No day is typical for Jeanne VanBriesen. Whether she is out in the field collecting data from urban water systems or in the lab talking with students about the results of their own latest experiments, the Carnegie Mellon University professor of civil and environmental engineering says, "Every day is an adventure."
Through her work, VanBriesen wants to share with her students and the general public a deeper understanding of the importance of water — and to change the way people think about decisions that affect our natural environment.
"We live on a water planet. We are inexorably linked to water all our days, and we can no longer assume that it will clean itself and always be there for us to use for everything from drinking to disposing of our wastes," she said.
Much of her most creative work is spent in discussions with students about their experimental results or about the next stage of research needed to answer a new question, she says.
"I love the time spent thinking about what things mean and debating the most important follow-up work to do to bring us closer to solving an engineering problem."
Right now, VanBriesen and her students are trying to understand why certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are consumed by bacteria and others are not. PCBs were widely used up till the 1970s but it is now known that they do not break down in the environment and they are carcinogenic.
"If we understand what is preventing full transformation of the chemical, we may be able to alter our environment to suit the bacteria and then they will remove the contaminant and solve our problem," she said.
VanBriesen believes that health and the quality of life are at risk if nothing is done to fix aging urban water systems. Her passion led her to launch WaterQUEST (Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems), which has $1 million in university seed funding.
The center builds on a wide range of existing water-related research spanning several departments at Carnegie Mellon.
"Many of the problems we are dealing with now are the result of not thinking far enough ahead about the chemicals we produce and the decisions we make about how to use our natural resources," she said. "We have a responsibility to restore the environment where we have degraded it - and to think more carefully about decisions we make now that could leave a mess for future generations."
VanBriesen came to Carnegie Mellon because of its reputation for interdisciplinary research.
"Carnegie Mellon has a well-deserved reputation for encouraging its faculty to work together to solve problems. In my opinion, that is the only way to do really exciting work and to solve the most important problems," she said.
VanBriesen was named the 2008 Professor of the Year by the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The award is presented annually by the ASCE Pittsburgh Chapter for outstanding teaching ability, significant contributions toward improving professional aspects of civil engineering education, integrity and community service.