Student Profile: Patrick Ray | WSSS | Tufts University

Student Profile: Patrick Ray

by Libby Mahaffy

WSSS Student Patrick Ray

Patrick Ray will be finishing his dissertation in the summer of 2010. As one of the first WSSS PhD students, he has a unique perspective on the program. Libby Mahaffy caught up with him while he was visiting Boston in December of 2009 from Amman, Jordan, to ask him about his personal journey with WSSS.

Libby Mahaffy is a graduate student in the UEP program and an intern at the Tufts Institute of the Environment.

Learn more about Patrick here.

Libby Mahaffy: Why did you join WSSS?
Patrick Ray: I graduated from UMass Amherst Civil Engineering and my first job was depressing. So I quit, went to Lebanon, and then applied to graduate schools with this project in mind of working with the American University in Beirut. But nobody seemed to want to help me do it until I interviewed at Tufts and met Paul Kirshen. These other schools had their own ideas of what a Masters degree program was: specialization, heavy on the classes, light on the research, etc. But I wasn’t really excited about just jumping through hoops to get a degree. Paul was on board right away with something that seemed like it would be meaningful – that meant a lot to me. He’s inspired me to grab onto the idea that we could actually affect change, especially for those who don’t have a real voice. By informing the policymakers in water resources and climate change, we can make serious improvements in the quality of people’s lives.

We had the vision and this National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship came through and then we got other grants too. I thought I was applying for a 1-year grant, and when I got the award letter it said, “Congratulations on your 3-year grant”! [laughs] So there you go – I’m in the PhD program!

LM: What are you doing that’s related to WSSS now?
PR: I do optimization models with a computer program called GAMS – it’s economic, really. The model is based upon costs – there’s no hydrology in it, no simulation model, none of the things that engineers do so well. So for me, this is a true WSSS project – it’s outside of what I would learn in most other places. The model’s job is to figure out – in economic terms – a better allocation of water resources. I was in Beirut first and then I was able to slide the funding over to Amman, Jordan. When I do water planning for Amman, their water sources include transboundary complications with all of these other countries – Saudi Arabia (the Disi Aquifer), Israel and Palestine (the Jordan River), Syria (the Yarmouk River)… It’s complicated, which makes this area a fascinating place to work.

LM: What do you like best about WSSS?
PR: Doing interdisciplinary work is really hard – a lot of schools try and fail at it. Whether Tufts will really pull this off long-term is unclear. But they’re making a real go of it now, and I happened to slide in at just the right time. In engineering education, it’s often about being technically excellent… but you can’t learn everything, and there’s real value in other things. I took classes in Public Health; I took classes in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and in Economics. I chose breadth over depth, to some degree, and I think early on you have to come to terms with that. I’m pretty deep in optimization modeling, but not as deep as other people who call themselves optimization experts, and not as deep in, say, limnology or hydrogeology as many other people with my same water resources engineering degree. My chemistry and biology are pretty weak. In academia especially it’s very hard for professors to be comfortable with breadth over depth because of the tenure idea, the “highly effective expert in your field” idea. As a matter of fact, I might have a tricky time convincing some university to give me a tenure-track position. It’s risky to choose that path, but I feel it’s so important, especially now, not to lose sight of the importance of interdisciplinary work. I believe pretty strongly that what I learned from economics, public health, statistics and policy classes that took while at Tufts is at least as relevant to what I’m doing now in the Middle East – water systems planning and management – then further education in traditional Civil Engineering curriculum would be.

It becomes really clear when I’m in Jordan that it isn’t just about being technically excellent in a narrow sense. That’s not the bottom line – the bottom line is getting stuff done in a place where it’s really hard to get stuff done. When you’re trying to plan water availability for Amman, and part of what you have to deal with is the over-extraction of water from the Yarmouk River, policies adopted under President Assad of Syria, technical excellence is not the whole point – there’s more to it, like how many angles you’re able to attack a problem from. How do you project water availability from the Yarmouk River? Can you talk to the policymakers and engineers and blue-collar pump station operators all at the same time… preferably with some trust-building Arabic? Do you know how to sift through the jargon and conflicting information to the root of the water resources problem, and then think about that problem from every relevant angle to identify actual potential fixes (which will surely be interdisciplinary). Do you understand the economics of costs and benefits? These are things that engineers aren’t trained in but economists are. And now I am… a little bit at least.

LM: How has WSSS affected your life plans?
PR: My aspirations for my life and my career have gone way up since being in this program. I used to think of myself as a cute little engineer. I had some aspirations about changing the world, but most of that was related to my spiritual and non-vocational ambitions, about being a great man and good friend and loving husband. These are still things I want to dedicate my life to, but being a part of the WSSS program, for the first time I could think about being a great engineer or policymaker. I’m now hoping to make a big difference in the world in my vocation, as well as in my personal life. Making policy around water that could affect millions of people around the world – many of them poor – and cause them to have a better experience with their health and their well-being? I could do that. I never envisioned myself getting a PhD in anything before Paul Kirshen and WSSS. I think if I went to Stanford or MIT or Minnesota or any of the places I was looking at before, I wouldn’t have made it – I don’t think I would’ve had the vision. Now I feel like I can actually make a huge difference in the world through engineering, and it’s just never something I dreamed of before this program. In six short months I’ll be Dr. Ray!

LM: If WSSS were a Jelly Belly, what flavor would it be?
PR: Tutti-Frutti!




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The Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) program is a graduate research and education program that provides Tufts students with interdisciplinary perspectives and tools to manage water-related problems around the world.

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