The official logo of ESE's Centennial celebration

A message from the Chair, Dr. Barbara Turpin

Environmental Sciences and Engineering: A century of environmental solutions to public health problems and a commitment to build public health resilience to climate and environmental change

While I write this message, I am sheltering in place to help slow the spread of a deadly virus and writing interdisciplinary proposals to better understand its environmental transmission. This work is uniquely possible at a place like Gillings, where engineering, science and public health are found together, and where health equity has always been a central part of our mission.

Read more.

Increasingly, the faculty and students of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) are responding to, planning for, and working to mitigate new and evolving public health threats – that oftentimes have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Some of these threats include viruses transported by airborne particles, hazardous agents in contaminated floodwaters, antibiotic resistance, air pollution exposures from drought-enabled wildfires, changes in water availability in low-income countries, extreme weather-impacts on the financial health of local water districts and exposures to legacy and emerging contaminants.

Climate change will drive future challenges.  As we approach ESE’s centennial, we celebrate tremendous environmental achievements and recognize the urgent need to mitigate and respond to the pressing challenges posed by global change.  WHO lists climate change as the #1 threat to global health in 2019; environmental change is an important driver of WHO’s top five identified threats.  Notably, public health protection is central to all five pressing challenges identified in the National Academies (NRC) report on Environmental Engineering for the 21st Century.  The projected impacts of climate change and antibiotic resistance on human health are expected to be particularly widespread and severe.  Climate change brings droughts, floods, heatwaves and extreme weather events, which in turn impact air pollution, water availability and quality, toxic releases, food and nutrition, infectious and non-communicable diseases, and will increase migration and conflict pressure and exacerbate health inequities.

We will need integrated and holistic solutions.  If anything, the past decade has shown that stove-piped responses will not deliver the long-term, sustainable results we need.  Engineering solutions to household water service provision, for example, must be done within the broader context of a one-health approach to providing a disease-free living environment if we are to meaningfully reduce water-related diseases.  As environmental scientists and engineers located within the top public school of public health, ESE is ideally positioned to provide holistic, intersectoral responses to mitigate and prepare for the pressing environmental challenges (e.g., by characterizing susceptible populations, characterizing and prioritizing health risks, examining energy policy options with co-benefits for health, engaging communities to improve resilience, and designing next-generation technologies). Thus, on the occasion of our centennial, while we celebrate a century of environmental solutions to public health problems, we affirm our commitment to build public health resilience to climate and environmental change.

ESE – a history of leadership. Our work today builds on ESE’s long tradition of local and global impact.  We are the nation’s first engineering department in a school of public health.  We enrolled our first Sanitary Engineering master’s student, Roy Jay Morton, under Thorndike Saville in the fall of 1920, when there was a pronounced need to improve water safety in the towns and cities of North Carolina. ESE was a founding department of UNC’s School of Public Health (1940) under Herman Baity.  Within the first 50 years of our history, international aid organizations were sending students from several continents to be educated by the department, and an estimated 25% of graduates were addressing water and sanitation challenges in international health organizations and foreign governments, including African and Latin American countries (based on a survey of graduates in 1971).  Three of the first four Directors of Environmental Health at the World Health Organization were our alumni. Under the leadership of Dan Okun (1955-1973) and continuing under Russell Christman (1973-1989), ESE became a truly interdisciplinary department, providing a quantitative education in environmental sciences and engineering, with substantial faculty expertise spanning sciences, engineering, management and policy domains in air, water and industrial hygiene.  The department’s current name was adopted in 1962 and William Glaze (1989-1997) added faculty in the health sciences.

