Q&A with Dr. Teresa J. Cutright, professor of civil engineering

10/15/2020

name: dr. teresa j. cutright

title: professor of civil engineering

department: department of civil engineering

what does it mean to you to be named to the scientific advisory council, and what do you hope to contribute through your participation? 

being named to ohio attorney general (ag) dave yost’s environmental scientific advisory council is an honor. the nomination, vetting and final selection to the council was based on each member’s expertise. as stated in the ag’s press release, the goal of the council is to use our knowledge to critically discuss emerging environmental issues and be a “sounding board for ago decision-making solutions and opportunities.” this will span numerous topics. 

my educational background is engineering. therefore, i am an engineer before being an educator and researcher. this is important as the first cannon of the engineering code of ethics is to “hold paramount, the safety, health and welfare of the public.” serving on the ag’s environmental scientific advisory council will enable me to represent ua while working on potential environmental issues that may impact ohio’s residents. there is no greater honor than to contribute to this important process by participating in developing future solutions to our environment. 

what brought you to the university of akron?

i had two academic offers after graduating with my ph.d. both were to expand the environmental area between chemical engineering and civil engineering. one offer was for a joint appoint in both departments; which at that time meant teaching in both departments and reporting to two department chairs. it was basically two jobs done by one person. the other offer was to work in civil engineering at the university of akron and develop collaborations with faculty in chemical engineering. the ua offer seemed more realistic. i know i made the right choice.

how did you come to choose your career?

i was good in chemistry and in math, so a b.s in chemical engineering was a logical choice.  when i graduated with my b.s. i felt there was still more to learn so i turned down job offers to go to graduate school. at that time there was a clean energy commercial that started with the camera pointed at two sets of legs as they walked across what looked like a dried up lake. the little girl says, “tell me again grandpa about when there were trees,” as the camera pans up and showed them wearing gas masks. i decided that cleaning the planet was what i wanted to do.  working at a university enables me to impart to others why this is important, to teach them how to do it, as well as conduct research for finding new or improved ways to solve environmental issues. 

areas of research — what problem do you most hope to solve? 

my research focus is on the bioremediation of contaminated soils, sediment, or water. that is the use of living organisms (bacteria, fungi, plants) to safely ‘clean up’ contaminants. over the past several years my graduate students and i have also worked on how to safely mitigate the impact of harmful algal blooms in drinking water and recreational lakes. the overarching goal is to provide clean soil and water for us to survive.

what does the next 10 years hold for your field? 

all human beings need air, water, food and shelter for basic survival. water is used for direct consumption (drinking, bathing, cooking), growing food and as an ingredient in numerous industrial applications. according to u.s. environmental protection agency (epa) statistics:

  • 40 out of 50 state water managers expect water shortages in some area of the state.
  • 4-32 million cases in u.s. of acute gastrointestinal illness from water borne issues.

looking at worldwide statistics from the world health organization

  • 785 million people do not have access to basic water treatment.
  • ~29% of world (including parts in u.s.) do not have access to safe drinking water.
  • by 2025 ( a mere 4.25 years away), half of the world’s population will be living in water stressed areas.

these statistics with the increasing frequency and intensity of harmful algal blooms and draughts (associated with climate change), speak to the need for safe drinking water. the need for safe drinking water also encompasses ways to improve conventional wastewater treatment plant for addressing ‘new’ contaminants.

what books are on your nightstand?

i read a lot. i won’t bore everyone with what i am reading for work. books that are currently being read for fun, in no particular order: “the hate u give,” angie thomas; “nomadland: surviving america in the 21st century,” jessica bruder; “night circus,” erin morgenstern; “cemetery road,” greg isles; “last time i was me,” cathy lamb; and since it is halloween season ,”dracula,” bram stroker.

Is there one book you recommend to everyone? 

there are so many books so not really possible to just recommend one. it will also depend on who i am talking to. a timeless book about life lessons and altruism is “the giving tree” by shel silverstein. one for helping to increase the precision and elegance of communication, i recommend the quintessential dictionary by i. moyer hunsberger.  for an escape from stress, the harry potter series by j.k. rowling is always fun.

outside the classroom, what do you enjoy doing for fun?

reading, hiking, family night board games. 

looking back on your own time in college, what advice do you have for ua students?

 actually, take the time to learn material, not just temporarily for the exam. you will most likely need to know the concept for the next course in the sequence or in your job. it was not until my senior year that i realized that staying up all night to cram for an exam did not really work. spending a little time each day and getting a good night’s sleep did much better in the long run.

the next two are life lessons as well as college advice. put your best effort in all of your tasks – no matter the size. the work ethic will serve you well and in all scenarios. something that you may see as a small task may be the whole world to someone else. the other is to treat everyone with respect. although it may not always be possible depending on the situation, it is something we should strive for. we do not know all that the person is going through at that particular moment. perhaps the person (who you do not know well) was terse in their response because it is their normal speech pattern, or if it is someone you know well, perhaps they are under a lot of stress from a family situation. all of us would like someone to give us the benefit of the doubt if we acted unskillfully in a situation.