ASU prof receives high recognition for dedication to engineering progress, students’ success
Most recent of many awards from professor’s professional peers honors impact of his work as researcher, educator
Bruce Rittmann and his research team are pursuing big engineering breakthroughs with the help of some extremely small but resilient collaborators.
Rittmann speaks fondly of them.
“We are all about partnering with microorganisms. They are our colleagues and friends,” he said. “They will work to provide us with all kinds of important services. And if we treat them well, they will do it happily.”
Microorganisms — or microbes — are the microscopic living organisms such as bacteria, protozoa and some species of fungi and algae that are abundant in soil, streams, lakes, oceans and even in the atmosphere.
At Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, which houses the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology that Rittmann directs, researchers are employing types of microorganisms that are especially adept at forming collectives that work together to survive and thrive even in environs often too spare and harsh for most other living things.
Microorganisms bring multiple benefits
“When teams of anaerobic microbes just go about their natural everyday business, they can do things that are very valuable to us,” said Rittmann, a Regents' Professor of environmental engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
To sustain themselves, some particular microbes consume organic materials in water and transform them into an energy source —methane gas — and in the process also break down complex organic material and release it as nutrients such as phosphorous and ammonium that can be used as agricultural fertilizer.
And, oh yeah, one other thing the microbes can accomplish by doing those kinds of things: help clean up wastewater.
“If those organic materials stay in the water, they are pollutants. But if we harvest them for energy and nutrients, then the water is decontaminated and we gain valuable resources,” Rittmann explained. “Our job is to harness the microorganisms and provide the conditions that make it easier for them to do all of this efficiently.”
Generating renewable resources
His center’s goal is to achieve technological advances that would add this method of treatment and resource recovery to the toolkit for coping with the increasingly daunting challenges of supplying a growing world with clean, safe water, as well as more energy.
Rittmann is also working with the team of fellow Fulton Schools professor Klaus Lackner on a project involving the use of microorganisms in a carbon dioxide-capture system designed to reduce the troublesome buildup greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The system works by taking carbon dioxide out of the air and delivering it to microbes to do photosynthesis and transform it into renewable biofuels and chemical products.
“We are taking something out of the atmosphere that is causing a climate-change problem and turning it into something of value,” Rittmann said.
Special honor for accomplishments
The promise of such advances has him doing a bit of globe-trotting these days, talking to scientists, engineers and others around the world who want to learn about the intriguing possibilities to be reaped from such collaborations with the microbial realm.
Rittmann shared information about progress on the use of microorganism-enabled processes to treat wastewater, clean up pollutants and recover useful resources at a gathering billed as one of the “Can’t Miss Events” at the recent Water Environment Federation Technology Exposition and Conference — the largest event of its kind in the world.
In addition to delivering an update on his research, Rittmann was there at the behest of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors to accept its prestigious Perry L. McCarty/AEESP Founders’ Award.
McCarty, a Stanford University emeritus professor, is acknowledged as one of the prime movers in the advance of modern environmental biotechnology. He is also renown not only for his research and leadership in his profession, but also as a particularly inspirational teacher and mentor to students.
The award named in his honor is bestowed on engineering or science professors whose accomplishments in those areas reflect the caliber of McCarty’s contributions.
McCarty was Rittmann’s doctoral studies adviser at Stanford. He and McCarty also co-authored the textbook “Environmental Biotechnology,” which is used extensively throughout the world.
“So, for me to get this award with his name on it is an extra special deal,” Rittmann said.
An array of awards along the way
Letters written by colleagues to support Rittmann’s nomination for award show that his potentially groundbreaking work with his microbial partners is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impacts he has made over the past 35 years — starting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then Northwestern University before coming to ASU 12 years ago.
Rittmann has built up a collection of some of the more impressive awards and honors from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, the National Water Research Institute, and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, among others.
The topper was his election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2004.
In 2007 ASU named him its Innovator of the Year and the next year gave him the Faculty Achievement Award for Excellence in Defining Research.
In 2009 he was designated as a Regents’ Professor, the highest recognition bestowed on faculty members of Arizona’s three state universities.
Elevated stature within his profession
Paul Westerhoff, a fellow environmental engineer, professor and Fulton Schools vice dean for research and innovation, points to Rittmann’s stature as a pioneer in the adaptation of the tools of molecular biology to environmental engineering, along with the six patents Rittmann holds for technologies related to that work.
Westerhoff also notes Rittmann’s leadership of two research teams that are developing innovative approaches to generating renewable bioenergy.
His success in such areas has helped make many of Rittmann’s more than 600 peer-reviewed research papers among the most highly cited by engineering and science peers in the world.
He has been passing on his voluminous knowledge to many hundreds of students he has taught over the decades, including the more than 40 who have earned doctoral degrees under his guidance — many of whom are national and international leaders in research, education and industry, Westerhoff said.
One of them is Jeanne VanBreisen. She writes in her nomination letter that Rittmann gave her a chance as a doctoral student to experience “trying on” the role of an academic at a time when she was unsure about her career direction.
“He allowed me to see that I could do the job and that it was incredibly rewarding and fun. He gave me the time to develop the skills and confidence to succeed on the job market,” VanBreisen wrote. “I can say without exaggeration that this opportunity changed my life.”
VanBreisen is now a professor and director of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Most worthy candidate
“Having known Bruce for nearly 20 years,” wrote Krishna Pagilla, a professor and program leader in environmental engineering at the University of Nevada, “he probably feels that the best honors and awards are the finest students he has graduated in the last 35 years in three different institutions and [the] outstanding professionals he has educated as a teacher, mentor and advisor.”
Professor Pedro Alvarez, chair of the civil and environmental engineering program at Rice University, writes that Rittmann’s contributions have gone beyond being a prolific researcher, teacher and contributor to professional science and engineering organizations.
In working with him, Alvarez writes that he learned from Rittmann’s “consistent example to be generous, honorable, bold and [to] swing for the fence” in all pursuits.
Glen Daigger, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan and a past president of the International Water Association, writes that Rittmann is simply “the most worthy candidate I can think of” for the McCarty Award.
Rittmann “is the consummate team player, always promoting others within his group, while at the same time making those around him better,” said G. Edward Gibson, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. “I can’t think of a more worthy recipient of this award.”
Students’ success is greatest reward
As for assessing his own professional achievements, Rittmann says the opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of students has been the most fulfilling part of his career.
He is thrilled to see students energized by the same aspirations that drew him to his field and have kept him intensely engaged for decades.
“They really like the fact that this is a very fascinating area that involves a lot of different aspects of engineering and science,” he said. “You can get involved in everything from fundamental science to applied technology, and that variety attracts some bright students who thrive on challenges.”
More importantly, many are also driven by the opportunity “to make a positive difference in the world,” Rittmann said. “They are working on things to enable us to live more sustainably and to improve the quality of our environment. That’s a big motivator for a lot of our students."
Paving way for diversity in engineering
In particular, Rittmann says he’s glad to have a hand in progress toward a goal he sees as important to the future of engineering and science: gender diversity.
“I take a lot of satisfaction in seeing environmental engineering taking the lead in bringing more women into the engineering profession. In doing that, we are at the vanguard of something I think is important to the future of engineering,” said Rittmann, whose daughter, Jacqueline McDonald-Gibson, is an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A good number of the female students he has taught and mentored in the classroom as well as in the research lab “have been very successful,” he said, “and I feel that’s been an important part of my success.”
But Rittmann didn’t take much time to bask in the glow of his own success after receiving the much-coveted McCarty Award at the big Water Environment Federation event in New Orleans.
“I had to hurry right back [to ASU],” he said. “I had a class to teach.”