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Harold Walker

BeLocal winners from left, Yuxin Xia, Luke Papazian, Manuela Corcho, Johnny Donza and their thesis advisor Harold Walker. File photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Yuxin Xia and Johnny Donza

Johnny Donza wants to use the training he’s received as an engineering undergraduate at Stony Brook University to help people 8,600 miles and another continent away in Madagascar.

The group leader of a senior project, Donza is working with Yuxin Xia, Luke Papazian and Manuela Corcho to design and hopefully help build a bridge that will cross a stream on the outskirts of the village of Mandrivany. People living in that village had been walking across a log that has broken to buy and sell food or get to a hospital.

“I wanted to be involved in something that would make an impact,” said Donza, who is studying civil engineering with a concentration in structural engineering. This project presented an opportunity to help “people on the opposite side of the world. I thought that was pretty cool.”

Donza’s project is one of 15 senior design efforts that arose from a collaboration between Stony Brook and a group called BeLocal. The company sent Stony Brook graduates Acacia Leakey and Leila Esmailzada to collect video footage this summer in Madagascar. They hoped to return with the kind of information about the needs and resources of the people they met.

“These projects create the perfect opportunity for students to manage a real engineering project,” Harold Walker, professor and chair of the Department of Civil Engineering, explained in an email. Walker is Donza’s senior advisor on the project. “The experience the students have with these projects will be invaluable as they start their engineering careers.”

Acacia Leakey, on left

Walker said he initially expected to have one team of four to five students work with BeLocal in Civil Engineering. Instead, 13 students signed up. Walker spoke with Leakey and they decided to divide the students into three teams, each of which is working on different types of bridges. “If the bridge design can be implemented locally in Madagascar, this will improve the safety of river crossings and also provide the community [with] greater access to education and other opportunities,” he continued. “A bridge may seem like a simple thing but it can really be transformative.”

In addition to the bridge project Donza and his teammates are developing, Stony Brook teams are working on projects including rice storage, rat control, rice processing and briquette manufacturing.

Eric Bergerson, one of the three founders of BeLocal along with Mickie and Jeff Nagel of Laurel Hollow, said the group was thrilled with the range and scope of the projects. The response is “overwhelming,” Bergerson said, and “we couldn’t be happier.” Bergerson is the director of research at the social data intelligence company TickerTags.

For their project, Donza’s group is exploring the use of bamboo to create the bridge. “Deforestation in the region is a major problem,” which reduces the ability to find and use hardwood, Donza said. “Bamboo grows rampantly, so there’s plenty of bamboo we can use.”

To gather information about the structural details about this material, Donza and his team are testing bamboo they harvested from the Stony Brook campus. Leakey, who is earning her master’s at SBU after she did a Madagascar senior design project last year, said using bamboo creates a useful supply chain. “It’s such a sustainable resource,” said Leakey, who speaks regularly with Donza and other project managers who are seeking additional information about how to use local resources to meet a demonstrated need in Madagascar.

The Stony Brook team is working to model its structure after the Rainbow Bridge, which is an ancient Chinese bridge. The Rainbow Bridge has a longer span and has a more exaggerated arch than the one Donza and his classmates are designing. The group plans to build a structure that will hold several people at the same time. During monsoon season, the stream below the bridge also floods. The design may need to include nails or bolts, creating a durable, longer-lasting bond between pieces of bamboo.

The team is also waiting to collect information about the soil around the stream, so they know what kind of foundation they can construct. In their design, they are trying to account for a likely increase in the population and future windy conditions.

Donza said he and his team are excited to make a meaningful contribution to life in Madagascar. “We’re not just doing this to graduate,” he said. “We’re doing this because we have a chance to help people. They need this bridge.”

Leila Esmailzada

The BeLocal approach to the collaborations with Stony Brook involves learning what people need by observing and interacting with them, rather than by imposing expectations based on experiences elsewhere. Esmailzada said they spoke with women about various materials because women were the ones using the charcoal and firewood.

At some point, BeLocal may also foster an exchange that allows students from Madagascar to come to Stony Brook to learn from their American counterparts while also sharing first-hand information about what might work in Madagascar. “It’d be great if we could get people to come” to Stony Brook, Bergerson said. “We’re just developing relationships with universities now.”

Leakey said Stony Brook students have shown genuine interest in life in Madagascar and, as a result, have found some surprises. People across various disciplines assume incorrectly that developing nations progress along the same technological path that America did, which leads them to the inaccurate expectation that Madagascar is 100 years behind the United States. When engineering students learned that “people in Madagascar have smartphones” with Twitter and Facebook accounts, “their jaws fall. It’s important to recognize that so you can realize it isn’t a simple story that you’re innovating for and that there is this mixture of technology that’s familiar in a lifestyle that’s unfamiliar.”

