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Engineering solutions for a sustainable future

Kerry Rowe has been awarded the inaugural NSERC Donna Strickland Prize for Societal Impact for his research improving the design of waste containment facilities worldwide.

[Photo of Dr. Kerry Rowe]
Dr. Kerry Rowe, Canada Research Chair in Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering, in his lab in Ellis Hall where his team tests the integrity of different types of landfill liners using environmental simulations.

Landfills are likely not the first thing that comes to mind when asked what type of municipal infrastructure is most important. Yet, a contamination disaster quickly alerts us to how devastating landfill leakages can be for a community’s supply of groundwater and the surrounding environment.

Devoting his life’s work to the prevention and remediation of groundwater and surface water contamination disasters, Queen’s researcher Dr. Kerry Rowe (Civil Engineering) has pioneered the field of geoenvironmental engineering and transformed landfill barrier systems around the world. Today, he was awarded the inaugural NSERC Donna Strickland Prize for Societal Impact of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research, which recognizes outstanding research that has led to exceptional benefits for Canadian society, the environment, and the economy. Named after the 2018 Canadian Nobel Laureate in Physics, the award also comes with a $250,000 grant to support the recipient’s continued research and knowledge dissemination.

Dr. Rowe’s work has impacted regulations, contaminant remediation, design, and the construction practice of landfills across three continents. His research focuses on the measures in place in waste disposal sites to ensure environmental protection, recognizing that some can, and will, fail at some time. By introducing innovations in the design of covers, fluid collection and liners, as well as improvements in regulatory and safety procedures, Dr. Rowe has guided the safe development of waste containment sites around the world.

"By putting the innovative systems in place to prevent waste contamination, Dr. Rowe’s research has had a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of millions of people worldwide," says Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research). "Congratulations to Dr. Rowe on receiving this prestigious national honour."

In an interview with the Queen’s Gazette, Dr. Rowe reflects on milestones, what the award means to him, and the future of the field.


How does it feel to be the first recipient of the NSERC Donna Strickland Prize?

It is great to see that there is now an award for the social impact of natural science and engineering research, and of course, I am delighted to be the first winner. To me, it's recognition of the critical role played by the research of civil engineers and, in this case more specifically, the sub-discipline of geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineers. The application of their work to both improving and protecting lives can sometimes fly under the radar. So, beyond the recognition of the specific work undertaken by my team of collaborators and students, it's great to see this recognition of our profession.

Your research has been a driving force in the implementation of life-saving improvements and safety standards around the world. Looking back on your career, what has been your process in achieving this?

As in all research, my work begins by identifying an important problem, finding a solution, and publishing the results. However, as I look back over the past 40 years, the major challenge in establishing a new sub-discipline and having an impact on society has been influencing regulations and practitioners in both the adoption of new methods of design and construction, and avoiding practices that save money in the short-term, but ultimately lead to future problems and substantial financial and social costs. One key element of that process has been the training of highly qualified personnel (HQP) and having them also carry the message to industry and regulatory authorities. Today, many of my former HQP are industry leaders.

You’ve stated that "working with nature rather than fighting nature and making nature work for us instead of against us" has been a key component to your research. How do you think this approach has guided your discoveries and identified opportunities for innovation?

There are many aspects to how nature influences geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering. Examples include water that will always find a path of least resistance, bacteria that have been around since the dawn of life and are amazingly adaptable, and processes like diffusion which are often thought to be too slow to be of consequence but turn out to be major players in managing environmental issues.

In the early days of thoughtful landfill design (1980s-1990s), sand was used to drain the contaminated fluid, called leachate, generated by the waste itself and the percolation of water through the waste. This would make sense had leachate simply been water, since water drains easily through coarse sand. However, it was soon found that the sand was being cemented together and substantially lost its ability to collect leachate. This is because leachate is mostly water but also contains bacteria, dissolved chemicals like calcium and this combination produces calcium carbonate which blocks water passageways through the sand. Using coarse gravel, instead of sand, was the first step in reducing the problem, but the bacteria were still the enemy and given time would clog the gravel.

