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Interview: Luis Garcia

Luis Garcia
(Photo: Sally McCay)

"A rainstorm is a beautiful event," says Luis Garcia. The UVM dean is speaking from experience, having seen firsthand the impact of drought on his family farm in Colombia, where, throughout his childhood, he troubleshot irrigation systems with his dad. It was an early exposure to problem-solving that would later spark a career in civil and environmental engineering.

That academic pursuit has brought him to many places challenged by a dry climate, from undergraduate studies in the hot subtropical climate at Texas A&M, to a doctorate in the semi-arid foothills at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and onto a distinguished career at Colorado State University where he rose to be the head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Integrated Decision Support Center at CSU’s Water Center.

In August, Garcia became dean of UVM's College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. While he's no longer living in a climate plagued with water scarcity, Garcia remains invested in the topic, which is of critical importance to much of the world, from the Colorado River Basin to Saudi Arabia. Still of particular interest to his work: water supply for food.

UVM Today spoke with Garcia to learn more about his research as well as his work as dean to equip and encourage a new generation of problem-solvers: UVM engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists.

UVM Today: What should we do about our nation’s growing water problems?

Luis Garcia: In the Colorado River Basin there are fifty million people—with over thirty million people that rely on the river for their water supply—and they're looking at unprecedented low-water levels. Where should the limited water go? That’s a very challenging dynamic because it puts people versus food. Do you take the water from agriculture? And if so, what happens to the breadbasket in California’s Central Valley?

We as a nation, and in regions, will have to find creative solutions. One place to look is toward more recycling of water. And we can be more efficient with our water with new technologies. Another interesting idea is called “virtual water" where people bring in or buy products that they previously needed water to produce.

An example: in Saudi Arabia they have agriculture that supports dairy. Some of their water — which is very limited because it's deep in the ground — is used for alfalfa to feed cows. The Saudis are looking to buy that alfalfa from Africa, because they want to protect their limited water. They want to pay somebody to ship it in to protect the limited water that they have, with the vision that that water may become more valuable in the future. That's virtual water.

Something else that might happen — that in the United States we’ve always been reluctant to think about — are long trans-basin transfers of water. But, in China they are moving water for whole cities something like 1,000 miles through canals and tunnels. Incredible! They have cities that are very water-short — and China's expanding rapidly. So, where we would not have thought about moving so much water, the Chinese, with a more centralized planning system, work on a scale that in the United States would be hard to understand or organize with our multiple states. It's a window into what happens in the globe on a much larger scale. It’s going to be a really interesting next decade or two as we come to a working understanding of what the new normal is.

In light of the coming “new normal,” what do you think an undergraduate student in engineering should know? And I realize this invites a hot-button question: to what extent should engineering education be informed by the humanities and to what extent is it a technical education?

I believe that an education, at the heart of it, is learning how to learn. So engineering is learning how to do problem-solving. Any technology that you learn now is likely going to be upgraded or obsolete in five to ten years. When I came out of school, computers were very limited. We had punch cards. If I had left my knowledge at that, I would've been obsolete shortly after leaving school. Now a lot of what I do is computer-based modeling.

My point is that what students really get out of an engineering education are problem-solving tools — to solve problems that we don't even yet know about. Some skills might stay current — perhaps lessons about statics and dynamics. But there are others that are going to change very fast and you need to be aware of that and upgrade your skill set. That's why I love engineering: it's more about getting a problem and coming at it with a creative solution. That’s the core of what we do.

If students can learn that by being exposed to philosophy or history, that's good. If you don't know history, you're bound to repeat the same mistakes. And I appreciate the fact that UVM — being a land-grant university — has a strong focus on the environment. Natural systems are very complex and having an understanding of the environment illuminates systems outside of pure engineering. I believe in students having a broad education because it helps you come up with a better solution. Sometimes if you are too technical, you miss the fact that solutions have to be holistic. I’m a firm believer in trying to expose students to more than just the technical. It's not necessarily the most technically sophisticated solution that wins — because it's part of a societal compromise.

That’s why the soft skills — writing skills, speaking skills, interpersonal skills, thinking out-of-the-box skills — are so important. Many parts of engineering and science are not prescribed processes.

Let's look at the biggest picture. What is the purpose and value — today — of an education in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the so-called “STEM” fields?

As a country, we have relied upon our ability to be at the cutting-edge of science and technology for a long time. That has been our competitive advantage: being creative and so successful at developing new technologies and new ideas. I believe that STEM education brings that to the picture. But we have become a little complacent as a nation. I believe that people take that advantage for granted. And now we see too few young people coming along the pipeline.

That's why programs that reach into the high schools and into elementary schools, getting students excited about the possibility of having a career in technical fields, is so important. We’re not graduating enough qualified students from high school, so we lose a lot of students before we even have a chance to influence them or train them at the university level.

I notice on your shelf the remarkable book, The Long Walk (about a group of prisoners in 1941 who escape from a Soviet labor camp in Siberia and walk through the Gobi Desert, and over the Himalayas, to freedom in India.) Why's that on your shelf?

That's a great book about a great walk! It’s an inspiration. I believe that being a well-rounded individual means that you have interests outside of technical expertise. So I look for books that are deeply human, where people overcome challenges.

The Long Walk is based on the idea of one individual saying, “I'm going to do it.” Whereas others would not have that courage. There are plenty of times those men could have given up, but they kept persevering. Would you even think it's possible? If you don't think it's possible then you would never try. I believe that the power that we have is sometimes limited just by our own expectations. We often underestimate what we can do.

So I always like stories of human perseverence and triumph. There's another great story that I like called Mountains Beyond Mountains about a doctor working to fight tuberculosis. You see the impact of one individual helping to change the lives of many people. So I hope our students will learn that. As engineers we have the tools to change the world if we want to.

What do you imagine the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences looks like in five years?

I’m very excited about the new STEM facility that President Sullivan and Provost Rosowsky have been championing and that we’re working hard to bring to reality. It will bring a huge upgrade to the infrastructure and allow us to meet unmet needs that we have right now — and better serve the state of Vermont and the world. We’ll have new lab facilities; our students will have better teaching classrooms and we’ll have improved research space for our faculty; we have a world-class faculty.

We’re in a competitive world. We’re doing five faculty searches right now. Those individuals that we’re searching for are going to be world-class too. They have opportunities to interview other places, so we need to bring them here and provide the infrastructure that merits the quality of their credentials.

Many of our wonderful students come to UVM because of our great faculty. Also, Vermont is a beautiful place and we have that asset, fortunately. But we can supplement that with beautiful facilities that students and their parents will find highly attractive. The new STEM facility will be a great asset for recruiting more and better students. The best students always have choices, like the best faculty.

With the new infrastructure in place, it's going to be a huge boost to our reputation and help us move to the next level. Then, we will start looking at maintaining and enhancing areas of strength such as our Department of Mathematics and Statistics and a few more areas to focus on. We have a great complex systems group now and they've been so successful that we would like to grow since they are interdisciplinary involving computer sciences, mathematics and engineering. But we also have a particular interest in expanding our biomedical work because UVM has a renowned medical school. We have some linkages with them and I’d like to strengthen them. Materials is another area that I would like to focus on, including nanomaterials. Materials impact everything from the human body, to new building materials, to memory on your phone. And the environment is a big area for UVM, plus it's an area that is close to my heart, so we’ll continue to focus there. I am very excited and optimistic about the great things we can accomplish in the next five years!

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