Students from the University of Arkansas are working to solve the most pressing issues facing the world.
Meet one of them.
Tours and Bonfires
As a prospective student visiting the University of Arkansas in the spring of 2012, Ryan DuChanois wasn't thinking that his campus tour would lead him to Ethiopia, and, eventually, to graduate studies at the University of Cambridge on a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He was thinking how comfortable the campus felt. After all, he'd been visiting the University of Arkansas since eighth grade, when he began taking classes on environmental and spatial technologies in the JB Hunt building. "By then," Ryan says, referring to his tour, "the U of A just felt like home. I remember telling my parents that. The global perspective? That would come later."
It would come in the fall of Ryan's first year when a fellow engineering student — the tour guide who had shown Ryan and his family around campus — invited Ryan to a bonfire. There, he told Ryan about an upcoming service trip to Ethiopia. He encouraged Ryan to join and suggested the trip would offer an additional perspective to the long hours in labs and the heavy load of coursework engineering students know so well. Ryan decided to take him up on the offer — Ethiopia would be an interesting departure from Arkansas, where he'd grown up. It would be a way for him to expand his awareness of issues outside his community. What Ryan didn't expect from the trip was that a single moment would change how he thought about the world, a simple exchange in Ethiopia that would inspire him to devote himself to tackling water scarcity issues.
What he didn't know at the time, of course, was that this conversation around a bonfire that night would lead to what he sees as his life's work, and, more immediately, a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to earn an MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge.
With a seven-acre lake and two ponds close by, Ryan's family home in Greenland, Arkansas is not in a water scarce community. Other factors have shaped the his arc of his career, like Ryan's father's work in the road construction industry.
"That's probably where my interest in engineering originated," says Ryan, speaking about his father. "He was always talking about design proposals, project bids, plans and completion dates." Such first hand exposure to civil engineering helped Ryan understand just how much was required to successfully complete a project. He learned that each step in the process was crucial—from conceptualization to planning to implementation. He soon understood the importance of structure and preparation, something Ryan has clearly internalized to help balance and manage all the demands on his schedule. "It's not about what time you set your alarm for," Ryan said, explaining his regimen for balancing his lab hours and coursework and fellowship applications. "It's about what time you get to bed."
Ryan's interest in water started when a Greenland infrastructure project fell into his hands in the final two years of high school. The town needed to map storm water drainage patterns, and needed someone who knew how to do it. Enter Ryan. "It wouldn't have happened in any other city," he explains. "Because Greenland is so small, it was dropped into the police chief's lap, and he let me take it on." Ryan was able to secure a grant and use his training from the center of advanced special technologies at the University of Arkansas to map Greenland's culverts, drainage channels, and inlets.
"Say a pollutant enters a stream somewhere, and is found far downstream," he said, sketching a map on a piece of paper to demonstrate what, exactly, his findings illustrated. "Using this technology, we can trace the pollutant to its original location."
"It was then," Ryan says, "that my interest in water was born."
In The Field
Fast forward to the summer after Ryan's freshman year, to the conversation that forever altered how Ryan thinks about the world. It happened on his trip to Ethiopia. His group was building showers at an orphanage in Bahir Dar. Ryan struck up a conversation with one of the group's translators. She said it wasn't unusual for people she knew to have to scramble to find a safe place to sleep each night, or to wonder when their next meal might be. She said that it wasn't strange to wonder where she could get safe water, or where she could bathe. "Tell me," she said. "What do you worry about in America?"
When Ryan returned to campus that fall, he had a goal that stretched beyond his studies—to improve the health and safety of people across the world by expanding access to potable water. The following summer he traveled to South Africa to research point-of-use water filter technology with engineering students from across the United States. As usual, when pressed about his impact, Ryan points to others. "A big part of that trip and what we were able to accomplish was made possible by the students above me who paved the way, and the PhD students who oversaw our research and field work."
It is helpful, Ryan admits, to see older students focused on the same fields he is, who are further along in their efforts to solve the same problems that interest him. He is always interested in where they are headed and what has influenced them. Like his family and his mentors at the University of Arkansas, they inform his path.
