As an engineer, Dr. Donna Rizzo has certainly taken the road less traveled. Prior to landing an Assistant Professor appointment in the School of Engineering at the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS), Donna spent time teaching English to young children in Guney, Turkey (as a high school junior), was an accomplished ballet and jazz dancer, and eventually received her Masters of Fine Art (in Studio Art) from the University of Florence in Florence, Italy.
Of course, she paid her engineering dues, too. Donna received her B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Connecticut, her Masters degree from the University of California, Irvine, and was the first graduate of the Ph.D. program in the Civil & Environmental Engineering program at the University of Vermont.
The Seed Is Sown
Donna believes that the seed for her interest in Environmental Engineering was planted at a very young age. "I grew up in southern Connecticut and was fortunate to be able to spend the summers on the Long Island Sound. I had lots of pet toads, flies, snakes and spent a lot of time adopting insects, reptiles and amphibians. I loved being outside."
She also was upset that the water in the Sound was not clean enough to support her beloved Hermit crabs. So at the age of seven, she wrote a letter to one of Connecticut's U.S. Senators wondering what he was going to do about cleaning up the Sound. "I was probably predestined to be an environmental engineer, though I'm pretty certain that 'environmental engineering' was an oxymoron at the time!"
Still, Donna did not zero in on an engineering career right away. "I really loved art and dance and was interested in becoming an English teacher, which is how I ended up teaching in Turkey. But," she says, "a summer of watching women lug water from the river to their homes got me thinking about water and what we need to do to protect our water sources."
An Artful Detour and Return
Upon graduation from high school, Donna enrolled in and received her B.S. at UConn. "At the time, there really weren't Environmental Engineering programs, so I got my degree in Civil Engineering. I graduated, got a job with an engineering firmů and hated it. After a while, I decided to take some time off, and I went to Europe."
She landed in Italy and enrolled in the University of Florence, where she received her M.F.A. "After graduation, I did some engineering work in a town called Mestre, near Venice. I worked on land subsidence problems using computer modeling." This allowed her to rediscover an interest in engineering, and she decided to go back to the States. Upon her return, she landed an ideal job in the Department of Environmental Protection for the State of Connecticut. "I loved that job," she says, "because I worked with great people — their hearts were truly into protecting the environment."
Eventually, Donna was offered a scholarship to UC-Irvine and spent several years in California. She received her Masters degree and began working on her doctorate. Then, less than a year before graduation, her advisor was recruited to UVM by former Dean George Pinder. "I wanted to go to UVM to continue working on [our] research," she explains. "I ended up being the first Ph.D. student to graduate in UVM’s Civil & Environmental Engineering Program in 1994." Donna worked as a Research Assistant Professor at UVM for a couple years before leaving to start a small business. In the fall of 2002, she returned to UVM as a faculty member in the Civil & Environmental Engineering program.
Dr. Rizzo's research typically involves numerical computation as well as inversion and non-linear optimization techniques. "I applied them originally to environmental applications in groundwater cleanup," says Rizzo, "but I've found that that you can use them in a variety of ways, such as medical imaging or predicting diseases in crops. I really enjoy the opportunity this gives me to work in interdisciplinary settings."
A Great Role Model
While Donna's background of fine arts and engineering might seem unusual to some, it is just the type of diverse background that Dean Domenico Grasso likes to see.
"I believe that the best recipe for success after college entails a rigorous engineering and math education mixed with a healthy dose of human services and liberal arts courses," Grasso says. "Having a faculty member like Donna — someone with such an interesting, diverse background — sends a positive message to our students. She's a great role model, a great teacher, and an outstanding researcher."
Dr. Rizzo agrees that any program which encourages students to take classes outside of their program, and exposes them to a more advanced liberal arts education, is going to attract brighter students. "I believe," she says, "that this will set UVM's engineering school apart."