I stumbled upon the Water INTERface IGEP program by accident. It was never a part of my “MS To-Do List” to begin with. I heard of it during the first ‘Engineering Ethics and the Public’ (see launch info here) class in Fall ’12 when students talked of Ethics being a requirement for an “IGEP” or a certain ‘Professoriate’ certificate. I took Engineering Ethics because it was a welcome breather in the whirlwind of interesting yet primarily technical courses and, in retrospect, was one of the most rewarding classes I have ever taken. It gave me my current advisor – Dr. Marc Edwards, a fantastic research group but most importantly a platform of sound values on which I have the choice to build my career and my life. Fascinating ongoing and past cases of questionable ethics, their implications to public health and the taxpayer’s money and a whole new way of approaching the way scientists and engineers operate in the 21st century and what is missing in their education and their decision making. Ethics changed my life for the better and I wouldn’t be surprised if I hear the same from others who have taken it over the years.
In Spring ’13, ‘Water For Health: Seminar’ was advertised as a 1-credit course and the title was all it took for me to sign up. While understanding the nitty-gritties of drinking water, wastewater – their associated technical and regulatory elements in regular classes, this 1-hour/week breeze of a class was what I needed to just go to and listen to people from different ‘water’ backgrounds and, essentially, help expand my binoculars of understanding the role of water in society and our lives. Having the chance to “create” one’s own white paper in a group was so much fun! “Do the benefits of water reuse/recycling outweigh perceived and real risks?” was what we worked on.
It paid off later (well, kinda) at a banquet during the 50th Association of Environmental Engineering Scientists and Professors (AEESP) Conference in Golden, CO in June ’13 when one of the pioneers of the water field, Dr. Richard Luthy (Stanford) talked about the critical role ‘water reuse’ was going to play in the coming years in the US and around the world. I got up to ask a question on public perception of why ‘direct reuse’ was not so readily accepted in the US like Singapore (because ‘direct reuse’ = ‘Singapore’ was what my research had revealed while working on the white paper) and while I got a good answer from him, another industry leader (He Who Shalt Not Be Named) shot my question down stating Singapore was ‘indirect’ reuse and that projects were coming up in Texas which were ‘direct’ reuse. A little red-faced, I understood how there can be differing viewpoints about the ‘technical’ way the water reuse technology, or for that matter any technology, is viewed. Dr. Pruden (CEE) did come by later chuckling and pointing out that the ‘Water for Health’ class should be given credit for that question coming up in a room full of industrial stalwarts by a student; this, while, I struggled with getting over being shot down for the next hour or two.
I was now familiar with how the IGEP operated and that unknowingly I had completed two requirements of the certificate. It dawned on me that getting into the Water IGEP should definitely be put on my ‘MS To-Do List’. It was a cool happenstance that the third requirement of the IGEP – working on an independent study with a core-IGEP faculty who’s not your advisor – was pretty straightforward. Dr. Davy (Water IGEP Director/HNFE) had an intriguing project lined up on evaluating the readability and clarity of EPA mandated water quality reports by water utilities across the US and Katherine (CEE) Phetxumphou and I put in the effort to analyzing reports from across the country using various tools to answer the question if an average American understood the content and context of the water quality reports s/he receives every year. The interdisciplinary nature of working on this research question (ranging from Environmental Engineering and Human Nutrition to Public Health and Communication Studies) was, I believe, an invaluable experience and a critical learning pitstop for me. The results are eye-opening and we hope to get them to larger audiences in the coming months.
The final piece of the Water IGEP puzzle is the ‘Interdisciplinary Research’ course being offered this semester (Spring ’14) and has a fantastic line-up of mini-projects and expert talks that has me all psyched. From personality tests to group NIH (National Institutes of Health) proposals, I’m curious to see how they help shape or shatter the ways I (and my fellow classmates) think on collaboration and winning sledge races in the roles of being at the helm as well as one of the sledge dogs (the metaphor belongs to Dr. John Little (CEE)).
This course will be the end of my IGEP journey but the connections, the insights and the collaborations I’ve made and have are hopefully going to contribute to a more holistic growth of my academic journey here at Virginia Tech: especially since my ‘MS To-Do List’ has become a lot longer. It has transformed into ‘The PhD Bucket List’.