Dr. Bruce Berdanier to lead the School of Engineering

Dr. Bruce Berdanier to lead the School of Engineering

He’s a small-town guy with a global view, and Bruce Berdanier, Ph.D., formerly professor and department head of Civil and Environmental Engineering at South Dakota State University (SDSU), is bringing that fresh outlook with him as he takes the helm of the School of Engineering. Just after he arrived in Fairfield last July, he sat down with Fairfield University Magazine to talk about his research, his view for the School of Engineering, and the global outreach he plans to continue at Fairfield.

What sparked your desire to go into engineering?

I grew up on a river in Ohio and did a lot of fishing and swimming. The river was a big part of my life, and I knew I wanted to do something with water resources. In high school, I worked for a civil engineering firm, and realized there are so many areas you can go into with that degree. I focused on water resources engineering in my undergraduate years, then environmental engineering and hydrogeology for my master’s and Ph.D.

The major focus of my work over the last 10 years or so has been with metals in the environment, and specifically how these metals get into the surface water, and the interactions of various chemical compounds.

You are a civil engineer, yet Fairfield does not have a civil engineering program. Are there plans in the works to develop one?

My belief is that, at the undergraduate level, we should have very strong fundamental engineering programs — like electrical and mechanical. Typically, civil engineering would be part of that mix. Specialty areas should come in at the master’s level.

Creating a civil engineering program is a possibility, but we need to look at the demographics of the area first. If we have too many engineering programs, and if they are too small, our efforts become diffused. We must be clear about defining what our niche will be, and that takes more careful planning at the undergraduate level.

As dean, what will be your main focus in the next year or two?

Once our vision for the School of Engineering is defined, our initial focus will be to stabilize and grow our existing fundamental programs. Our secondary focus will be to build new programs that support our vision. I believe the School of Engineering will be more stable if our program populations are closer to 100 students for each program (doubling the current size in the undergraduate programs). We are seeing a large demand from students who want to study graduate engineering on a part-time basis. That means our faculty can offer more specialized course work at the graduate level.

Another really exciting aspect is the ongoing development of our five-year M.S. degrees. In the past, we had a five-year dual B.S./M.S. degree in software engineering. We just received approval for the five-year dual B.S./M.S. degree in computer and electrical engineering. We are also developing the five-year dual degree program for mechanical engineering and hope to be working through the approval process this year.

The school is initiating the process of moving to Bannow Science Center this summer. The move is fairly complex due to the need for offices and laboratory facilities, along with the intricacies of shifting the SOE computing systems, software, and servers to the space in Bannow and converting to the University network. The space in Bannow will give the SOE a new, modern space that we hope will be very marketable to young students coming into our undergraduate program.

Where do you see engineering education headed within the next ten years?

The National Academies of Engineering maintains a list of the top 10 problems of society that need to be addressed by engineers. Some of these topics (i.e. economical solar energy, health informatics, developing the tools of scientific discovery, cyber security, etc.) may make a lot sense for the SOE to think about this year as we develop our defining vision. Additional important areas (carbon sequestration, clean water access, nitrogen cycle, urban infrastructure, etc.) would require us to look at new directions in the future.

As a school of engineering in a Jesuit liberal arts institution, we have the unique opportunity to ask, “What are the pressing needs in our society?” We have a history of service to the world, and we have to leverage this unique aspect of who we are to potential students. I believe that we need to do a good job of enhancing student interest in engineering and science by letting them know the importance of these subjects in serving society. We also need to emphasize the collaborations of Fairfield scientists and engineers with policy makers and faculty working in other areas.

You have been involved in projects in Haiti. How did you come to be involved there? What were you doing?

I’ve been working in Haiti since 1995 at Hospital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) in Deschapelles. The hospital was built as a state-of-the-art hospital in the 1950s, but all of its environmental systems (sanitary sewer collection lines, wastewater and water treatment, etc.) were deteriorated or non-functional.

First, I completed an engineering feasibility study. Then, with funding from the Swiss government, HAS expanded and rebuilt the sanitary sewerage and water distribution pumps, created a chlorinated water treatment system, installed a new hospital incinerator, and rehabilitated the wastewater plant. We have worked with the HAS engineering group over the years to plan and develop the deep well water supply system for the hospital. I have also worked with the HAS community development group in the local communities to rebuild spring box collection and distribution systems for the local communities. In 2011 our family foundation planned and funded the construction of a reservoir for the community of Les Forges, which is adjacent to HAS.

I’ve taken a lot of students to Bolivia over the past three years as part of a national engineering development group called Engineers Without Borders. We have been working at a branch campus of the Catholic University of Bolivia called Unidad Academica Campesina in Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP). I have a five year commitment to them to study and build solutions to their environmental problems. The UAC-CP started in 1994 with about 50 students, and now they have about 700 students. They have no sanitation facilities in the community although the university has built some septic tank treatment systems for their buildings. The community people and the university students had quite a bit of stomach distress due to contaminated water. We just completed the installation of a chlorination system for the UAC-CP upper campus in December 2012. This summer, my wife Melinda and I traveled with two undergraduate mechanical engineering students from Fairfield and four undergraduate civil engineering students from South Dakota State University, and we began the design of a second chlorination system to serve the lower UAC-CP campus.

You also had a Fulbright Research Scholarship in Jordan. How did that come about?

In 2005, when I was teaching at Ohio Northern University, I wrote a proposal to do water quality research on the River Jordan. I worked with a team of researchers from Mutah University in Jordan that included a former graduate student, and my wife and two sons traveled with me to Jordan. We lived in Mutah for six months and never actually received permission to complete the study on the Jordan River due to access restrictions. The concentrations of organics, nutrients, metals, etc. are very high in this river, as all of the countries in the area capture all of the rainwater that they can. The water remaining in the Jordan River consists mostly of wastewater treatment plant effluent, saltwater springs, and irrigation return flows. We successfully collected dust samples from rural and urban areas, and analyzed metals concentrations in tree bark and lichen. Although we could not complete the direct study of the Jordan River, we were able to determine where the metals in the water were coming from. We ended up publishing five or six articles about that work.

It was a terrific six months. Melinda (a literacy specialist), and our two sons, who were in high school and college at the time, took a semester off to come along. Our younger son is very fair and had long, red hair at the time, so he attracted a bit of attention!

Your family made a major move from South Dakota to Fairfield. What has been the most challenging part of that move?

The traffic and I-95! It will certainly take some time for us to feel at ease in the traffic in and around Fairfield.

There’s a much faster pace of life here. Ohio, where I grew up, is fairly relaxed, and South Dakota is even more so. We’ve also downsized from a large house with a lot of acreage to a much smaller home on a suburban lot. Melinda and I really like our home in Fairfield, and we love traveling on the trains. We’ve gone into New York and made our way around on the subways. It has always been one of my dreams to live in or near a large city like New York, to utilize the public transportation, and to experience this style of life. We really feel blessed to have this opportunity to be part of Fairfield University, the Fairfield community, and the whole region.

I have wanted to try the deanship for an engineering school for a number of years, and we are really excited about the possibilities.