Collective giving effort keeps star prof on board
The offer was expansive: a chance to join the leadership of a new center for environmental technology in a brand-new building and a brand-new lab, collaboration with one of the leaders in the field of environmental engineering, and a chance to work in a state—Arizona—with huge support for public education. Perks, in other words, that Madison couldn’t afford to offer Dan Noguera, then an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.
That was 2005, and Noguera, an award-winning researcher focusing on drinking-water quality and biological approaches to wastewater treatment, was tempted to say ‘yes’ to the Arizona State University
professorship. “It was a beautiful offer and a great research environment,” he says. “The topics I could investigate were cutting-edge.”
But Noguera wasn’t ready to leave Madison. He had just started two new research efforts, for one thing. And, he wanted to stay. He was attached to his university department and to the city of Madison.
As a father of young children, moving was the last thing he wanted. “Madison is a great place to raise a family, thinking about the quality of the school systems,” he says. “That made it very difficult to pack and go.”
And then-Chair Jeffrey Russell, now dean of the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies, didn’t want to see Noguera leave, either. “He’s an outstanding scholar and teacher,” Russell says. “He’s just exceptional. His idea of pushing water and wastewater treatment to a much higher, more scientific kind of pursuit is really what he’s about. He’s really pushing the boundaries of scientific tools and how those are applied to wastewater treatment.”
Noguera also is a vital member of the university community, playing roles in the shared governance of the college, and providing thoughtful insights during hiring processes. “He’s exceptional. He’s very smart,” says Russell. “He’ll listen to arguments; he’s always contributing to whatever we’re doing. I think our colleagues really appreciate that about him.”
Private giving provides much-desired flexibility
Russell knew additional funds would be one critical piece of giving Noguera something equivalent to his Arizona offer. In addition to offering Noguera new opportunities, Russell also sent out an SOS to civil and environmental engineering donors for help in securing discretionary funding for Noguera’s research. More than just a salary boost, discretionary funding is money a professor can spend on
essentially any research-related activity.
Russell says it’s not uncommon for widely published professors to look elsewhere in search of pay commensurate with that of their peer group. “Leading scholars and researchers will get opportunities elsewhere,” he says. “One of the things to keep them here is if we can provide discretionary funding to assist them.”
In that endeavor, outside assistance is necessary because the university’s baseline budget from the state doesn’t have room for extras that often are key to retaining quality faculty. “Relative to our peers in the Big Ten, we’re easily underpaying by 10 to 13 percent,” Russell says. “And the private schools can usually outmatch us in terms of salary and discretionary funding.”
Discretionary funding can make a difference for faculty, Noguera says, because unlike grants, it’s not tied to specific projects. In other words, faculty can use it for other investments, such as replacing equipment—something Noguera needed at the time—or hiring assistants. “Discretionary funding is useful if you’re trying to set up something new,” he says.
The money gives professors added flexibility to try research projects that could be either short-term or could pave the road for larger federal grants. It also gives additional freedom to explore new areas. “You have an idea; you need a student for six months,” says Noguera. “It’s a very unique situation that you can quickly set up if you have discretionary funding.”
Building on solid research ground
At the time of his offer, Noguera had just received a significant grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to work on methods for recovering hydrogen from photosynthetic organisms, working with Bacteriology Professor Tim Donohue. The pair were investigating ways to manipulate genes to encourage the organisms to produce more hydrogen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. The recovered hydrogen gas could be used for fuel cells or other industrial hydrogen uses.
While Donohue does the actual gene manipulation, Noguera’s expertise is on the modeling side; he maps out the thousands of reactions involved in photosynthesis and all the other metabolic processes, then identifies the possible pathways of hydrogen production, and how much hydrogen could be harvested during specific scenarios. “Industries create hydrogen from fossil fuels, so if you can have a renewable source and sunlight, you can produce this hydrogen directly at the site where it’s going to be used,” says Noguera.
That research is now coming to an end, but its result is several publications and a solid framework for other researchers to build upon. And in the meantime, Noguera and Donohue have begun looking at other processes involving photosynthesis that could be used to produce fatty acids and other precursor ingredients for making organic biofuels from renewable resources.
Noguera’s work in water treatment, in partnership with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Greg Harrington, was also a meaningful collaboration at the time of Noguera’s offer. In 1997, the pair began investigating what types of bacteria survive the disinfectant chlorine, which is added to water during treatment. Large cities, such as Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and some in the San Francisco Bay Area use chloramine, a combined form of chlorine and ammonia. But this molecule breaks down into chloride and ammonia, a food source for a group of nitrifying bacteria that can degrade the disinfectant, paving the way for more harmful bacteria to grow.