Building the next generation of leaders.  Today, ESE has over 2000 practicing alumni.  Our graduates take with them an integrated, interdisciplinary, quantitative, mechanistic education that links health risks back to sources.  They are engaged in efforts to improve environmental quality locally and globally, including through technological innovation, effective environmental policies, research and community engagement.  We have an internationally recognized faculty in air pollution, environmental health sciences, climate change and health, global water policy, infectious disease and microbiology, environmental chemistry, transport, and engineering.  We are home to UNC’s Water InstituteCenter on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems, the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions, and participate in UNC’s strong university-wide environmental and climate change communities.  Since its founding, the Gillings School of Global Public Health has been a consistent advocate for health equity locally and globally.

We are particularly proud of our students and alumni and plan to share their stories over the course of ESE’s centennial year.  For this, we need your help.  Send us your stories and your successes through the link below.  Help us make you part of our history!

We hope you will join us for the Centennial kick-off in fall 2020 and our main celebration on April 5-9, 2021.  Please check back in for centennial celebration details, and update your contact information.  See you there!

Barbara J Turpin

ESE Centennial Symposium

Come help us celebrate in person! The UNC Gillings Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering is hosting a Centennial Symposium and tailgating event on Homecoming weekend:

November 5–6, in person, on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus

  • November 5: We will hold the Centennial Symposium in Honor of Philip C. Singer, with a special dedication to Michael D. Aitken. Events will include an ESE Distinguished Alumni Award presentation and an L&L with the Distinguished Alum at the Carolina Brewery.
  • November 6: Tailgate with us at the UNC vs Wake Forest football game. If you’d like to attend the football game, purchase your tickets now before they’re sold out! (Attending the game is optional.) Because it will be a crowded Homecoming weekend, you will want to arrange accommodations as early as possible.

Help ESE celebrate 100 years of providing environmental solutions to the greatest public health challenges!

Michael D. Aitken and Philip C. Singer

Michael D. Aitken (left) and Philip C. Singer (right)

The Centennial Symposium celebrates the legacy of the late Dr. Philip C. Singer, a member of the School’s faculty from 1973 to 2011, a nationally renowned expert in water-quality issues and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. The Symposium will include a special dedication to the late Dr. Michael Aitken, who is remembered as a respected leader, scientist, mentor, teacher, advocate and ambassador.

Register Online.

Visit the Philip C. Singer Symposium page to view the full schedule.

Centennial Celebration Keynote Lecture

Gary White flyer

Select the image to download the flyer (PDF).

Gary White (’94), CEO and co-founder of and WaterEquity presented, “Why Water Action Must Be Part of Climate Action.” Read about ESE Alumnus Gary White in The Pivot.

View the keynote lecture recording (Watch on Youtube).

Past Seminars

March 4, 2021
A Road Trip Extended: Fingerprinting Chemicals in the Air from the UNC Smog Chamber to Chinese Megacities (Watch on YouTube.)
Jian Zhen Yu (PhD, 1996), professor in the Department of Chemistry & Division of Environment, director of the Environmental Central Facility, and director of the Atmospheric Research Center at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)

February 12, 2021
The Perils of PFAS (Watch on YouTube.)
Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., A.T.S., former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP)
View Presentation Slides (PDF)

January 21, 2021
Weather Risk and the Grid (Watch on YouTube.)
Jordan Kern, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, College of Natural Resources, North Carolina State University

December 10, 2020
Solutions for Environmental Health Protection Developed through the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (Watch on YouTube.)
William Suk, PhD, MPH, director of both the Center for Risk and Integrated Sciences (CRIS), and the Superfund Research Program, as well as the chief of the Hazardous Substances Research Branch in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training

November 10, 2020
Resilience at the Water-Food-Energy Nexus: New Challenges and New Solutions (Watch on YouTube.)
Dr. Lanakila “Ku” McMahan, team lead for Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development at the United States Agency for International Development

October 1, 2020
The Circle Game: Evaluating a Half Century of U.S. Programs for Criteria Air Pollutants (Watch on YouTube.)
John Bachmann, Former Associate Director for Science Policy and New Programs
EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards in Research Triangle Park, NC

