Every year, the American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists (AAEES) honors an individual who demonstrates leadership, originality and has innovative solutions to current environmental challenges.
Berrin Tansel, professor of environmental engineering and undergraduate program director in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was recognized this year. As the first female faculty member to join the College of Engineering & Computing in 1990, Tansel has been awarded AAEES’ 2021 Science Award for her contributions to the field of environmental engineering.
Growing up in a small town in Turkey, Tansel, who is a chemical engineer by training, moved to the states when she received a scholarship to pursue her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Wisconsin. At the time, environmental engineering was emerging, with regulations being changed by the Environmental Protection Agency, paving the way for new water treatment projects and the creation of jobs.
This shift brought Tansel to Boston, Massachusetts, where she worked as a project manager for Massachusetts Water Resources Authority on the Boston Harbor project.
“If you were in the wastewater industry, you wanted to be in Boston,” says Tansel. In the 1980s, Boston Harbor was known as the dirtiest harbor in America. It underwent a complete transformation with a $3.8 billion investment in the treatment facilities at Deer Island, which allowed for a successful harbor clean-up.
Tansel then joined FIU as a visiting professor, bringing her industry experience into academia.
“I recall writing my first grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. It was completely different from a regular proposal, meaning it did not include long paragraphs of background information on a particular research topic,” says Tansel. “I used bullet points. I was straight to the point. I listed out our objectives, what we expected to achieve, and how many students we needed.”
It was this industry and consulting experience that led Tansel to receive her first NSF grant, followed by multiple grants from the U.S. Army to build a compact filtration system for oil-water separation. This was in response to the oil spill that took place in the Gulf of Mexico during the early 90s.
Another highlight of Tansel’s career at FIU has been working closely with NASA on multiple novel ideas. One is a research project to develop a technology that reduces the payload, or space cargo, in space shuttles. Fifty percent of a space shuttle consists of water for astronauts to use and for vegetation in shuttles or to test vegetation in planets like Mars or the Moon. However, a gallon alone of water costs thousands of dollars to transport, thus a need to create a filtration process.
Tansel has also secured agreements with Miami-Dade County’s Water and Sewer Department, including a $5 million agreement to study the efficiency of water treatment processes, water conservation, and provide long-term solutions to leaks in older pipes.
These projects have provided opportunities for FIU environmental engineering students to gain experience in the field.
“My students get to work on different projects, becoming more marketable, and making connections at the very beginning of their careers,” adds Tansel.
When asked about how she feels about receiving the 2021 AAEES award, Tansel says: “I’m humbled and honored. I am happy to see my work be appreciated by my professional society.”
Tansel is the recipient of other prestigious awards, including the Engineer of the Year award by the American Society of Civil Engineers Miami-Dade Branch in 2007 and the Edmund Freidman Professional Achievement Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009.
She continues teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in the areas of theory, experimentation and design of environmental engineering with an emphasis on water treatment and water management. She has published more than 200 research papers and publications.
Tansel will receive her award at the Academy’s awards ceremony, tentatively scheduled for April 2021 in Washington, D.C.