Background Info –non-academic, industry experience, hobbies
Between BS and MS/PhD, I worked for two years as a staff engineer for an environmental consulting firm called Earth Water Air in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
My main hobby is cycling.
Are you active in any professional societies?
I’m a member of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors, the American Chemical Society, and the American Geophysical Union.
What are you passionate about?
Learning…and after learning, telling people about what I’ve learned.
What classes do you teach?
CVEN 4424 Environmental Organic Chemistry
CVEN 5404 Water Chemistry
EVEN 4100 Environmental Sampling and Analysis
What is your favorite thing about being an environmental engineering professor at CU?
Seeing our students – undergrads and grads – prepare to solve environmental problems of the future.
What sets CU’s environmental engineering program apart from others?
Our undergrads take a lot of courses that many environmental engineers don’t take until they are graduate students.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom to give to prospective or current students?
Get involved in some research, and follow it through to a product – that way, you can tell future employers that you can work independently and that you can write.
You completed your undergraduate and graduate studies at Princeton, NJ and Cambridge, MA. Why did you come to the western United States after being educated in the eastern United States?
As an undergraduate in geological engineering, I attended a summer geology field camp as part of my curriculum. The field camp was in Red Lodge, Montana, which is near the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park, with the Beartooth Highway in between. Going to Montana was my first trip west of the Delaware River, which separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania. After growing up in suburban New Jersey, where you can’t tell where one town ends and the next begins, the West felt like where I was supposed to be. When I finished my PhD, I looked for postdoc positions all around the country, and thanks to Gary Amy in our department and Ron Harvey at the U.S. Geological Survey, I was lucky to get a position working on virus transport in groundwater in Boulder. Boulder has been home since then.
Many students face obstacles in their academic life that makes them doubtful about their academic choice. What’s the biggest obstacle you faced and how did you overcome it?
My biggest obstacle was simply getting through my PhD preliminary exam at MIT. I had trouble with a couple of the written questions and I did not manage to improve the committee’s impression of me at all during the oral exam. Of the five professors on the exam committee, two discouraged me to re-take the exam, but the other three out-voted the two. I passed the exam the second time around – three months later. That was a hard three months.
Environmental Organic Chemistry is one of the courses students usually have challenges with. How can organic chemistry help environmental engineers in solving environmental problems?
We synthesize organic compounds and introduce them to the environment faster than we can assess their potential risk to humans and ecosystems. We need to be able to forecast the fate and transport of these compounds based on their structure rather than waiting from experimental data to determine their persistence and mobility in natural waters. This course is all about understanding the behavior of organic compounds based on their structure. And it’s nothing like organic chemistry taught by a chemistry department – it’s about quantifying whether a compound will end up in water, soil, or air, and how fast it will break down.
What research are you working on that is most exciting to you?
One of the best things about being a professor is getting to decide what I want to work on (as long as it gets funded…), so all of the research is exciting! One relatively new area of research that gets me particularly excited is using synchrotron-based radiation to assess atomic structure and binding. Over the past few years, we have figured out some details of mercury behavior in the presence of organic matter and sulfur using x-ray absorption near-edge structure (XANES) and extended x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) spectroscopies, thanks to some collaborations around the world. Just spelling out the abbreviations in exciting to me!
The AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network project is a politically charged subject. Why are you interested in this research area? Have you encountered any surprising findings?
A major goal of this network is to provide a unbiased alternative for information about the environmental and social effects of oil and gas development to stakeholders and the public, so my big interest in this research is going beyond the usual academic products to “policy-relevant products” that the public and stakeholders find useful. It’s a worthwhile challenge to have to reach this audience, and something that I have not had to do to any significant extent in my previous research. In my area of research in the network, which regards the occurrence of oil and gas-derived contaminants in natural waters, some of the findings of Jessica Rogers, a PhD candidate, have been surprising – that some of the compounds used in hydraulic fracturing fluid are mobile, persistent, and toxic – I generally associated mobile compounds with low toxicity.
August 19th, 2015