It's 10:10 on a recent Wednesday morning and four Duke graduate students are huddled around a phone, discussing with corporate executives in Michigan and Germany how to reduce the wastes from their desalination plants around the world.
The plants produce clean water but also wastes that are currently burned or sent to landfills. The students are helping the company explore new ways of handling the wastes. "The company is interested in different engineering technologies, costs and benefits, so it can talk with its customers about the tradeoffs," says student Evan Poirson. "We're helping them augment the research they're doing themselves."
He and the others are all pursuing master's degrees in environmental management at the Nicholas School of the Environment. They also are enrolled in a Duke certificate program on sustainable systems analysis, working directly with companies to develop environmentally sound solutions to real-world challenges.
The program's faculty director, Jay Golden, has been bringing Duke student and faculty researchers together with industry, government and other partners on "sustainability" issues ranging from clean water to manufacturing. Their interactions typically look beyond technological questions to also consider supply chains, public policies and other factors that affect whether greener approaches succeed.
Beginning this month, Golden will broaden his role at Duke, becoming associate vice provost for research with a special focus on sustainability and economic development initiatives across the campus. He will "leverage Duke's strength in interdisciplinary research," working closely with its schools and institutes to "increase coordination, development and collaboration of public and privately sponsored research on emerging sustainability and economic development needs around the globe," says Jim Siedow, Duke's vice provost for research. Golden will also coordinate with Eric Toone, the new head of Duke's innovation and entrepreneurship initiative, and other campus leaders.
Golden is especially excited about a new task force that seeks to bring together researchers from across North Carolina to address urbanization, health and other issues at the intersection of sustainability and economic development. "Collectively, we have incredible strength," he says. "Our schools can still compete in other ways, but we need to work together on these large, complex problems."
Golden, a faculty member at the Nicholas School of the Environment with a secondary appointment in the Pratt School of Engineering, has promoted new institutional approaches to sustainability since he came to Duke in 2010. "Sustainability is a great ambition and goal, but we need to actually implement it," he says. "I want the Triangle -- not just Duke -- to be seen as a leader in sustainability solutions."
Working from his office in Duke's new Energy Hub in Gross Hall, he says he wants to help other faculty members pursue new funding sources and connect with collaborators on problems of common interest. He also aims to expand research and internship opportunities for students, both on campus and more widely, as with the four graduate students studying desalination plant wastes.
"It's great to be able to work with a company on a real problem," says Poirson, a former Peace Corps volunteer who works on the team with Ashley Hartman, Kevin Kurkul and Jianming Qin. "We've had a great opportunity to do something we wouldn't be able to do otherwise. It's something every graduate student wants."