New center to facilitate collaborations for research on water

Peter Kotecki, Development and Recruitment Editor

Although water covers about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, the scarcity of fresh water has led researchers to focus on developing efficient ways of using this limited natural resource.

On Monday, the University publicly announced the creation of the Northwestern Center for Water Research, following months of behind-the-scenes work since the center’s founding in September 2015.

McCormick Prof. Aaron Packman, the center’s director, said the goal of the center is to connect members of the NU community who are interested in water research and create new opportunities for faculty and students in this area. Scientists at the center will conduct research on various water-related problems, including global water crises and developing better models for water systems, he said.

The center embodies what Packman calls the “defining feature” of NU — interdisciplinarity, or the collaboration between different academic departments at the university.

Noting a tremendous intellectual knowledge base at NU, Packman said the number of scientists researching water at NU has increased over the last few years. The center will finally facilitate interactions between members of different departments, he said.

“Interdisciplinarity comes up a lot at Northwestern because some of our most significant work occurs at the intersections of various disciplines,” said Jay Walsh, vice president for research. “The center will allow us to take the components that we have worked on in the past and bring those people together so that we can have a better focus, and a more impactful focus, on the issues related to freshwater.”

Walsh said the center will bring together faculty in science, engineering, law and medicine. Research at the center will also tackle geopolitical factors related to water use, he said.

At the Pritzker School of Law, for example, faculty are working on legal issues related to energy use, which are integrally linked to water, Walsh said.

“It’s fairly common in some places to separate the fresh water from the salt water, and that requires energy, so there is an energy component to this problem as well,” he said.

Additionally, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched the Current initiative this week, which will connect universities with businesses in the water industry across the Chicago area, Packman said. The Northwestern Center for Water Research will be part of the initiative.

The center will also partner with several NU organizations in its efforts to make advances in water science. According to a NU news release, the center will work with the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering, the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern and the Pritzker School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Center.

Pete Beckman, co-director of the Northwestern-Argonne Institute for Science and Engineering, said Argonne National Laboratory is a multidisciplinary science laboratory that addresses challenges in the areas of transportation, climate, efficient fuels and water.

The laboratory includes research projects that overlap with research done at NU, he said. Scientists’ work at Argonne includes researching water transportation and working on climate and weather modeling, he said.

“Bringing together the laboratory’s capabilities along with Northwestern gives us a unique set of skills and research interests that we can plug together and do better science,” Beckman said.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @peterkotecki