Beyond the lab and into practice: bringing our work to a completion

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Thu Mar 17 2022

Author: Guest contributor

In honor of World Water Day (March 22nd), we have invited a few field specialists to share their thoughts with us on the nature of their work and their commitment to addressing the SDGs. These experts translate science into realities that can provide practical solutions to our challenges and nurture the public engagement.  We asked how they address issues directly related to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation. Here we are sharing thoughts from Prof. Eric M. V. Hoek at Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UCLA and the Editor-in-Chief of npj Clean Water

What is the focus of your research work? 

My research lab at UCLA explores the union of nanomaterials, electrochemistry and membrane technologies for water, energy, human health and environmental applications.

How is your work addressing SDG6: Clean Water and Sanitation? 

I’ve been working on drinking water treatment technologies since I was an undergrad research assistant for Prof. Fred Cannon at Penn State in 1994 working on activated carbon regeneration. Next, I went on to complete my MS thesis at UCLA in 1996 with Prof. Meny Elimelech on removal of disinfection by-products from drinking water via enhanced coagulation and filtration.  In my PhD, I focused on reverse osmosis membranes applied to brackish water desalination and wastewater reclamation/reuse.  By now I’ve worked on most drinking water and wastewater applications involving membranes and filtration.

What do you think is the most effective way of communicating your research? 

I think it’s a mix overall.  I’ve published in scientific journals.  I’ve written books.  I’ve given presentations at elementary and high schools, universities, national labs, companies, trade shows and scientific conferences.  At UCLA and through my start-up companies, we issued press releases and advertised in trade journals and shows.  I’ve done radio, TV, telephone and web-based interviews.  I even participated in a public debate at the end of the Santa Monica pier.

Each forum targets different audiences, so to maximize effectiveness, I think you have to do a little bit of everything.

What do you think is the most productive way that researchers can engage policymakers? 

Most academic institutions (in the U.S.) have government relations personnel.  So, the first thing is working with those professionals to let politicians and policy advocacy groups know you exist.  Then, you have to create opportunities for them to get to know you and your expertise, so they can figure out how and when to come to you for some advice or scientific evidence to support a policy initiative.

Tell us your experience of realising science-based solutions to help tackle challenges and your advice for researchers who are looking for ways to become an entrepreneur.

Translating what we do into reality is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.  First, we transfer knowledge and know-how through our students when they become professionals in industry, government or academic positions.  In terms of entrepreneurial opportunities, that has also been highly rewarding in my experience.  I’ve been very fortunate to have been involved variously in seven start-up technology companies to date, and we plan to launch a few more in the next few years based on research that has been ongoing the past several years.  For research scientists and engineers, I think the key is to have the passion to want to see your work through to completion – beyond the lab and into practice.

What does public engagement look like in your field and how important do you think it is for researchers to make a societal impact with their work?

For me, it’s very important because of a program that I direct at UCLA, called the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, which is an interdisciplinary university-wide initiative aimed at applying UCLA research, expertise and education to help transform Los Angeles into the world’s most sustainable megacity by 2050 — making it the most livable, equitable, resilient, clean and healthy megacity, and an example for the world.  As the Director of this program, I frequently talk to a wide range of regional stakeholders involved in power production and delivery, water purification and distribution, environmental regulation and protection, regional transportation, and folks working in equity and justice space, in addition to elected officials and private industries.

What do you think is the most relevant way to measure success against the SD6 in your field and what methods might you use to evaluate the societal impact of your work? 

Well, I think the SDG framework lays out specific goals, metrics and targets.  

That said, from my perspective and in a developing world context, I think it comes down to things like lives lost to water contamination and missed days of school for children due to illness from water contamination along with metrics like the fraction of a given population without access to clean water and sanitation.  This also applies to rural, off-grid homes in the developed world. Many groundwater wells in the US, for example, are contaminated by naturally occurring contaminants (e.g., radon, arsenic) as well as industrial chemicals and/or pesticides and nutrients from agriculture.

In an urban context, nearly everyone is served by massive, centralized and highly sophisticated water and wastewater treatment infrastructure; however, we still have a significant fraction of the population that does not have clean water coming out of their kitchen sink.  This is largely because of the stage of the “premise plumbing” – meaning the pipes that carry the water from the street into your house, apartment, school or place of work.  Perfectly good water (at the street) can be highly contaminated at the point of use.

In what ways the open access journal, npj Clean Water, play a role within SDG6? 

Open access is critical for everyone to have the same access to the latest research and perspectives.  It enables access and creates equity whereas traditional subscription-model scientific journals can only be accessed by those institutions and individuals that can afford to pay their fees.

As an academic and the Editor-in-Chief of npj Clean Water, what do you see as the role of publishers when it comes to addressing the SDGs? How can they best support researchers?

Open access is the key.  Keeping publication fees for authors as low as possible is also critical to ensure the highest impact research makes its way into open access journals, particularly when it is coming from authors that cannot afford to pay the fees.

Visit our SDG6 hub for selected research content and more discussions around clean and safe water and sanitation.

About Eric M. V. Hoek
Eric Hoek

Dr. Hoek is currently a Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UCLA and the Editor-in-Chief of npj Clean Water. He was co-founder of the UCLA Water Technology Research Center, UC Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology and the KAUST-Cornell Center for Energy & Sustainability. His UCLA research group explores the union of nanomaterials and membrane technologies for water, energy, biomedical and environmental applications. Dr. Hoek also applies his basic research knowledge to practical applications, having consulted for a range of organizations including companies, governments and research agencies.


Author: Guest contributor

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