Making A Splash
When he talks about water, Paul Kirshen doesn't just have passion. He has facts.
"By 2025, over two-thirds of the world's population will live in areas where there's water stress because of increases in population and climate change," says the Tufts civil and environmental engineering professor. "Forty percent of the world's crops are produced with irrigation. Two-thirds of the world's withdrawals of water are used for irrigation."
Fletcher School graduate student Ned Spang points to similar statistics: "One-sixth of the world's population doesn't have access to clean water, and one-third of the human population doesn't have access to proper sanitation."
As these figures indicate, water is a precious and, increasingly, endangered commodity. The drive to address these problems is what brings Kirshen and Spang together with dozens of other Tufts faculty and students in the interdisciplinary Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) graduate program. WSSS, with the support of the Provost's office, deans, faculty, alumni and other university officials, launched in fall 2004 with Kirshen and Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Professor Bea Rogers at the helm.
With an established network of water researchers already at Tufts, the idea of gathering people from across the University to work on water-related issues made sense to Kirshen and his colleagues. In the two years since its inception, the program—which grants a certificate in addition to the graduate degree students earn from their home department—has not only attracted dynamic students and significant funding, but has facilitated research that is helping make a positive impact on pressing water resource issues both locally and abroad.
Meeting A Need
John Durant, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering who was one of the first to get on board with the WSSS program, says that the need to deal with water issues bears directly on the program's success.
"There's a demand out there in the real world for this kind of education," he says. "The students create the need for these kinds of programs."
Patrick Ray agrees. While hunting for a graduate program that would allow him to concentrate on water resources development in the arid regions of the Middle East and North Africa, Ray was repeatedly told that he wouldn’t be able to find a program that matched his interests. Then he discovered the WSSS program.
"I'm doing exactly what I had envisioned myself doing but that every other school I went to said was impossible," said Ray, now a civil engineering Ph.D. student at Tufts. "It turned out that Tufts seemed to be the only place that would help me to have that international focus."
Kirshen says that while other schools are developing programs focused on water issues, Tufts offers "the opportunity for students to work in the most disciplines, which makes us unique."
"We have just the ideal constellation of schools to do this," says Professor Bill Moomaw, an expert in environmental issues at The Fletcher School and senior director of the Tufts Institute for the Environment (TIE). Tufts' Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, the Fletcher School, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine are all involved with the program.
Paul Kirshen and Bea Rogers
Collaboration and Corroboration
This readiness and University-wide commitment to interdisciplinary research was the seed that helped bring the program to life. It carries over to the classroom and the program's popular weekly seminar series, which brings together people from across Tufts to discuss timely water-related issues.
"Just having a structure where you're in seminars with students from different parts of the University added a lot to my degree," recalls Martha Fernandes (E'01, 05)—who, as a research assistant, helped put together the WSSS program and became its first graduate. "I have friends still at Tufts working on some interesting projects that I really want to keep my eye on."
Ray looks forward to the collaborative opportunities that WSSS fosters.
"Ideally what would come out of that is that I would actually hook up with people from these other departments and we would coauthor a paper together," he explains. "I've worked with (or met) a number of people with whom that seems a real possibility."
Many of these research initiatives are backed, in part, by a five-year, $1.1 million grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health in 2004 for Ph.D. fellowships in water and health, a major acknowledgment of the program's importance.
"It's external validation of the quality of the program that we got the NIH funding," says Associate Professor of Public Health Jeff Griffiths. "That was a very hard grant to get."
It is already paying off. Before Ray came to Tufts, he says one of his biggest challenges was finding funding for his research. But with the help of WSSS advisors, he wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation that resulted in three years of funding for his work in Lebanon, where he is projecting water needs for Beirut over the next 25 years.
"It's pretty remarkable how I've been empowered to do [my research] here, in a way that other places weren't even interested in discussing," he remarks.
A Mounting Concern
Tufts' interest in tackling water resource issues around the globe is fueled mainly by the increasing urgency of these problems and the determination by students and faculty to address them.
"Getting safe water supplies to parts of the developing world is probably the single thing we can do that would make the most difference in improving the quality of people's lives," says Moomaw.
One such effort in Central America, for example, involves transboundary river pollution. "It's hard enough to figure out how to clean up the Charles River basin or the Mystic River," observes Moomaw. "Imagine if we had four countries involved."
Four WSSS students, along with TIE Assistant Director Melissa Bailey and WSSS Director Paul Kirshen, have spent the past year working with groups in the region to explore the health, economic and sociological impact of the pollution.
"Two of them decided to apply for the Ph.D. program, and they applied for and got the NIH fellowships that WSSS offers," he says. "In only a year and a half, we've gotten things like this to happen."
Experiences like this are what prepare WSSS students for an effective career in water resource management. Fernandes, who now works in Boston for the Tellus Institute where she researches water management and climate change, says her interdisciplinary training prepared her well for the professional sphere.
"A lot of people aren't used to collaborating with anyone," Fernandes explains. "An integrated program at a university exposes you to those people. Then you realize the value in collaboration at top level."
That collaboration, WSSS faculty and students believe, will be key in addressing the water crises mounting worldwide.
"If we as a country or we as a world are going to address water resource issues," states Melissa Rosen, an MS/MPH candidate at the Friedman School, "it needs to be from an interdisciplinary point of view for the solution to be effective."
Profile written by Georgiana Cohen
Pictured on homepage: Ned Spang and Melissa Rosen, photo by Jodi Hilton for Tufts University. Pictured at top right: Martha Fernandes, photo by Kathleen Dooher for Tufts University.
This story originally ran on Feb. 27, 2006