Article by Djuna Gulliver
Dr. Jeanne VanBriesen is the 2015 recipient of the ASCE Margaret Petersen Award for outstanding woman in environmental and water resources. The Margaret Petersen award was established in 2014 to honor Margaret S. Petersen, P.E., a pioneer in hydraulics and water resources engineering. It is awarded every year to outstanding female professionals in environmental and water resources.
Dr. VanBriesen is a professor in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. For over 15 years, Dr. VanBriesen has been teaching environmental engineering and conducting research on environmental systems. Her most recent research includes assessing the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional gas processes. She is also an expert on water sustainability, and has presented on the energy-water nexus at the Sustainability EXPOsed, Pittsburgh. She is the 2015 winner of the Carnegie Science Environmental Award for her outstanding science and technology achievements in Pittsburgh.
Jeanne demonstrates a passion for teaching and mentoring the next generation of engineers. She has given numerous lectures on education, and is active in various educational outreach programs. Jeanne took some time to discuss being an environmental engineering professor in Pittsburgh:
What does it mean to you to win the Margaret Petersen Award?
I am particularly honored to be selected for an award named for Margaret Petersen. Margaret Petersen became an engineer in a time when engineers were expanding their work into large-scale water resource challenges. She contributed to projects on the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, focused on flood control and water provision, and she wrote the book on River Engineering (1986). She was an engineering professor for almost two decades, known for her practical focus and her mentorship of students. To hear Margaret’s students talk about her influence on their professional and personal lives is deeply moving. It is impossible to say if her greatest influence was through her engineering work or through her investment in her students. To me, she embodies success: to touch the future through professional activities in engineering and personal commitment to the growth and development of young engineers. I aspire to have an impact like Margaret, and I hope my work and my life demonstrate my dedication to following her path.
Why is research in environmental systems important to you?
Environmental systems sustain us all. It is important that we continually deepen our understanding of how natural and engineered water systems interact to enable human society.
Why is teaching/advising the next generation of environmental engineers important to you?
It is only through the work of current and future generations of environmental engineers working together that we will solve the toughest problems. New engineers continually bring new ideas and approaches. It is a privilege to work with bright new thinkers who want to change the world.
Is mentoring future female engineers and researchers important to you?
Mentoring engineers of both genders is important to me. There continue to be challenges that are unique to underrepresented groups in our field, but there are many professional challenges that we all have in common. Senior engineers have an obligation to share what we’ve learned from experience with all our students and younger colleagues.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
My greatest contribution to our field has been through the training of my students and mentorship of my junior colleagues, with a focus on increasing the diversity of our profession. I have advised or co-advised 15 Ph.D. mentees to completion, 12 of whom were women. These students (now colleagues) have gone on to successful careers in academia, industry, consulting, and public service. I have advised 26 MS degree students (16 women), and 20 undergraduate research students (13 women), many of whom have worked with me alongside my Ph.D. students, providing the opportunity for these younger students to learn to do research, and for my Ph.D. students to learn to mentor.
What advice would you give to young engineers?
Don’t be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom and think of new ways to solve old problems. Dream big about how your work will change the world.
What do you enjoy most about being a Pittsburgh engineering professor?
Pittsburgh is a terrific place to be a water engineer. We have incredible water resources here, and we have many water challenges. Working as an engineering professor here enables me to study unique water systems and to use our water infrastructure challenges as a motivator for student research projects.
Jeanne VanBriesen holds a B.S. in Education from Northwestern University, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Northwestern University. She is also a licensed professional, and currently the director of CMU's Center for Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems, and a U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board member.