Even while these projects are still in the formative stages, with students continuing to gather information and refine their projects, Walker suggested they have already provided value to engineering students. “The students have already learned a great deal,” Walker explained. They appreciate how their classroom skills “can really transform the lives of people across the world.”

Dr. Hal Walker, co-director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology, speaks during a symposium at Stony Brook University Thursday, June 23, 2016. Photo by Barry Sloan

By Daniel Dunaief

Water, water everywhere and Harold “Hal” Walker is making sure there’s more than a few drops on Long Island to drink. The head of the new Department of Civil Engineering at Stony Brook is one of two co-directors of the Center for Clean Water Technology. The center received a $5 million commitment from New York State to pilot test a variety of ways to remove contaminants from drinking water.

“The center will be working with water authorities and water utilities to do pilot testing of new technology to deal with emerging contaminants,” Walker said. “One goal of the testing will be to collect information needed to assess new technologies and, if they are effective, to get them approved so they can be used by water utilities.”

Contaminants the center will explore include 1,4-dioxane and perfluorinated compounds, which have “turned up in some regions of Long Island,” Christopher Gobler, the co-director of the center and an associate dean for research and professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, explained in an email.

’One lesson we have learned is that it is critically important to protect the environment, since the environment serves as a natural buffer to these large storms.’ — Harold Walker

The technologies the center will test likely include novel membrane processes, advanced oxidation, novel absorbents and advanced oxidation processes. The center will explore “how these compounds are removed in conventional drinking water treatments processes,” Walker said. “If they are not removed sufficiently, what do novel technologies use and are they ready for the pilot stage?” Walker acknowledges that staying ahead of the curve in being prepared to protect drinking water requires an awareness of numerous new compounds that are a part of modern manufacturing.

Gobler said the center’s findings would be made public. New York State had previously committed $3.5 million from the Environmental Protection Fund to support the center. With an additional $5 million in funding, the center will develop new technologies to improve drinking water and wastewater quality on Long Island, according to the State Department of Environmental Protection.

The center was formed originally to focus on innovative alternative individual onsite treatment systems for reduction of nitrogen and pathogens. That was broadened this year to focus on the impact of emerging contaminants on water supplies, a representative from the DEC explained in an email.

Walker has built an expertise in developing and applying membrane processes for drinking and wastewater. At Ohio State University, where he worked from 1996 until 2012, when he came to Stony Brook, he spent considerable time analyzing drinking water in the Great Lakes. Gobler appreciates Walker’s expertise.“

He has worked with many federal and state agencies on these topics across the United States,” Gobler explained. “He is also well-versed in wastewater treatment technologies.”

Jennifer Garvey, the associate director for the center, meets with Garvey and Walker at least once a week. She also connects weekly for a call or meeting to discuss administrative and strategic issues. Walker is “at the leading edge of water treatment approaches and he understands where opportunities and obstacles lie,” Garvey said. The center has a sense of urgency about the work because “there is such a clear and immense need for wastewater infrastructure improvements,” she continued. The targeted and strategic work emphasizes near-term solutions. A leading focus is a nonproprietary passive system known as a nitrogen removing biofilter that they will be piloting in Suffolk County soon. “Our hope is that we can make systems available for widespread deployment within the next two to three years,” she said.

Apart from his work at the center, which Walker estimates takes about a third of his time, he is also a professor and the founding chair of the Department of Civil Engineering, which conferred bachelor’s degrees on its inaugural 13 undergraduate students this summer. Those students have all found engineering jobs within their field of interest or continued to pursue additional schooling. The civil engineering department has 10 faculty and is at the end of the first phase of its growth and development, Walker said.

Phase II will include building out the faculty and staff, developing new research and teaching labs and enhancing the recently approved master’s of science and doctoral programs in civil engineering, Walker explained. Resiliency of the coastal communities is a major thrust of his department. He said he recently hired a number of faculty in this area and launched an Advanced Graduate Certificate in Coastal Zone Management and Engineering in partnership with the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “One lesson we have learned is that it is critically important to protect the environment, since the environment serves as a natural buffer to these large storms,” he explained.

Apart from water and the resilience of the coastal community, the civil engineering department is also involved in transportation. The department works with Farmingdale State College in a new Infrastructure, Transportation and Security Center. In that effort, the department collaborates with the Department of Computer Science, among others at Stony Brook, to bring new approaches to “improving the efficiency, sustainability and safety of our transportation system.”

