Coastal sustainability strengthened by Center for Research Excellence
KINGSVILLE - July 31, 2006
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Collaboration brings National Science Foundation-funded
program to South Texas
Four years ago, the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) approached the Frank H. Dotterweich College of Engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville about an interesting opportunity.
TEES, a member of the Texas A&M University System, had news about available funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish a Center of Research Excellence in Science and Technology, or CREST. It’s an NSF program designed specifically for minority-serving institutions that enhances their research abilities and addresses the significant under-representation of minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
At A&M-Kingsville’s College of Engineering, the field of environmental engineering was making its presence known with increased research productivity and the hiring of new faculty members. According to associate dean Dr. Kuruvilla John, faculty joining the university at this time, such as Drs. Kim Jones, Alvaro Martinez and Venkatesh Uddameri, provided diverse environmental expertise. Their knowledge of air and water treatment, air pollution and groundwater management covered subjects above the surface and below it, too, noted John.
John, whose expertise includes air quality among other research specialties, began working with fellow faculty members and TEES who facilitated the proposal development.
The group decided that their CREST would be different from others in the nation in that it would focus on sustainability of semi-arid coastal areas—research that is applicable in South Texas and far beyond. That specialty is captured in the center’s self-designed acronym of RESSACA—Research on Environmental Sustainability of Semi-Arid Coastal Areas. The proposal, submitted in February 2002, became one of three CRESTs in the environmental area to be established by the National Science Foundation.
Drs. Jennifer Ren and Lee Clapp fill out CREST-RESSACA, which brings together research and doctoral students pursuing the environmental engineering Ph.D. established just prior to CREST-RESSACA. The center has assisted with the growth of the Ph.D. program by adding two new faculty members - Drs. David Ramirez and Yifang Zhu.
One of the official goals of the center is t o provide increased access to M.S. and Ph.D. programs in environmental engineering to students from minority and underrepresented groups. So far to date, the center has supported 9 Ph.D. and 16 M.S. students. In addition, 28 undergraduate students were encouraged to pursue research opportunities at TAMUK. The first cohort of graduate students received their M.S. degrees in 2004 and 2005, while the first Ph.D. will graduate this August.
“At this point, students know about CREST through word of mouth—that’s been the source of a lot of our recruiting,” said John, who serves as director of the center.
Among the students that have graduated from the program, John notes that they have gone on to careers as consulting engineers, project managers in the non-profit world, and in the case of Santiago Galvan, an environmental engineer for Valero. A fall 2004 M.S. recipient, Santiago looks back on his experience in CREST with only positive memories. “All my experiences, skills and training that I received during my time in the program definitely helped to achieve my research and academic objectives, as well as my current professional career objectives,” said Santiago.
“Definitely one of the most satisfying experiences with CREST-RESSACA is the professional atmosphere that was created by the research team and stressed by the advisors,” noted Santiago. “The idea was to expose individuals to an environment that is most common to the professional world. I can say having worked a little over a year that this experience proved to be vital in working in a team environment.”
Four CREST master’s degree recipients have gone on to pursue their Ph.D. degrees. One of them is Celina Camarena, who credits CREST with encouraging her to pursue her doctorate. “I feel very honored to be a part of CREST,” said Camarena. “ I have experienced many good moments and have learned a lot being involved with the program. I was able to participate in the student advisory board and become an undergraduate mentor, which enabled me to quickly develop and improve my leadership skills. Additionally, the CREST conferences gave me insight on others’ research and, at the same time, allowed me to share my knowledge as well through networking. Thanks to CREST, I was able to participate in an intensive two-week GIS and remote sensing technology course in Puerto Rico last summer. That was outstanding!
“CREST has given me the opportunity to grow, develop skills, improve research skills, and demonstrate how laboratory and technological components can be integrated towards engineering design.”
The NSF funding for CREST-RESSACA is for five years, meaning that the center will need to submit another proposal next year. The outlook for continued NSF funding is positive, as there are many faculty accomplishments to list along with the student accomplishments.
According to John, CREST-RESSACA educators have made names for themselves
nationally as experts in their fields and in their work furthering the center. Faculty and students have published over 40 technical articles in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, faculty members serve on editorial boards of several prestigious journals and as session chairs of national and international conferences. This year, John served as chair of two separate CREST advisory boards at Alabama A&M University and University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras. He is also an advisory board member for Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Sustainable Engineering. Uddameri serves on the South Texas Regional Health Advisory Board and is the associate editor for the journal, “Clean Technology and Environmental Policy.” Clapp, John and Ren have served on proposal review panels for the NSF.
Faculty members have also taken the initiative to seek additional funding for the center, said John, securing over $2.5 million from private, state and federal sources.
The far-reaching objectives of CREST-RESSACA are crucial to society. One of them is producing a workforce that leads the way in the 21 st century and can compete internationally. The other is in the research work itself.
“Sustaining our resources is critical,” said John. “Semi-coastal areas are where you see huge population growth. That makes the work that CREST-RESSACA does extremely relevant.”
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