Engineers are typically can-do people, used to solving problems and getting things done. But some problems are so difficult, they require a multidisciplinary approach. The University of Iowa’s cluster hire in water sustainability is designed to address one complex issue that affects every man, woman, and child on the planet: access to clean water. In 2009, the university announced it would create 10 new faculty positions to advance research, education, and outreach on water sustainability.
The new faculty members span the disciplines, from engineering and economics to law and communication. Four IIHR affiliates are part of the cluster: David Cwiertny, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE); Craig Just, assistant professor of CEE; Eric Tate, assistant professor of geography; and Adam Ward, assistant professor of geoscience.
An H2O Revolution
Why does a water sustainability focus make sense at Iowa? The cluster hire builds on the university’s established strength in this area, including IIHR and the Iowa Flood Center. And compared to many droughtstricken areas of the country, Iowa is blessed with an adequate (and sometimes excessive) supply of water.
Water issues also present the perfect combination of complexity and global scale for a multidisciplinary group effort such as this. The cluster hire approach makes many new and fruitful avenues of study possible, says Ward. “The cluster allows me to consider problems I would never have been able to address on my own,” he says. “Understanding the broad context for my research enables me to more completely address society’s problems.”
Iowans put their water to work in many ways: for transportation, for irrigation, for drinking water, for recreation, and recently, for ethanol production. But even a water-rich state like Iowa can stretch resources too thin. Tate says it’s important to consider water sustainability now, rather than wait for a serious problem to develop. “As a critical resource that touches so many aspects of our society, it makes sense to address the sustainability of water resources in a multidisciplinary manner.”
Iowa is also ripe for change. The severe floods of the last 20 years have created a population eager to learn how to better manage water resources, says Cwiertny. “You have a community now that’s going to be receptive, I think, and acutely aware of how water impacts them.”
How does a collaboration between 10 academics from very different fields work in the real world? Although the cluster is just getting started, so far, it’s working very
well. IIHR Research Engineer Jerry Schnoor, the group’s mentor/leader, has organized regular water sustainability seminars, with a different cluster member presenting his or her work at each meeting. “We get to know each other, understand our complicated research interests, look for the synergies, and look for the opportunities we can pursue together,” says Cwiertny. He’s organizing more casual get-togethers, too, so they can also talk under
Cwiertny is especially glad to see communication and policy experts among the cluster’s members. “The ability to communicate is going to be really important,” he says. “We can develop the best technologies and engineering strategies, but they don’t get very far until it can be implemented as smart policy that people can support
and buy into.” And change their behavior, adds Just. He believes sustainability is a behavioral issue rather than simply a resource or knowledge issue. “Changing behavior in the modern media world requires savvy communication. … The research has to be brought to life in communities through engagement and communication.”
And clustering can be fun. For a native Californian like Cwiertny, it was a no-brainer to leave sunny California for Iowa and this professional opportunity. “I really
do believe that we’re doing good things and important things,” he says. “Plus, your job has to be fun. I will tell you—I’m having great fun in the time I’ve been here at Iowa!”
“I get to learn new things all the time when I interact with people from other disciplines,” Just says. He adds that learning to speak the languages of colleagues from other disciplines (all English, but still very different!) can be challenging. “But it’s a challenge I’m up for!”