February 18, 2020

Dr. Philip Singer

Dr. Philip Singer

Philip Singer, PhD, was professor emeritus of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. A member of the School’s faculty from 1973 to 2011, he was a nationally renowned expert in water quality issues and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Dr. Singer passed away peacefully on Monday, February 17, following a December cancer diagnosis. He was surrounded by all his children, his sister and his wife, Ellen.

Dr. Singer joined the Gillings School in 1973.

Dr. Singer joined the Gillings School in 1973.

“Phil was a giant in the field of water engineering,” said Barbara Turpin, PhD, professor and chair in the Gillings School’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. “He was a dedicated mentor and he cared deeply about our department. One of the things that really impressed me was the large number of students who made a contribution to the Singer Distinguished Professorship in his name. It was a testament to the difference he made in so many people’s lives.”

Dr. Singer examines water samples.

Dr. Singer examines water samples.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Singer edited two books and authored more than 240 scientific articles; served as investigator on about 70 grants funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies; and mentored more than 100 master’s and doctoral students at the Gillings School.

He held the Daniel A. Okun Distinguished Professorship in environmental engineering from 2002 until his retirement, which capped 38 fruitful years at UNC. Upon his retirement, dozens of alumni, family and friends came together to establish the Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professorship in Environmental Sciences and Engineering. In 2016, Gregory Characklis, PhD, professor of environmental sciences and engineering and director of the Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems, was named to the professorship.

“Phil was an incredibly accomplished researcher, but what I will always remember about him is the time that he took to mentor and advise students and young faculty, including me,” Characklis said. “Building a sense of community was very important to Phil, and our department and School will continue to benefit from his efforts every day through the strong bonds that he built with alumni and colleagues, both throughout academia and in the professional world.”

"Research never ends."

“Research never ends.”

In recent years, Singer served on the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, which provided guidance on long-term solutions to the lead problem in Flint, Mich.

Earlier in his career, he directed UNC’s Drinking Water Research Center. His research primarily focused on minimizing human exposure to substances called disinfection by-products (DBPs), which are created when the chemicals used to disinfect water react with organic material. DBPs can cause cancer, and Singer was devoted to lowering DBP concentrations to keep communities safe.

Over the course of 35 years, “we [lowered] exposure to disinfection by-products 50- to 100-fold,” Singer told The Daily Tar Heel in 2009. Still, he wasn’t finished. He added that he planned to keep finding ways to make water safe for everyone, and concluded: “Research never ends.”

— Dr. Singer shared the story of his career in a video interview.

— Services for Dr. Singer will be held on Wednesday, February 19, at 10 a.m. at the Beth El Synagogue (1004 Watts Street, Durham) followed by burial at the Durham Hebrew Cemetery (located across from 840 Kent Street). His obituary is here.

— To make a donation to the Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professorship in Environmental Sciences and Engineering, please visit go.unc.edu/singer.

Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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