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Keri Hornbuckle in the lobby of the Seamans Center for the Engineering Arts and Sciences.
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KERI HORNBUCKLE Problem-solving drew her to engineering, where she’s become a researcher, an administrator, and an example for women in the field.

As a student, Keri Hornbuckle had a wide range of interests: philosophy, writing, biology, chemistry, and physics. To her, engineering was just for math fanatics.

But after earning a degree in chemistry, she found the job prospects in that arena to be…well, boring without an advanced degree. Hornbuckle soon entered the realm of environmental engineering, a place where she developed her affinity for solving problems.

“It’s no surprise that engineers like their jobs. Our work is varied and improves many aspects of our society,” she says. “It’s easy to feel useful in this job.”

Keri Hornbuckle with a student in a lab.

Hornbuckle, who holds the title of Robert and Virginia Wheeler Faculty Fellow of Engineering at The University of Iowa, divides her time between her current research—measuring air toxins in the Chicago area—and carrying out leadership duties in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

For her Chicago research, which is part of the Iowa Superfund Basic Research Program, Hornbuckle sought to sample 40 areas in the region. This presented a logistical nightmare—manufacturing 40 air samplers, securing permissions at each sampling site, and routinely sending someone to each site to collect the data.

Keri Hornbuckle oversees the installation of air handlers on the back of an "asthma van".

To improve efficiency, Hornbuckle forged a unique partnership with a Chicago health care organization, the Mobile CARE Fondation, in which air samplers were mounted to the back of Mobile CARE’s two traveling medical clinics, known as “asthma vans.” 

These vehicles visit 40 schools each month, providing free care to children and a multitude of air-sampling sites. Rather than manufacturing and installing 40 samplers, Hornbuckle needed just two, and the van drivers double as data recorders.

“The first round of data is coming back—it’s exciting to see if the toxin concentrations are as expected, or if there was variability we didn’t expect,” Hornbuckle says. “We will continue to collect data for several years, but we’re now at the point where we can publish initial results.”

Hornbuckle spent part of 2007 at Stockholm University in Sweden, working in a research laboratory with fellow experts in applied environmental science.

“I was surrounded by 100 people working in my particular area of expertise, the behavior of semivolatile organic compounds,” Hornbuckle says. “I was working alongside some of the best scientists in the world. Everything was beneficial and enjoyable: being around these great minds, participating in their research groups, and having those spur-of-the-moment discussions in the hallway that become new research projects.”

She’s hit the ground running since returning home. She became departmental executive officer (DEO) of the civil/environmental engineering department last summer—a notable appointment, as she is the first female DEO in the UI College of Engineering.

“We have more female students going into engineering, and they continue to find their place in the field,” Hornbuckle says. “I hope that my leadership role can serve as an example for women who pursue an engineering degree.”

Keri Hornbuckle confers technicians in Chicago neighborhood.

Hornbuckle seeks to increase the visibility of her department—“Our students and faculty do a lot of interesting things, but often we don’t think about how to tell people this,” she says—and to continue recruiting women to the college.

“I hope to show current students that engineering solves societal problems,” Hornbuckle says. “Engineers help develop fuel-efficient cars and improve air and water quality. They work with farmers to predict nutrient and water needs for crops and to control release of pollutants to rivers. Engineers design safer bridges and highways. I hope I can help students think about engineering in that way.”

Hornbuckle’s students are receiving one message loud and clear: the importance of collaboration.

“Our students are very bright and, as a group, thoughtful and generous people,” she says. “I often notice that our students seem to value the results of their team projects as much or more than their individual scores. This is inspiring to me.”

Story by Christopher Clair; Photos by Tim Schoon

March 31, 2008