When university officials were first working to stay ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, Birthe Kjellerup used an innovative method to predict the virus’s spread. She and postdoctoral researcher Devrim Kaya analyzed twice weekly samples from the university’s wastewater system to determine whether the campus population was shedding the virus, which could begin before they experienced symptoms—signaling an early alert to a potential outbreak.

The interdisciplinary collaboration showed that wastewater monitoring could be used to track COVID, and perhaps other public health threats such as E. coli or salmonella. A study detailing the effort was selected for the 2022 Water Environment Research Outstanding Paper award.

“I’m trying to think about how I can use my education and skills to help Maryland and people in general,” says Kjellerup, an associate professor in UMD’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We’re not doing this for fame. We’re doing it to help, because we have expertise that we can offer.”

Talk about the interdisciplinary aspect of engineering.
It is my view that engineering is for the people. You, as an engineer, need to request input from whomever you’re trying to solve a problem for otherwise, you won’t have the information you need to solve that problem in a sustainable, and relevant, way. It’s so important to talk with stakeholders, users, and other disciplines so we can get it right for the people and communities engineering is meant to serve.
What do you see as the next big challenge in civil and environmental engineering?
I have, for a number of years, been grappling with what climate change means for engineers, particularly environmental engineers. We have a lot of tools and skills that can be a part of the solution—I’m always thinking about how we can integrate technological advances and an interdisciplinary, international focus.

How will Zupnik Hall enable you to address big challenges like climate change?
I’m looking forward to having space for everyone to work on these problems. If a student is interested in making something outside class, or participating in a competition or otherwise applying their learning, there will be space for that in Zupnik Hall. I hope that will encourage more students to get involved in the department; with the number of engineering problems we’re facing, we need everyone’s perspective and effort. We need some inspiration. We need some creativity. That’s exactly what the students bring.
You became the department’s chair for diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2020. What are your goals in this role?
To feed the students, to get them inspired. They don’t just want an education; they want professional development, to see how they fit in and how they can help. Our committee hosts seminar talks every semester; it’s inspiring for the students to see speakers who are doing what they aspire to. I’m aiming to do more of that.
I’m also trying to get my students to think about their own work. For example, in academic research, it’s very important who you cite. Last summer, each of my research students went through an exercise of identifying who is cited in their research and, more importantly, who is left out. It has been eye-opening. We can change our behaviors and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of effort; it’s going to be less effort when you know how to do it. If you have a diverse research lab, you have more capacity; different people can bring different perspectives to the table. You’ll have so many more aspects covered—and it’s also a whole lot more fun.


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