Background Info –non-academic, industry experience, hobbies
Curiosity drives the majority of my hobbies and experiences. After graduate school, I worked with a friend in trying to create a startup company, during which we were able to start relationships with community organizers, political leaders, and even food manufacturers. I believe this same curiosity drives the two consistent hobbies that I return to: long distance running and reading. I use long distance running (often in the mountains) to see as much as the world as possible, and I use reading to deepen my appreciation for what I see.
Are you active in any professional societies?
I am most active in AEESP; recently, I have started an appointment on the Distinguish Lecturer Committee.
What are you passionate about?
Life, in the broadest definition, and supporting/enabling the curiosity of others. If the life cycle of the entire population was air, water, food, and shelter secure, then the resulting creativity boom would be immense.
What classes do you teach?
CVEN5484 Applied Environmental Microbiology and Toxicology in the Fall and CVEN4484/5544 Solid Waste in the Spring.
What is your favorite thing about being an environmental engineering professor at CU?
The people. The faculty, staff, and students are passionate and inspiring. Giving a lecture to such a committed audience often refreshes me, notably during weeks when I am stressed with other deadlines.
And also the sunlight in my office.
What sets CU’s environmental engineering program apart from others?
The nature of the program itself is quite unique and underscores the complexity of environmental engineering in that the expertise required to tackle the emerging opportunities and challenges within our field requires departmental cross-cutting insight. Within program meetings, we have experts in environmental chemistry, bioinformatics, public policy, air quality, water quality, water reuse, and many others sharing their skillset to advance the public’s ability to interact safely and beneficially with our global system. As this century progresses, the flexibility of the environmental engineering program at CU will enable a forum for more wings of academia to contribute in advancing the resiliency of civilization.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom to give to prospective or current students?
And always pack an extra granola bar.
How did you become interested in microbial processes?
Initially, I began my academic career interested in more traditional concepts associated with civil engineering such as bridge design and traffic engineering. However, I began working in an environmental engineering lab as a dishwasher and became fascinated with an organism that can breath chlorinated solvents. When I was able to conceptualize these organisms as soft machines that 4.7 billion years of trial and error resulted in, I was hooked.
What type of wastewater-related research are you currently working on?
Currently, I am focusing more on the rules of life associated with the microbial community assembly that occurs within activated sludge and how those translate in determining both who is present and what they are able to do. This will develop into creating novel side-stream processes capable of being deployed at Water Resource Recovery Facilities to expand the plant’s capabilities of handling nutrients and novel pollutants.
What methods do you use to undergo your research?
I rely heavily on next-generation sequencing, microscopy, high-resolution mass spectrometry, bioinformatics, statistical modelling, remote sensing, and reactor design/construction to tackle the majority of my research.
Why do you think it is important to have a better understanding of microbial communities in wastewater treatment?
Microbes have a Janus like nature for environmental engineers: they perform useful functions such as breaking down hazardous wastes and producing useful biomolecules whereas they also can themselves be extremely hazardous for life and the global system. Therefore, understanding the communities associated with Water Resource Recovery Facilities is crucial for determining (1) how effectively we can utilize microbial systems to mitigate our own hazardous waste and (2) ensure that the biological material itself harbored and released by the facility is itself nonhazardous. With the pandemic of 2020, I am thankful for the incredible effort performed by Water Resource Recovery Facility workers and Sanitation workers across the country, maintaining the continued treatment of our collected solid and liquid waste streams and thereby ensuring that we are protected from the “ancient” microbes we have combatted over the entire lifetime of human civilization.
What benefits can understanding solid waste production provide for the future of wastewater treatment?
Intriguingly, the highest fraction of solid waste globally is represented by food waste. This biological material is increasingly diverted into anaerobic digesters or compost piles to regain resources from the waste stream, a higher level on the waste management hierarchy than landfilling. Both of those processes directly link to the microbial processes occurring onsite at Water Resource Recovery Facilities. Additionally, the broader concept within solid waste management, of only disposing items within a geological repository when all potential utility of the material has been extracted, is directly akin to how resource flows within the global biogeochemical cycle. Therefore, a push and pull between the two fields develop, with a better understanding of how we interact with material and the life cycle of our immediate products we can gain useful analogies into exploring how microbes within their communities are utilizing and exchanging resources.
What direction do you hope to take your research in the future?
I hope to continue my pursuit of understanding how the fundamental rules of life can be utilized to enhance everyday air, water, food, and shelter security of our expanding civilization.
March 26th, 2020