For his part, Gobler welcomes the talent and expertise the civil engineering department brings to Stony Brook. “This is a tremendous asset” for Stony Brook, Gobler explained in an email. “Civil engineers solve complex problems and I have found that [Walker] and the people he has hired have the skill set and mind-set to address many environmental problems that are important on Long Island.

A resident of Port Jefferson, Walker lives with his wife Alyssa, who is a writer, and their three children, Abby, 14, Halliway, six, and Northie, who is five. They enjoy visiting the beach and traveling east to go apple and pumpkin picking. A native of Southern California, Walker started surfing at the age of 10. He was a four-year varsity letterman in surfing when he was in high school. He has surfed in Hawaii, Costa Rica, Japan, Portugal and Mexico.

As for the department, he said he feels excited by the responsibility for building only the second civil engineering program in the SUNY system. “I’d like the department to quickly become nationally recognized and be the leading source of expertise for the state on infrastructure issues, especially in the downstate area,” he said.

An expert panel at Stony Brook University discusses environmental issues facing Long Island. Photo by Talia Amorosano

By Talia Amorosano

After a month of increased algal blooms, reduced water quality and two of the most severe fish kills the county has ever experienced, Long Island scientists and officials have decided it is past time — yet about time — to address the issue of harmful nitrogen pollution in our waterways.

Hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, a forum on water pollution in Suffolk County was held at Stony Brook University’s Charles B. Wang Center on June 23 to identify the core causes of nitrogen pollution and brainstorm functional, cost-effective technological solutions.

In his welcome address, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) emphasized the gravity of the problem.

“This problem wasn’t created overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight,” he said. “Big challenges like this won’t be solved in election cycles.”

But he has noticed signs of progress.

“To see this group all coming together, saying we’re going to work to solve this problem, gives me great hope and optimism that we have actually turned the corner and we are now on the road to addressing our water quality issues in a real way.”

At the forefront of the technical and technological sides of this progress are panelists Walter Dawydiak, director of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; Amanda Ludlow, a scientist at Roux Associates Inc.; Theresa McGovern, a water resources engineer at VHB; and Harold Walker, a professor of Mechanical and Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University.

Dawydiak identified unsewered septic flow as the main source of the nitrogen problem.

“Nitrogen, which we expected to level off, is not leveling off,” he said.

He noted that 85 percent of unsewered septic flow originates in residential areas.

“The elephant in the room is us.”

He said a change in health department standards for residential wastewater treatment — for the first time in 40 years — could mitigate the problem by regulating the installation, operation, and maintenance of septic systems. He referred to this proposed set of regulations as an example of policy driving the technology to where it needs to be.

“We need better technology in this area,” Walker said. “If we’re going to solve this problem, we need to expand the tool box that we have available. … We need to think about systems operating effectively for as long as possible, with little or no maintenance. That’s the challenge.”

Ludlow agreed, and emphasized the importance of implementing systems that treat nitrogen and other pollutants, like pharmaceuticals and hormones, on the 360,000 homes running on old systems: “Focus on technologies that affect all the constituents in our wastewater.”

McGovern said that a holistic yet specific approach to wastewater management would make improvements possible.

“We need to be consistent and science-based with the targets, yet still allow some flexibility,” she said. She suggested setting a universal — instead of concentration-based — limit on the amount of nitrogen allowed to remain in wastewater, while allowing households that consistently perform under that limit increased wastewater flow.

Of course, new technologies and oversight costs money. During the second panel discussion on funding proposals, Suffolk County Planning Commission co-chair David Calone suggested using Hurricane Sandy recovery funds to improve storm-water drainage and prevent sewage from entering waterways.

Dorian Dale, director of sustainability and chief recovery officer for Suffolk County, noted that, though the $16 million of Sandy relief money would cover some of the cost for improvements, it could not provide the minimum $8 billion necessary to replace 360,000 septic systems.

He said changing the tax on drinking water from a base price to one that reflects household usage could help close the gap.

Calone brought up the possibility of reaching out for federal funding and increasing the cap on private activity bonds to spur work on water quality issues.

“Involving the private sector is where we’ve shown a lot of leadership on Long Island,” said Anna Throne-Holst, Southampton Town supervisor. “It has to be a public/private partnership.”

The panelists were optimistic about the county’s ability to undertake the project.

“The last sewer project, 40 years ago, was rife with cesspool corruption,” Dale said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to have time for the shenanigans of the past.”

Throne-Holst expressed her faith that the public will remain informed and engaged on this issue.

“The public education process is well underway,” she said. “People are well aware of what a crisis this is.”