Carnegie Mellon University

Dave Dzombak

July 21, 2022

Dzombak Retires After 35 Years of Service

Perhaps no sentence could better encompass the character of former CEE Department Head Dave Dzombak than his recounting of why he first joined the department. “I was drawn to civil and environmental engineering by the opportunity to apply my interest in math, science, and the liberal arts directly in the service of people and communities working on infrastructure and environmental challenges,” he told those assembled for the April celebration of his retirement and move to emeritus professor status, celebrated jointly with retiring colleagues Irving Oppenheim and Mitch Small. He need hardly have told those family, friends, and colleagues gathered in his honor—every person in the room had personally witnessed Dzombak’s commitment to service over his 35 years in CEE and found a welcoming home in the community he led for 9 years as department head.

Dzombak was welcomed to CEE as an undergraduate by distinguished faculty like Tung Au and Paul Christiano, and was deeply influenced by other faculty at the time including Francis McMichael, Dick Luthy, Oppenheim, Cliff Davidson, Chris Hendrickson, Red Whittaker, Jim Romualdi, Ed Krokosky, and Steve Fenves. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1980, they helped convince him to remain in the department to pursue his master's, completed in 1981. Dzombak gained early research experience with Luthy and Oppenheim, studying water quality issues, research methods, and urban modeling. He subsequently pursued PhD studies at MIT and received his PhD in 1986, performing research with François Morel.  He then returned to Pittsburgh to join the firm of CEE alumnus Paul Rizzo providing consultation on hazardous waste remediation. He was eventually drawn back to join the department by then CEE Head,  and future Dean and Provost, Paul Christiano, starting as an adjunct instructor in 1987 and then a full-time faculty member in 1989. 

Provost Jim Garrett recalled a special bond formed with Dzombak when Garrett joined CEE a year later. Dzombak and his wife Carolyn had just welcomed a new daughter, Rachel, in July 1990 and just weeks later Garrett and his wife Ruth Ann would welcome a new son, Patrick, a coincidence that would begin a lifelong friendship between the two families. When Garrett became Dean of Engineering in 2013, Dzombak would succeed him as head of CEE, an appointment Garrett called one of the best decisions of his career. “Dave is a model university citizen,” said Garrett. “We know he possesses extremely high integrity. He is an infinitely reasonable voice, a caring colleague, a dedicated educator, and a trusted friend. I have heard people say, on numerous occasions, ‘If only more people were like Dave Dzombak, what a better place this would be.’”

As head of CEE, Dzombak recruited 12 new faculty members to the department from a diversity of backgrounds. He introduced the CEE summer research program and led efforts to revamp the CEE undergraduate curriculum to include more project-based courses, threading of thematic topics, and a greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Under his leadership the department has significantly renovated labs for research and education in infrastructure systems and environmental engineering. He also led efforts to develop the department’s new undergraduate degree program in Environmental Engineering, which integrates computing and data analytics with a traditional environmental engineering course of study. Most recently, Dzombak led the coordination of the college’s new masters in AI engineering degree programs.

A priority for Dzombak as CEE Head was maintaining and strengthening the CEE community spirit that he experienced as a student in the late 1970s and throughout his career as a faculty member.  He spoke of this at his retirement celebration; how important the family atmosphere has been to generations of students, faculty, and staff.  As an example, CEE Undergraduate Program Director Andrea Francioni Rooney said upon receiving the university advising award that “students in CEE consider the department to be their home away from home. I saw firsthand how true this was—the students I got to know didn’t want to leave, even after graduation—they made that very clear.

Dzombak has left as big an impact within his fields of study as he has on the department he’s led. Over the course of his academic career he has made significant contributions to areas including aquatic chemistry, water and wastewater treatment, abandoned mine drainage remediation, industrial waste management, climate change adaptation for infrastructure, water resource sustainability, energy and the environment, sustainable mining of metals, and the fate and transport of chemicals in water, soil, and sediment. Dzombak serves on the ASCE Industry Leaders Council, and is a registered Professional Engineer in Pennsylvania, a Board-Certified Environmental Engineer, a Diplomate Water Resources Engineer, a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Annette Jacobson, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Engineering, recalled growing up in Latrobe, PA with Dzombak, who comes from a family of educators with a commitment to community service. Over 30 years of friendship and collaboration at Carnegie Mellon, Dzombak’s actions served as a measure for Jacobson through the example he set in roles like Associate Dean for Graduate and Faculty Affairs, held for 4 years. He advanced education, leading matters related to college-wide curricula and program accreditation, and cared deeply for the students he taught and mentored. “I got to observe firsthand the care and support that Dave provided to his graduate students,” said Jacobson. “  

On top of his roles in CEE and the College of Engineering, Dzombak served 6 years as Director of the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research, a year as Faculty Senate Chair, and almost a year as Interim Vice Provost of Sponsored Programs. On campus, Dzombak worked since the 1990s with colleagues in Facilities Management Services and the School of Architecture to integrate green practices into university operations. It would take many more words to list the full scope of Dzombak’s achievements, yet for him, no personal accomplishment can compare to the reward of being at the center of an amazing CEE community. 

“Always something new to think about and outstanding people with whom to share the thinking,” said Dzombak. “Today my motivation for CEE remains as high as when I was a student. As stimulating as topics in our field have been to work on, the most rewarding aspect of my career has certainly been the opportunity to work with and learn from so many outstanding people.”