Then came another influential fall bonfire, this one hosted by Arkansas Engineers Abroad. There, another friend and fellow engineering student convinced Ryan to apply for an EPA Greater Research Opportunity Fellowship that included a summer internship in Oregon. He did, and spent the following summer researching how to better recycle water in water scarce areas across the United States.
Ask Ryan about some of the people in the University of Arkansas community who have influenced him and you'll get a long list. He isn't shy about crediting others. It seems to be the first thing he acknowledges when discussing his success. He credits his family first: his father, his mother, and his sister – now a freshman at the U of A. Ryan is quick to mention the researchers and professors who have mentored him. Dr. Richard Coffman, an associate professor at the Bell Engineering Center who impressed upon Ryan just how strong a candidate he was for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. "He has believed in me more than I believe in myself," Ryan says. Dr. Wen Zhang, Ryan's primary research advisor, has helped Ryan hone his lab technique, and Dr. Kevin Hall, the Chair of the Civil Engineering Department, has encouraged Ryan in all his endeavors on campus and abroad. There's also Dr. John White, whose influential and well-known leadership course helped forge Ryan's ability to articulate his research and goals to audiences outside of the scientific community, including Gates Cambridge interview panels and U of A students.
Was it difficult, with such a long list of mentors and influences, to decide who to tell first that he had been selected for the prestigious award?
"No," Ryan says. He called his parents right away. It helped that he was somewhat limited by the time he received the official email from Britain—7:00 AM on a Wednesday. "They're early risers, like me," he says.
In some ways, Ryan's experience at the University of Cambridge has already begun. He had a chance to meet other Gates Cambridge Scholarship finalists in Seattle, where in January he interviewed for the scholarship in front of a board of academics and representatives of the Gates Cambridge Trust. There, Ryan worked with other finalists to prepare for the intense half-hour interview each of them would face, trying to anticipate the questions that would be asked.
In his down time, Ryan had a chance to explore the city with other finalists, and to hear what they hoped to do, both at Cambridge and beyond. "I didn't think in one weekend we could form such strong friendships," Ryan said. He explained that it was their goals and shared interest in public service that brought them together. "We have a lot in common. Each of us, in our own way, wants to influence people's lives for the better. That's why we do what we do."
At Cambridge, Ryan will work under the guidance of Dr. Richard Fenner, whose focus on maintenance and rehabilitation of water infrastructure aligns with Ryan's own research interests. Ryan hopes to study how to properly modify existing water infrastructure to better incorporate developing technologies, such as water recycling.
Ryan's mentors are thrilled for him and excited to see how he continues to grow as a scientist and leader. "Ryan is the kind of student every professor wishes to have," says Wen Zhang, Ryan's research advisor, speaking about her experience working with Ryan and what his time at Cambridge will mean. "He will be able to experience Environmental Engineering from both sides—the detail-oriented technical side as well as the global point of view."
What does Ryan envision for himself after Cambridge? "That," he says, "is a bit more blurry. Getting a professional engineering license is critical to having an actual impact." He knows he will focus on developing water treatment through recycling or desalination. He plans to work for a professional engineer to gain experience and work toward a professional engineering license. Eventually, Ryan sees himself involved in policy. Water treatment research and development interests Ryan, but he also wants to have a say in the social and economic implications of expanding access to safe water. Eventually, Ryan sees himself serving on the EPA drinking water committee. In the meantime, the awards and fellowships keep coming. A few months after hearing about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Ryan learned that he received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
Whatever he does, Ryan is diving into some of the most immediate concerns facing the world today. As Ryan points out, the UN estimates a fifth of the world currently lives in areas of physical water scarcity. By 2050, as many as two thirds of the world's population could be living in water stressed conditions. The Western US is mired in drought. There are wildfires raging across Australia. The list goes on.
How do we address these problems before they worsen? Who will lead the way? Sitting across from Ryan, who speaks about these issues in a calm and measured tone, there is a strong sense that he will. "All people have a right to clean, abundant water," he says, certain of this basic right, certain too that he will work to ensure it.