Water Sustainability Initiative
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Some problems are so complex, they require a multidisciplinary approach.
The University of Iowa’s Water Sustainability Initiative (WSI) 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. In 2013, the WSI faculty officially became affiliated with IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering.
The new faculty members span the disciplines, from engineering and public health to political science and communication. They are: Kelly Baker, assistant professor of occupational and public health: David Cwiertny, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE); Craig Just, assistant professor of CEE; Ananya Sen Gupta, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Eric Tate, assistant professor of geographical and sustainable sciences; Tori Z. Forbes, assistant professor of chemistry; Kajsa E. Dalrymple, assistant professor of water communications and policy in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication; Elise Pizzi, assistant professor of political science; and Hans-Joachim Lehmler, associate professor of occupational and environmental health.
An H2O Revolution
Water issues 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. It allows members to consider problems they might not have been able to address on their own. Understanding the broad context for research enables WSI members to more completely address society’s problems.
Why does a water sustainability focus make sense at Iowa? WSI builds on the university’s established strength in this area, including IIHR and the Iowa Flood Center. And compared to many drought-stricken areas of the country, Iowa is blessed with an adequate (and sometimes excessive) supply of water.
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 eight academics from very different fields work in the real world? Although the cluster is relatively new, 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, so they can also talk more under relaxed circumstances.
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 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 collaborating 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 with colleagues from other disciplines (all English, but still very different!) can be challenging. “But it’s a challenge I’m up for!”