Gillings School News

Environmental sciences and engineering professorships usher in next century of interdisciplinary research, innovation

August 19, 2020

Jill Stewart

Dr. Jill Stewart

Dr. Greg Characklis

Dr. Greg Characklis

Appointments to two prestigious professorships in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) underscore the department’s 100-year tradition of local and global impact. Jill Stewart, PhD, has been named the Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, and Gregory Characklis, PhD, the W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor.

“Both appointments honor ESE’s long trajectory of important work in water engineering and science for public health protection — work that Phil made major contributions to,” said Barbara Turpin, PhD, professor and chair of the ESE department. “Jill and Greg are outstanding scholars, recognized internationally for their high-quality scholarship that makes a positive difference in the world.”

Dr. Philip Singer

Dr. Philip Singer

The Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professorship in Environmental Sciences and Engineering was established by alumni, colleagues, family and friends of the late Philip C. Singer, PhD, in recognition of his significant contributions to the field of drinking water quality and his dedication to connecting research, teaching and practice. The professorship that honors him supports a faculty member with expertise in the fields in which Singer led: environmental engineering, aquatic chemistry, drinking water treatment and bridging the gap between environmental sciences and engineering. Singer was also a passionate teacher and mentor — dedication that led to many of his students taking up positions of leadership in academia and practice.

Stewart explores links between ecosystems and human well-being. Her focus is on finding new ways to detect and monitor pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, in water. She is internationally recognized for her work on microbial source tracking for pollution control, and she conducts policy-relevant research assessing the risks of water-borne illness. Part of her interdisciplinary research has taken place in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, where she serves as deputy director for UNC’s Center for Galapagos Studies and the Galapagos Science Center. In this role, she leads faculty research directors from across campus in identifying critical research questions and investigating the complex interactions between people and the environment, helping preserve the Galapagos Islands for future generations.

Characklis, the inaugural holder of the Singer Professorship, knew that he would be vacating this position for the Kenan Professorship in January and had the opportunity to meet with Singer before he passed away in February. While such appointments are determined at the School level, he and Singer discussed potential candidates, and Singer expressed great enthusiasm for Stewart as the ideal choice.

“Dr. Stewart is one of ESE’s rising stars,” said Characklis. “She has built a thriving research program, won teaching awards, been lauded as a superior mentor to her students and contributed to building strong communities both within ESE and across her profession more broadly. In short, she has displayed all the characteristics that make her the perfect person to serve as the next Philip C. Singer Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering.”

Stewart, whose appointment officially began on August 1, expressed appreciation and admiration for Singer.

“I am truly honored to be named the next Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professor,” she said. “I hope to continue his legacy both in scholarship and in mentoring the next generation of water quality leaders. This honor is all the more meaningful because I understand that Phil endorsed the appointment. Phil welcomed me to the department as a junior professor. He was an excellent role model who shared words of encouragement and a good sense of humor. His vote of support means the world to me.”

Singer was an internationally renowned expert in water chemistry and drinking water treatment, and he received many honors during an extraordinary career of research, teaching and service. A member of the National Academy of Engineering, he authored more than 240 scientific articles and served as investigator on over 70 grants. More recently, he was asked to advise on the water supply crisis in Flint, Michigan, and served on the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, which searched for long-term solutions. Amidst all of this, he remained committed to mentoring future leaders, advising more than 100 graduate students. His work with UNC’s Drinking Water Research Center contributed to lowering society’s exposure to carcinogenic compounds in drinking water 50- to 100-fold.

“Phil was a giant in the field of water engineering,” said Turpin. “He was a dedicated mentor and he cared deeply about our department. The large number of students who contributed to the Singer Distinguished Professorship is a testament to the difference he made in so many people’s lives.”

The W. R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professorship is one of UNC’s University-wide awards and recognizes Characklis’ commitment to both his students and his novel research. Characklis is one of only a small number of people in the world who integrate engineering and economic principles to develop sustainable, systems-based solutions for water resource management, energy production and environmental financial risk management. His innovative work has helped water utilities, power companies and agricultural producers manage droughts, potentially saving them millions of dollars.

While a student at UNC, Kenan learned from professors who were devoted to teaching, and he admired their ability to instill a passion for their field in their students. Through the establishment of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, which has provided generous endowments for more than 85 professorships at East Coast institutions of higher learning, Kenan dedicated his legacy to providing that experience for others, calling education “the most cherished gift an individual can receive” in this bequest.

Characklis shares William R. Kenan Jr.’s focus on mentorship, taking pride in working closely with graduate students and junior colleagues in the conduct of his research. His former students bring their unique research skills to their own careers and are engaged in engineering, management and planning activities throughout academia, government and the private sector.

“I am thrilled for Greg to receive this appointment in recognition of his considerable contributions and achievements over more than 20 years of research,” said Stewart.

“Greg is an excellent choice for the W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professorship. He cares a great deal for his students, faculty colleagues and alumni. He works hard to connect people across campus, and he applies his creative energy to solving problems all over the country.”

“I am very honored to be named W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor,” said Characklis. “It is truly a testament to the wonderful graduate students and colleagues who I have had the good fortune to work with during my time at UNC. Having had the opportunity to collaborate with other recipients of this prestigious award in the past, including ESE’s own Dr. Mark Sobsey, makes this appointment even more meaningful. To be considered in the same breath as these very accomplished researchers is very humbling.”

UNC’s ESE department will celebrate its centennial in April 2021. The department is the first of its kind based in a school of public health, giving it a unique focus on the interface between people and the environment. Interdisciplinary programs – in air quality and atmospheric processes, human exposure and health effects, safe and sustainable water resources, climate change and One Health – draw on faculty expertise in the physical and life sciences, engineering and policy. Stewart and Characklis’ appointments to these prestigious professorships recognize and ensure the continuation of ESE’s excellence into the next century, when the issues its faculty explore will only become more urgent.

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