“Water is very much a sustainability issue,” says Kevin Fries, a Ph.D. Candidate in Infrastructure Systems in Civil and Environmental Engineering. “When we have enough of it, we use too much of it. When we don't have it, we still use too much of it. Sustainably managing our water will have massive ripple effects throughout our society.”
Fries is studying water resource problems using “Big Data,” meaning he has unprecedented access to unprecedented amounts of data. His research applies statistics and inference tools to massive amounts of climate data to improve societal understanding of hydrologic processes.
“My research on the Great Lakes focuses on integrating observations of air temperature, wind speed, and other variables from volunteer ships that cross the lakes pretty regularly.”
Volunteers measure variables at all sorts of different spots on the lakes, monitoring the lakes and collecting baseline data to determine water quality trends. Through the analysis of this data, Fries has been able to give updated estimates of models of the lake. He’s continued this work with flood forecasting using the National Water Model and stream gauges from Iowa.
Before coming to Michigan, Fries attended the University of Maryland and received his bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering. He chose to apply to the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program because it encourages an interdisciplinary focus on sustainability issues.
“As a civil engineer, I am dealing with water resource issues, which aren't just engineering problems,” Fries explains. “Water resource management touches on economics, policy, hydrology, and even social issues. [The Dow Fellows Program] promotes looking at sustainability-related issues in ways that combine expertise from multiple fields.”
Outside of his Ph.D. research, Fries works with the Ethiopia-Michigan Platform for Advancing Collaborative Engagement (EM-PACE) to help establish research ties with universities in Ethiopia, particularly the leading technical institute, Addis Ababa Institute of Technology. His work with EM-PACE has been inspired by his previous affiliation with Engineers without Borders. His experiences with the organization have contributed to his desire to supplement his academic studies with volunteer work.
“I'm probably most proud of my work with Engineers Without Borders at the University of Maryland. I was heavily involved with them all four years, helping to design a community center in Ethiopia and a potable/non-potable source separation for a school in Brazil,” Fries says. “I had the opportunity to travel to Brazil and install the water system. That work is what pushed me to get my Ph.D., so I could continue improving water access and management.”
Fries’ experiences working with Engineers without Borders lead him to consider the impact of water systems in ways that others might not, and to recognize problems that might go unseen by engineers with more traditional professional and educational experiences.
“As long as [the water] comes clean out of the tap, [people] don’t care,” says Fries. “But as we saw in Flint, Toledo, Milwaukee, and countless other cities, what comes out of the tap is heavily dependent on the sourcing of your water. So we need to do better and expand the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. We need to consider the rate of groundwater withdrawals in California and the Ogallala aquifers.”
After graduating from the doctoral program in Infrastructure Systems, Fries plans to continue working in sustainability, applying data science to societal problems and interactions between humans and the environment.
“My work is focused on understanding and managing the impacts, but it's just as important to stop the causes, and look at policies,” Fries explains. “I want to help bridge that gap between understanding the problem and enacting effective policy.”