New Department Head Q+A: Maria Chrysochoou, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Dr. Chrysochoou, in a ceremony held in the ITE Building in November 2017, introduces and launches the Connecticut Brownfields Initiative (Christopher Larosa/UConn Photo)
Dr. Chrysochoou, in a ceremony held in the ITE Building in November 2017, introduces and launches the Connecticut Brownfields Initiative (Christopher Larosa/UConn Photo)

1) Tell the audience about yourself and your UConn Engineering career so far. What do you teach? What Initiatives have you been involved in?

I joined UConn in 2007 as assistant professor to fill a position in Environmental Geotechnology. This field is in the intersection of geotechnical engineering, which is related to the properties of soil as a construction material, and environmental engineering, as soils are an important part of the ecosystem. I have taught related courses, such as Soil Mechanics, Geoenvironmental Engineering, Contaminated Site Remediation and now Brownfield Redevelopment. My research has spanned various topics, ranging from fundamental science such as the behavior of metal contaminants in soils, to practical applications, such as the use of spectroscopic tools in construction management, and brownfield redevelopment policy.

 

2) Why environmental engineering? What made you interested in this field?

My undergraduate major was in physics. I chose it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do long-term and I thought it was a broad field that would allow me to explore different science areas. I did my senior thesis in atmospheric science and I was drawn to the environment. I turned to environmental engineering partially because I wanted to do something application-oriented and partially because of the circumstances. I received a scholarship to do my M.S. at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, working with a professor who was an expert in waste management.

 

3) What’s your background? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Thessaloniki, which is the second largest city in Greece, with a million people. I am a city girl through and through! My parents were keen on my obtaining an international education and sent me to a half-Greek, half-German high school. I was taught three languages by the time I was 12, which is not uncommon in Greece.  My daughter is the same way now, she speaks the same three languages at 11–English, Greek and German.

 

4) Last year you launched the Connecticut Brownfields Initiative. Can you tell us what that is and why you decided to launch that?

CBI is a program with a dual mission: To train UConn students and to support Connecticut towns in the complicated work that comes with brownfield redevelopment. Brownfields are abandoned properties, often with industrial past, where the suspicion or presence of contamination inhibits redevelopment efforts. Connecticut has a rich industrial history, which has resulted in thousands of abandoned sites throughout the state.

The core concept of the program is that a cohort of undergraduate students attends a year-long program, which involves one semester of training in the classroom, including EPA grant proposal support for municipalities, and one semester of field work on brownfield projects with Connecticut towns. Students work together with faculty and professionals to plan and write grant proposals and incorporate environmental, economic and social aspects of planning and redevelopment. This model achieves both goals of supporting Connecticut towns in their funding and redevelopment goals for these sites, and creating a robust local workforce ready to take on these challenges.

Launching CBI was a close collaboration between myself, the development team at the School of Engineering, and the Department of Economic and Community Development. I had worked on a EPA grant proposal to create a brownfields center here at UConn. When the proposal was not successful, Tim Sullivan, the Deputy Commissioner of DECD at the time, believed in the concept and he helped us secure funding from DECD and other partners. We have a great cohort of industry supporters, who not only support us financially, but are also active partners in the course and our activities. This is what motivates me mostly about CBI; that it is really an organic collaboration between government, academia and industry, to effect real impact on our communities. The response of the students in this first semester of operation has been fantastic!

 

5) In January, you will be taking over as department head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. What does that appointment mean to you and what are your plans for the future of the department?

I am both challenged by and excited about this appointment. A department head is a liaison between several levels in the academic environment–students, faculty and upper administration. A department head has to balance conflicting interests and allocate resources in a difficult economic time for the state and, more importantly, ensure that everyone feels respected and included. I am very fortunate that I have a great mentor, the current department head Ross Bagtzoglou, and a great boss, Dean Kazerounian, both of whom are exceptional leaders. My first priority for the department is that we continue to foster a climate of collaboration and collegiality, as these are the conditions necessary for individuals to thrive. Of course I have a lot of specific plans and ideas on how we can continue to grow and prosper and I have put together an amazing administrative team that will work with me to implement those ideas: Nick Lownes, Associate Head for Undergraduate Education and Outreach; Arash Zaghi, Associate Head for Research and Graduate Education; Tim Vadas, Director of the Environmental Engineering Program, and Marina Astitha, Associate Director of the ENVE program. Our department is currently at a peak of research productivity. Sustaining and growing that can only be accomplished through a team effort.

 

6) Beyond our own department at UConn, how do you think the field of environmental and civil engineering is changing overall? Has the curriculum shifted over the years you’ve been in academia?

I would say that the biggest change I have seen is that the world has become a lot more integrated and complex and so have the problems that engineers must tackle. Balancing complexity and critical skills, such as writing and communication, while maintaining academic rigor is a challenge. To achieve this, we must change how we teach, not what we teach, like using more real world problems and encouraging team-based work. Again, doing that while enrollments are increasing is not easy. The key to this progress, and I believe UConn has made a huge investment in this area, is through the UConn Institute of Teaching and Learning. Online education is where academia is heading at a very fast pace. This transcends disciplines and is a challenge that we must take on if we want to be relevant and successful as a department and institution.

 

7) What is the thing you’ll look forward to most as department head?

In addition to things I mentioned above, I want to specifically talk about one initiative I am passionate about and I am believe I will have the ability to make some impact as department head: inspiring young girls to pursue engineering and leadership. Being the first female department head in the history of the school is a great honor and I see it as my responsibility to make sure that we bring in and grow women leaders in the years to come.