Like most high school kids bent on becoming an engineer, Garrick Louis envisioned himself designing large systems and plants, in his case for processing chemicals. "I actually knew I wanted to do chemical engineering since high school because I was pretty good in chemistry. And I was interested in designing large-scale things like manufacturing plants," he recalls.
Then a metamorphosis began that gave him a different outlook, one with an environmental and social focus, and now it has him occupying a unique niche. Rather than design facilities for corporations to produce chemicals, the systems & information engineering professor at the University of Virginia studies the use of environmental policy to promote sustainable regional economic development. In focusing on municipal sanitation infrastructure, including that for water supply, solid waste, and wastewater treatment, Louis collaborates with stakeholders such as local governments, regional industries, and affected communities. This involves working with industrialized countries dealing with mushrooming populations and urban flight as well as developing countries struggling to meet basic needs. "We need to eliminate the suffering some people endure from limited facilities for water supply, wastewater treatment, and solid waste," he states.
Louis, 44 hails from Trinidad and Tobago, the two southernmost islands in the Caribbean, just off the northeast tip of Venezuela. "I came here to go to school," he says in explaining how he got to the U.S. He kept an apartment in the Bronx, New York, which served as a home base for his forays to various schools. First came a B.S. from Howard University in Washington, D.C., then a master's from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, both in chemical engineering.
Things were proceeding on course for a career as a chemical engineer, but then it happened. At the end of his stint at Howard and into his master's work, Louis began feeling his path "was too narrowly focused. I was much more interested in where the resources came from and what impact they had on the community," he explains. When he would come home to the Bronx, "I remember seeing smoke stacks at manufacturing facilities around that area and wondering what was coming out of them and how it was impacting the people there. I wondered about the environmental impacts of the kind of designs I was doing." After getting his master's, he returned to New York "to see how I could combine this interest in chemical engineering with an interest in the environment and the social impact of manufacturing."
Back at his U.S. home, Louis took some environmental engineering courses at the City University of New York. In one, the professor took the class to the Freshkills Landfill on Staten Island. "That was a crystallizing moment for me. I saw the connection between the goods that were manufactured by the chemical industry and consumed, and then what happened after we disposed of them. I decided to pursue some sort of solid waste management option with my main interest in the environmental area," he recalls. He went off to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for a Ph.D. in engineering & public policy.
His career focus continued to take shape. "I began to realize that solid waste is just one piece of what I call a three-part system. The other two are water supply -- drinking water -- and wastewater and sewage treatment. When you put those three basic services together, they're the basis for any urban settlement you have," Louis says. He dubbed his new area of study "integrated municipal sanitation systems." Managing the various aspects of it, including things like service demands, forecasting, scheduling, and allocation of resources, would require systems engineering skills. This explains why he works in the systems engineering program at the University of Virginia instead of the civil engineering department.
Whatever type of engineering you call it, Louis applies his work "across the world," from his back yard to the Philippines. He recently worked with the Department of Housing and Community Development in Virginia on a project in Nelson County to connect 46 homes to the county water supply because their well water was beginning to fail. He and a group of engineering students helped with project management. Another project has him working on an integrated sanitation systems project in his native Tobago. "They made a very heavy investment in tourism there, and the sanitation infrastructure can't meet the increased demand," he explains. "They don't have a well established wastewater treatment system. That's resulting in some deleterious impacts on the coastal water quality, degrading the very resource that makes them attractive as a tourist destination." Also, the solid waste management system can't handle the demand. "I'm working with agencies there to identify and quantify their needs and enhance the existing system to ensure they'll be able to meet those needs over the next 10 to 20 years."
Besides teaching conventional systems engineering courses, Louis is developing an ambitious two-semester graduate course, Environmental Systems Management, to be taught in collaboration with faculty and students at selected universities in different countries. As a shared, yearlong environmental project, students must solve a local sanitation service problem in one of the participating countries, coordinating much of the work over the Internet.
Another outreach project has Louis building the Consortium for Integrated Municipal Sanitation Systems (CIMSS), consisting of sanitation service providers from water, wastewater, and solid waste industries; regulators and other government agencies involved in these services; and consumers of the services. He's arranging to bring people from sanitation services around the world to do internships in the U.S. or other developed countries, after which they will apply what they learn in their own country.
Projects like this require huge amounts of leg work and coordination, but Louis sees a big payoff. "I would be creating a whole cadre of new sanitation engineers in the different countries where we have projects while building an international network of contacts to focus on these problems."
So how does Louis view the status of the world's sanitation infrastructure? "It's discouraging. In the U.S. and other industrialized countries, excluding Japan, we really haven't been investing in the kind of maintenance and repair or replacement necessary to keep the infrastructure in tip-top shape. Especially in the case of water and wastewater, the infrastructure has deteriorated." In places like southern Africa, southeast Asia, South America, and the eastern Caribbean, "you find low quality drinking water and the absence of wastewater removal, which leads to potentially dangerous disease situations, with no apparent options in sight for solving those problems."
But Louis doesn't hang his head in gloom. "I think it's a solvable problem," he says. "One technology that needs to be developed is the idea of recycling water and natural water treatment systems. If you can't afford a lot of expensive processing equipment or chemicals, there are biological alternatives for purifying and reusing water." For example, he's looking into using water hyacinth to provide tertiary treatment for water after it's been through traditional primary and secondary stages. The water goes to ponds, where the plants remove harmful nutrients.
"A lot of interesting things are going on," Louis says in describing research taking place. "The whole idea of links between energy sources and waste management or sanitation service is another unexplored area. People are now investing in fuel cells, for instance, and it might be possible to use some of the waste heat from wastewater processing as an input energy source for fuel cells."
It becomes clear Louis has found a unique but effective way to apply his skills. "This is a calling for me, not a career," as he puts it. He has a lot on his plate, but his passion could result in improved lives around the world.