September 3, 2020
Environmental Justice in North Carolina (Watch on YouTube.)
Chandra Taylor, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center
Adjunct Professor, UNC School of Law

August 18, 2020
The Environment: Saving Ourselves from Ourselves (Watch on YouTube.)
View presentation slides (PDF)
Dan Costa, PhD, ESE Adjunct Professor
Former National Research Program Director for Air, Climate and Energy Research Program
US Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), Research Triangle Park (RTP)

Celebrating Student and Alumni Stories

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, we asked students and alumni to share stories about how their involvement in the program made an impact on their education and careers. Each month we will be highlighting a student and an alumnus who are connected by a shared experience while studying at UNC.
More stories can be found on the Celebrating Student and Alumni Stories page.

Holly Haflich

Holly Haflich

Holly Haflich (PhD student)

I decided to apply to UNC because I wanted to work for Dr. Orlando Coronell. I am interested in the application of membranes for water desalination and resource recovery, and I was encouraged by my friends and mentors to branch out and go somewhere different to pursue a doctoral degree. I am very happy I came here, because I love the area and really enjoy working in this lab group.

The lab group I work in is a very collaborative environment. My lab mates are always willing and happy to help each other. I enjoy working with people who are so passionate about their research, and the work people do across the department is quite diverse. It is great to have the opportunity to learn from scientists with many different types of research.

I am passionate about developing solutions for water treatment and finding ways to reuse waste products, and I am confident that what I learned from my colleagues and mentors at UNC will help me to find the right fit for my future career. Once I graduate, I would like to come back to UNC to help mentor graduate students. I think is important to spend time helping the next generation of scientists and engineers find the right fit for them and encourage them to be excited about the field of environmental engineering.

Dr. Ryan Kingsbury

Dr. Ryan Kingsbury

Ryan Kingsbury (’10 MSEE, ’19 PhD)

As an undergraduate, I became very interested in water treatment engineering. I loved the challenge of combining physics, chemistry and biology into engineered processes. When I decided to apply to graduate school, Dr. Desmond Lawler, an alumnus from the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) and an influential mentor, directed me toward ESE for my master’s degree.

I had a great experience working with Dr. Phil Singer during my master’s program and stayed in the Triangle area after graduating. Later, I began collaborating with Dr. Orlando Coronell on a project that ultimately became my doctoral research.

I took a somewhat unconventional path through graduate school – to industry, to a startup and back to graduate school before landing in my current role at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. My time as a master’s student gave me the foundational research skills and planted the seeds of curiosity that later enabled me to transition from a practicing engineer to a scientist. My experience in industry before returning to UNC helped me appreciate how scientific research fits into the bigger picture of solving environmental problems. Ultimately, seeing our field from both an industrial and an academic perspective helped me clarify the direction I wanted my career to take.

I was blessed with an exceptional group of fun and supportive lab mates who each inspired and challenged me in a unique way. The fellowship we shared – from stimulating research discussions to casual banter in the lab, potluck dinners and even traveling to Poland for a wedding – was unquestionably the highlight of my time at UNC.

The work that ESE is doing is more important than ever. Climate change is unquestionably the defining environmental issue of our time, and one that will continue to have myriad effects on public health for at least a century. We must understand how changes in the natural and built environments affect the quality of our air, water and soil, and develop ways to protect human health in the midst of those changes.

We Want to Hear from You

Please send us your stories and more by completing our Centennial Survey.
Submit your ESE photos here.

Please check back for more information on future in-person events, the ESE Centennial History book and more student and alumni features.

Please help us keep in touch with you by completing your information here.

Be sure to follow our Centennial Celebration Facebook event.
ESE Alumni: Join the UNC ESE Alumni Private Facebook Group and connect with your colleagues.

Questions? Email


Contact your Academic Coordinator.
Assistant to Chair: Rhoda Cerny
Looking for someone else?

135 Dauer Drive
166 Rosenau Hall, CB #7431
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7431
(919) 966-1171