Pioneering data scientist leads Gund Institute as acting director

Fans of 90s pop culture will remember Carmen Sandiego, the mastermind who led a global gang across time and space. Fast-forward to 2017 and meet Donna Rizzo, computer scientist, environmental engineer – and the new acting director of the Gund Institute for Environment, UVM’s newest global research initiative.

Where in the world – to quote the show – has Donna Rizzo been since her new role started? “Pretty much everywhere,” laughs Rizzo, who will lead the Gund Institute until director Taylor Ricketts returns from a research sabbatical in June. “Since September, I’ve been crisscrossing the campus letting people know how the Gund can benefit them.”

An award-winning scholar, Rizzo has helped to pioneer the use of artificial intelligence and “big data” to tackle environmental health issues, from water security to infectious diseases. She calls the Gund Institute, created to accelerate interdisciplinary environmental research, “a dream place for a chronic collaborator like me.”                 

“UVM has exceptional scholars working on all aspects of the environment and sustainability,” says Rizzo, a Gund Fellow and professor in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS). “The goal of the Gund Institute – which truly excites me – is to connect these researchers and leaders, to mobilize collaborative research and develop solutions to the urgent challenges facing humanity.” 

Rizzo is heartened by enthusiasm for the Institute’s initial offerings, including Gund Catalyst Awards, a UVM-wide $150,000 seed grant competition for interdisciplinary environmental research, and an inaugural call for new Gund Fellows and Affiliates (nominations due Nov. 1). “My email inbox has been overflowing ever since,” says Rizzo, laughing. “There’s a great buzz on campus.” Next month, the Institute will start recruiting for PhD and postdoctoral positions.

A passion for clean water      

Raised on Long Island Sound in Connecticut, Rizzo got her MS from the University of California, Irvine, on the way to becoming the first PhD student to graduate from UVM’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Program. After graduation, she co-founded Subterranean Research, a company that created tools and sensors to address contaminated water sites and polluted landfills.

Rizzo has always gravitated towards nature, especially water. At the age of 17, she experienced an “aha moment” as a volunteer teacher in Turkey. “I watched women lugging water to their houses every day, and thought, ‘What if this place becomes contaminated? Since that moment, all I’ve wanted is for everybody to have access to clean water.” 

Collaboration across disciplines

Since Rizzo returned to UVM as faculty in 2002, she has collaborated widely on projects that bridge the environment, health, and big data.

Working with Vermont EPSCoR, Rizzo developed machine-learning software to examine 30 years of Lake Champlain water quality data to determine how phosphorous and nitrogen levels were impacting algae blooms. 

Rizzo is collaborating with researchers in UVM’s Larner College of Medicine on a vaccine for dengue, an urgent threat for 40 percent of the world’s population. She is also working to address the transmission of Chagas disease in Central America with partners at UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences, and has collaborated with CEMS colleagues on using ground-penetrating radar to detect buried land mines and urban infrastructure.

“The beautiful thing is that every single time I get on one of these projects, it’s a sharp learning curve for me to get up to speed, but I love learning about new systems,” Rizzo says. “These new techniques and ideas can be applied to solve other problems.”  

“Donna gets engaged in 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 Mandar Dewoolkar, Rizzo’s long-time colleague and department head at CEMS. “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.”

Computer scientist, no smart phone

Rizzo says her most thrilling accomplishments are her graduate students. She is also inspired by thinking about the progress of machine intelligence. “I love thinking about consciousness,” she says. “The fact that computers are now training doctors to ask better questions is fascinating.”

After spending roughly six hours a day on a computer, Rizzo unplugs. She reads, paints, listens to music, takes dancing classes with her husband – and doesn’t own a smart phone. “My students think I’m crazy: ‘How do you tell the time?’” she laughs, glancing at her simple wristwatch. "But when I’m walking across campus, I like to look at the people, the trees and this beautiful campus. It’s how I recharge.”

Where in the world is Donna Rizzo? At the Gund Institute, catalyzing interdisciplinary research and connecting scholars to sustainability problems. She plans to use her experience drawing people together across different fields to advance the Gund and its work.

“There’s no doubt in my mind UVM is going to have the most amazing think tank here on campus for years to come.”


Sarah Tuff Dunn
Donna Rizzo uses artificial intelligence and big data to tackle environmental health issues, from infectious diseases to water quality.