UVM CEMS faculty invent new computational tools that can gauge what's happening in the environment. 

When Donna Rizzo walks across campus, she’s looking at the trees and the people — and not a smartphone, because she doesn’t own one. This year, she’ll have plenty of leaf peeping, and watching the snow gather on branches, as she crosses between Votey Hall and the Gund Institute for Environment, where she is serving as acting director for nine months while Taylor Ricketts is on sabbatical.

The post highlights the cross-collaboration that has become a hallmark of Rizzo’s research, and of CEMS faculty members as they work together to tackle such problems as lake pollution, bridge vulnerability, sustainable materials, and human disease.

“She uses computational tools to look at problems where she can use real-world data, using models that are data-driven,” explains Mandar Dewoolkar, chair, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, of Rizzo’s robust approaches. “You don’t take a model first and fit your data into that; you look at data to come up with a model of the system.”

Rizzo grew up on Long Island Sound, immediately drawn to the issue of clean water, which became even more of a passion after a stint teaching English in Turkey, where she watched women carrying water and began querying its’ contamination. On the road toward becoming the first Ph.D. student to graduate from UVM’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Program in 1994, she also studied studio art in Europe, but found that she was most drawn to natural systems and visualizing data that she could measure and monitor.

“I became fascinated by environmental sensors, and collecting enormous amounts of data in real time,” says Rizzo, who places a high value on the interdisciplinary design that underlies the datasets she and her teammates collect. “People do not value environmental data in the same manner that say credit card or oil companies do. Environmental data are viewed as a cost of regulation. As a result, the tools needed to analyze these data lag behind other sectors. The environmental industry has not come to grips with this fact.”

By inventing new computational tools that can gauge what’s happening in the environment, Rizzo is able to connect her two lifelong loves, and is able to apply skills learned to a multitude of areas. “The beautiful thing is that every single time I get on one of these projects, it’s a really sharp learning curve for me to get up to speed on the vocabulary, but I love learning about these new systems. What your brain does when you start to classify and cluster can be applied to almost every single application that’s out there.”

Take, for example, Rizzo’s work with Vermont EPSCoR, during which she was able to examine data, using machine-learning tools, that others had collected for 30 years on Lake Champlain, and how phosphorous and nitrogen levels were impacting algae blooms. “The data naturally clustered into two groups (bloom/no bloom), which got us really excited,” she says. “It kept telling us it had something to do with measurements collected at the Lake’s soil-water interface”. This combination of high-resolution sensor data and complex systems tools for visualizing and analyzing the data is a theme that continues to this day with Vermont EPSCoR lake research.”

Rizzo has also researched the transmission of Chagas disease in Central America with Professor Lori Stevens and colleagues in Guatemala, and has collaborated with other CEMS researchers on using ground-penetrating radar to detect buried land mines and urban infrastructure. It’s helped to cultivate a more open and engaging environment when it comes to talking about the environment. “I didn’t speak through four years of college — that’s the only thing I really regret,” she says. “I tell my students that things would have been so much easier if only I’d had the guts to ask what I viewed at the time as dumb questions, so I try to emphasize in classes that there are no dumb questions.”

“Donna gets engaged in many, many different things — everything from ultrasound images and how people speak when they are being interviewed in hospitals to thyroid cancer, algae blooms in lakes, and bridges — it’s just astonishing,” says Dewoolkar, who foresees the next five to six years of UVM activities focusing on rivers and Lake Champlain, understanding pollution, and finding ways to mitigate them. “She has the optimism and also manages to find the time, and in meetings, her eyes light up when she becomes excited about a topic. She is recognized as a campus leader by both faculty and administrators and is a great mentor to our students. As a recognition of her outstanding work, she holds the Dorothean Chair in Engineering and Science and is a George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty awardee.


Sarah Tuff Dunn