in impact evaluations, sensor design, data analysis, air and water quality, and where we can develop and validate technologies,” he said.

Thomas said the center would work to attract students from all engineering disciplines, including the Aerospace, Mechanical, Computer Science, and Electrical Departments as well as the ATLAS Institute, in addition to collaborations with the Colorado School of Public Health, the Colorado Law school, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Leeds School of Business.

All of these changes will put CU in a great position, Thomas said. 

“My career has come full circle back to Boulder. With the resources we have including 50 graduate students, an excellent leadership team, teaching faculty, important research and our new facilities, we are going to become the destination for engineers to learn how to engage in global development,” he said.

Javernick-Will also serves as an associate director of the center and said she was excited to see where Thomas goes in the new position.

“Bernard’s visionary leadership helped establish and solidify the Mortenson Center as a well-recognized place where inspired engineers develop and apply their skills to improve the lives of vulnerable populations around the world,” she said. “Evan’s energy and development engineering experience will help continue that work.”  

Thomas is joined by Laura MacDonald, the new Mortenson Center managing director, who has a PhD in Environmental Engineering from Johns Hopkins University, and recently worked for the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology in Calgary, Canada.