Esteemed environmental researcher answers call to shape climate change efforts in Iowa.
Jerry Schnoor has testified before Congress and led research around the world. He’s also chairing a state advisory council on climate change, helping develop a nationwide network of environmental observatories, and sharing his experience with tomorrow’s scientists and advocates.
Who knew an inspirational chemistry teacher, five minutes of career discussion with a high school guidance counselor, and the courage to step away from a job and pursue graduate study would produce a leader in environmental issues?
“I believe my parents thought it was crazy to leave a good-paying job to go back to school,” Schnoor says. “They came to understand it was the right move for me.”
Indeed it was.
This fall, Iowa Governor Chet Culver tabbed Schnoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering and occupational and environmental health at The University of Iowa, to lead the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council, a new 27-member commission charged with guiding the state’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help prevent global warming.
“We are asked to develop various scenarios on how to reach environmental goals—the most stringent of which seeks a 50 percent emission reduction by 2050,” Schnoor says.
Schnoor has long been active in environmental causes, locally and globally. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he led studies of central European lakes acidified by rain, and conducted similar research in northern portions of the United States. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency called him to testify before Congress in support of the Clean Air Act.
More recently, Schnoor became co-director of the Water and Environmental Research Systems (WATERS) Network. This endeavor, the first of its kind on this scale, will link up to a dozen scientific observatories across the United States for coordinated research to sense, model, and predict environmental change and water processes.
“There is an important need to conduct water research at a multitude of scales culminating in the continental scale,” Schnoor says. “Technological advancements in sensors, broadband, wireless communications, and high-performance computing allow a real-time data stream of water quantity and quality information to flow to the Internet, data everyone could use to perform research and address national issues.”
Schnoor also serves as co-director of the University’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, a group focused on understanding environmental change. With Greg Carmichael, UI professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, he coordinates researchers in fields as varied as law, geography, and public health—an interdisciplinary approach that’s spawned many large grant proposals.
“One of the many great things about Iowa is that while we’re smaller than a typical Big Ten university, we’re more versatile, and I credit that to the administration being open to interdisciplinary research,” Schnoor says.
Schnoor’s path toward environmental research began when his chemistry teacher at Davenport Central High School piqued his interest in the subject. Soon after, a guidance counselor advised Schnoor to pursue engineering. “The whole meeting took less than five minutes,” Schnoor recalls.
After earning a bachelor’s in chemical engineering—the first member of his family to earn a college degree—Schnoor found work with Procter & Gamble. But several influences, the first celebration of Earth Day in 1970 chief among them, prompted him to leave his job and return to graduate school.
“I could see the serious nature of environmental issues,” Schnoor says. “I thought, ‘What better way to use my chemistry and engineering background but to solve these problems?’”
Schnoor sets aside his accomplishments when considering where the true impact of his work lies.
“What is my product? Research papers? Patents? No—the answer is my students. I look at the value that hopefully I’ve added to the lives of students who now work around the world,” Schnoor says.
“Twenty of my PhD students are working as professors. I see the incredible things being done by hundreds of former undergraduate and graduate students—they’ve become productive in their chosen fields. This multiplies, many times over, any small contribution I could have made.”
Story by Chris Clair; Photo by Tim Schoon
Oct. 29, 2007