The more effective approach we adopted involved placing a layer above the drainage layer where the same bacteria cleaned up the leachate, reducing the potential for clogging in the drainage layer while locking up contaminates like heavy metals and still allowing adequate drainage. Thus, the bacteria ceased to be our bio-enemy and became a bio-friend.

[Photo of Dr. Rowe's team working on installing a liner at the Queen's University Environmental Liner Test Site in Godfrey, Ontario]
Dr. Rowe's team works on installing a liner at the Queen's University Environmental Liner Test Site in Godfrey, Ontario.

What do you think will be the next obstacle in maintaining the safety and success of our landfills?

For landfills, the major challenge of the next decade, or more, will be managing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These are human-made chemicals that have become ubiquitous in our daily lives over the last 60 years and are in numerous items, from food packaging to beauty products, to carpets and numerous other products, that find a way into landfills and result in concentrations in leachate at levels 100 to 1000 times what is considered acceptable in drinking water. They are sometimes called “forever chemicals” since they do not readily breakdown in a landfill.

There are numerous implications both for existing and future landfills, such as how they affect the service life of the engineered system. Looking beyond landfills, the movement to green energy has many unintended consequences that have not received adequate consideration. Along with climate change and its implications for all forms of waste management, these challenges will keep us busy for the next decade or more.

You’ve been recognized during your career with 130 awards and honours, including being made an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society (UK). You’ve also trained 157 graduate students. What advice do you give your students looking to make an impact with their research?

My advice is to focus their research on solving important questions that address problems that are now, or in the future, likely to impact society. This does not mean solving today's problem tomorrow. My key contributions have each taken a couple of decades to do the fundamental research behind the practical solution to a problem that impacts society. My point here is that there is too much tendency to want immediate results. Breaking new ground in research always requires patience.

[Photo of Dr. Kerry Rowe along with graduate students Jiying Fan and Farhana Jabin in his lab in Ellis Hall.]
Dr. Kerry Rowe with graduate students Farhana Jabin and Jiying Fan in his lab in Ellis Hall.

To learn more about the Donna Strickland Prize and other named NSERC prizes, visit the NSERC website.


Building on a history of excellence

Queen’s researchers have been recipients of some of NSERC’s most prestigious awards and distinctions. Their achievements have also been inspiration for others. In 2020, the E.W.R Steacie Memorial Fellowships established to support early-stage researchers was renamed to honour Queen’s Nobel Laureate Arthur McDonald. From outstanding contributions to science communication, to building multi-disciplinary teams to draw on their combined knowledge, and receiving the highest value funding grants, Queen’s researchers are tackling some of the world’s most significant and urgent challenges.

Learn more about these accomplishments below:

Discovery Grant

Awarded to innovative and bold research projects with the potential to create big impacts and to fund projects with long-term goals and support researchers with flexibility to explore multiple avenues in their field of study

2021 Highest Value: Dr. Cathleen Crudden

Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering

Recognizes outstanding Canadian teams of researchers from different disciplines who came together to engage in research drawing on their combined knowledge and skills, and produced a record of excellence achievements in the natural sciences and engineering

2019: Drs. Pascale Champagne, Michael Cunningham, Philip Jessop, Warren Mabee

2013: Drs. John Smol and Jules Blais (University of Ottawa)

Awards for Science Promotion

Honour individuals and groups who make an outstanding contribution to the promotion of science in Canada through activities encouraging popular interest in science or developing science abilities

2019: Dr. Lynda Colgan

Arthur B. McDonald Fellowships

Awarded annually to recognize early-stage academic researchers in the natural sciences and engineering and to enhance their research capacity so that they can become leaders in and inspire others (Previously known as the E.W.R. Steacie Memoral Fellowships)

2018: Dr. Ahmed Hassan

2008: Dr. Troy Day

2003: Dr. Zongchao Jia

NSERC John C. Polanyi Award

Given to an individual or team whose research, conducted in Canada, has led to a recent outstanding advance in any NSERC-supported field of the natural sciences or engineering

2008: Dr. Philip Jessop

Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering

Awarded annually to an individual whose body of work, conducted in Canada in the natural sciences for engineering, has demonstrated persistent excellence and influence

2004: Dr. John Smol

2003: Dr. Arthur McDonald, Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics