FEATURED STORY  |  Impact on Sustainability

Sustainability is sometimes defined as the capacity to endure. In our last issue that featured faculty research, we concentrated on the many ways that our professors are working in the field of health to help the human body endure. This issue features many of our faculty who are working to help the planet endure. Their efforts span the areas that are of concern to all—water, climate, and energy.

One of our alumni, Mike Massimino ’84, has had the opportunity to view Earth from a unique perspective. As a NASA astronaut, and the first person to Twitter from outer space, he has shared his observations with the world: “viewing the Earth is a study of contrasts, beautiful colors of the planet, thin blue line of atmosphere, pure blackness of space.” Earth is truly beautiful when viewed from space, and we know that its health and its future are in our hands.

Our School’s history is inextricably linked to our planet. Indeed, we were founded in 1864 as the Columbia School of Mines. In the early years of our School, we, like others at that time, were more concerned about what the planet could yield for us—precious gems, minerals, and fossil fuels.


But even before the current emphasis on the importance of sustainability in all its forms, the School’s first dean realized that, for humans to endure, the resources upon which their lives depended also needed to be of a quality that would support life. Charles Frederick Chandler worked to bring clean water into New York City and instituted measures to keep the water supply potable.

In 1866, Chandler was approached by the Metropolitan Board of Health to investigate sanitary concerns that impacted the health of New York City. He continued his work for the Board of Health, becoming its first chemist, and, in 1873, he was appointed its president. In this capacity, he provided laws that protected both the health of New Yorkers and the health of the environment in which they lived, promoting laws and regulations that would curb the discharge of toxic gases and acids into sludge.

During the entire time he was monitoring the health and environment of New Yorkers, Chandler was making his mark as dean of the Columbia School of Mines, creating and leading a distinguished faculty from the School’s inception to 1897. Over the years, the School has been a leader in mining and metallurgy research and education, including pioneering work in mineral beneficiation, chemical thermodynamics, kinetics, and transport phenomena in mineral extraction and processing.

Today we recognize our obligation to help our planet endure, and that obligation has become part of the mission of the School as we seek to educate socially responsible engineering and applied science leaders whose work results in the betterment of the human condition, locally, nationally, and globally.

In the late 1990s, the School’s traditional programs in mining and mineral engineering were transformed to include environmental concerns for land and water resources. The Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering resulted and, as such, its faculty became an integral part of the new University-wide major initiative in Earth studies, the Columbia Earth Institute.

Today, faculty in many different departments are tackling sustainability as a research focus, each working in his or her specialized area to help solve some of the most intractable problems that face our world today. I hope you will enjoy reading about them and their research, and are proud of the great impact that Columbia Engineering is making on the lives of many people around the world today.

Feniosky Peña-Mora