Advancing water science where water matters most

New program director seeks out local collaboration to gain national visibility

For years, Krishna Pagilla lived and worked in Chicago, on the shores of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. When he moved to the University of Nevada, Reno, he found himself living in the driest state in the nation.

Krishna Pagilla

Krishna Pagilla joined the College in the fall of 2015 as professor of environmental engineering.

"One of the reasons I came here is that the water challenges are a lot more exciting,” he said. “They are really good opportunities to apply the science and engineering I have practiced. I have retooled my research focus using the same chemical/biological principles to go toward water deficit issues.”

Pagilla, an international expert on water treatment and sustainability, including the water-economy nexus, joined the University in 2015 as a professor and the new director of the environmental engineering program. He has lofty goals for the nationally ranked program, which has welcomed three new faculty members in recent years and also added a lab manager for the program this fall.

"We want to be among the leading programs in the country, and that is quite possible because we have very good faculty and we are focusing on things that are relevant for Nevada as well as the Southwest United States and similar regions around the world,” Pagilla said. “Water is one of the ten grand challenges in engineering, according to the National Academy of Engineering. So it’s a really exciting time. I’m really excited about the future.”

New environmental engineering lab expands research capability

This summer, the environmental engineering program opened a new teaching and research lab focused on molecular science and microbiology in water engineering. This biologically focused lab will complement the program’s existing chemistry-based lab for water science and engineering.

“We will be able to do very advanced analysis of different microorganisms that are in the water,” Pagilla said. “It will allow us to offer undergraduate students some research opportunities in this exciting biotechnology area. So we really will be able to do the full suite of things.”

The lab is one component in Pagilla’s plan to grow the environmental engineering program’s research profile, not only through faculty research but also by providing expanded opportunities for research at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

“We want to produce engineers who will go and practice, but we also want to produce engineers who will do research and go to graduate school,” he said. “That part really reflects a multiplier effect. We want to produce students who will go on to become part of the academic community, part of the research community, so they are doing it for the rest of their lives.”

Pagilla focusing on local partnerships to build environmental engineering program

Since arriving at the University last fall, Pagilla has focused on developing partnerships with regional water sector leaders from organizations including the City of Reno, the City of Sparks, Washoe County and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority.

“I’m not just coming here to fill a professor position. We really want to take the program and the College to a level where people will know what it stands for,” Pagilla said. “We want to be visible in the community. We want them to know that we are a resource.”

With that in mind, Pagilla is focused first on developing local partnerships where the University can serve the community. In turn, he believes those local projects can be used to provide visibility for the University and demonstrate expertise and experience when applying for national and international research grants.

“The local agencies have needs that can be converted into projects that we can use as leverage at the national level,” Pagilla said. “It’s easier when you are already doing something to be able to ask for more funding elsewhere. So that’s where the local partnerships are very useful for us.”

Currently, Pagilla is collaborating with University of Nevada, Reno alumnus Rick Warner on developing a mobile water treatment center that can be used around Nevada to demonstrate state-of-the-art water treatment technologies and provide public education about water resource issues. Warner, a senior engineer for Washoe County, graduated with a B.S. and M.S. in civil engineering and is president-elect of the Water Environment Federation, an international organization of water quality professionals.

Pagilla knows achieving his goals will require lots of collaboration. Researchers in the environmental engineering program have written collaborative proposals with other institutions, including state partners such as the Desert Research Institute and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as well as out-of-state collaborators like the University of New Mexico. Within the University, Pagilla is seeking collaborations within the College of Engineering as well as with researchers in the Colleges of Business, Science, and Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.

“It’s not single program, single investigator. Water science and engineering in particular is very interdisciplinary,” Pagilla said. “You can develop all the technological solutions, but if they are not relevant to society, they are not part of the integrated solution. Therefore we need to retool ourselves. We can’t just be working in the lab and producing papers.”

Washing away our water worries

Keith Dennett

Keith Dennett

Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Dennett’s research focuses on aspects of water treatment, including nutrient removal in wetland systems, arsenic removal in drinking water, optimizing physiochemical water treatment processes, and implementing erosion control systems that will minimize erosion, trap and retain sediments, and preserve and protect water quality.

Dennett also applies his expertise in water distribution and treatment systems to water supply in developing countries. He has participated as a faculty advisor, leading groups of students on more than 25 trips to places such as Brazil, Guatemala, Peru and Panama to help address local water supply and basic infrastructure issues.

David Hanigan

David Hanigan

Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Hanigan joined the University in 2016 as the newest member of the environmental engineering program. Hanigan’s research deals with the increasing impact humans are having on water quality and water supply. Employing environmental organic and inorganic chemistry and process-based water treatment, Hanigan aims to address water quality across the water cycle.

Currently, Hanigan is researching how chemicals such as pharmaceuticals and pesticides that enter the water supply impact both human health and the environment. Hanigan is also researching better ways to reuse and treat water to develop new sources of drinking water capable of sustaining a growing population.

Eric Marchand

Eric Marchand

Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Marchand’s research involves optimizing biological processes for the treatment of water and wastewater. His research projects include developing membrane bioreactor technologies, bioremediation of acid mine draining, novel water reuse strategies, microbial ecology in natural and engineering systems and biogeochemical reactions in the environment.

Marchand has also served as the faculty advisor to the University’s water treatment team, which competes in the ASCE-sponsored competition to design a water treatment system responding to a real-world scenario.

Yu Yang

Yu Yang

Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Yang is leading a major study on the carbon cycles in soil with a $650,000 grant from the Department of Energy. Yang wants to understand how carbon is processed in soil in order to more precisely determine its impact on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

“Our project is set to investigate the largely unknown link between soil-carbon stability and the redox chemical reactions of iron to improve our capability to model and predict the carbon cycles in natural ecosystems,” said Yang.

Yang is also studying the environmental fate and transport of emerging pollutants (carbon nanotube, polymers, and antibiotics), with support from USDA and industrial partners.