Ultimately, says Noguera, his research allows scientists to better identify which bacteria are growing in water-treatment systems and distribution pipes. In the process, he says, his research team found many new organisms not previously identified in water-treatment systems. “We have seen that there are very specific types of organisms that grow in the pipes,” Noguera says. “Even organisms that were unknown five years ago—now we know they are there.”
Still ahead, he says, is researching how to eliminate these organisms from the water and prevent them from growing in the pipes. He and Harrington have developed a microarray, a tool for detecting specific genes that allow them to identify the nitrifying bacteria. They use custom-designed DNA that attaches only to certain types of bacteria and then can test water for that piece of DNA. Their next goal is to detect any microorganism that could be present in water. “Technology has grown so fast that you can put millions of pieces of DNA in a microarray,” Noguera says.
A third Noguera research project helps the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. It’s a continuation of a partnership the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has maintained for decades. When the wastewater-treatment plant undergoes significant upgrades or has a major problem, Noguera steps in to consult. In the past two years, he has tested phosphorus removal as a means of reducing solid precipitates that clog the plant reactors’ pipes, motors and turbines. If the plant recovers phosphorus and ammonia from other parts of the treatment process, it not only minimizes the clogging problem, but also helps the district produce a marketable fertilizer.
In 2010, in recognition of the contributions he has made to the state economy in the water and wastewater industries, Noguera was named a Wisconsin Distinguished Professor, a UW System-wide honor for professors whose work interplays heavily with and contributes to the growth of Wisconsin industry.
Noguera says his drinking water research is one of the most exciting parts of his job. But even more, he enjoys his role as teacher and mentor. “What I’m most proud about is working with my students,
seeing them develop while they are here, and then go on to be really good professionals,” he says.
At a recent conference of graduate alumni, he was pleased to see that several of his more-than 30 former master’s and PhD students have professorships in the United States and in other countries such
as Korea, Turkey and Chile. And many others now are in leadership positions in the water and wastewater treatment industry.
Seeking and securing the margin of excellence
A large number of civil and environmental engineering alumni work for local firms, including Mortenson Construction, which donated considerably to the CEE departmental retention fund. Tom Gunkel, chief executive officer and president of the company, says he was happy to help out when he got the phone call from Russell. “He called and said, ‘I need your help in retaining Dan and I need your help advocating others to do the same,’” Gunkel says. “It was an easy decision. Jeff made it clear how important it was to the civil engineering program and for the program’s long-term success.”
Gunkel was one of a half-dozen industry and alumni donors who contributed thousands to the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty retention fund, which provided Noguera with the five years of discretionary funding that has enabled him to continue his work in Madison—rather than in Arizona.
Gunkel’s company hires dozens of civil engineering graduates every year. Gunkel says UW-Madison is a major contributor of those employees. Sixty of the company’s current engineers graduated from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We’ve gotten so many great graduates out of it,” he says. “Madison is always at the top of our list for key talent. When we’re hiring people, we’re thrilled with the way they’ve been prepared and the impact they have on our business.”
Gunkel also believes faculty continuity is vital to keeping engineering graduates excellent. “It’s the combination of faculty together producing this environment and creating high-impact engineers,” he says. “From the business point of view, it’s very important that key faculty are retained. They’re impacting these young men and women in a way that impacts us.”
Gunkel also is a UW-Madison alum, having graduated with a degree in construction administration. And as an alumnus, he values that faculty continuity in even other ways. “Students talk to each other,” he says. “When you have a key faculty member who’s a part of that culture, that often attracts new students and helps to retain students.”
He says alumni need to step up and help. “We were lucky coming up through our own programs to have excellent faculty,” he says. “I didn’t want to see that lost.”
And, Russell says, retaining faculty not only maintains the department culture, it saves the department both the turmoil and monetary cost of replacing them—which isn’t always possible, anyway. “Faculty are not being recruited away from us because they have potential—they’re being recruited because they’re major players in their field,” he says. “So not only is it very expensive to hire new faculty and get them going—there’s only one Dan. Our ability to retain Dan has been a very good department decision that we’re excited about. His impact on the department, college and profession continues to grow. I hope we have many, many more years of his contributions.”