Professor Kartik Chandran Wins MacArthur “Genius” Grant

Sep 29 2015 | By Holly Evarts | Videos: Columbia News Video Team

Kartik Chandran, associate professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia Engineering, has been named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow for his work in “transforming wastewater from a pollutant requiring disposal to a resource for useful products, such as commodity chemicals, energy sources, and fertilizers.” He joins a distinguished group of 24 talented people who have all demonstrated exceptional originality and dedication to their creative pursuits, as well as a marked capacity for self-direction. The “genius grant” comes with a $625,000 stipend that is given with no conditions—fellows may use the money as they see fit.

Watch Chandran's TEDxColumbiaEngineering talk, "Sewage Fed Biorefineries—A Foundation for Urban Sustainability."

“When I received the call telling me that I had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, I was rather overwhelmed,” Chandran says. “I’d just returned to New York from India after a 24-hour flight and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The fellowship is a great honor, which carries with it immense responsibility and provides ever more motivation to continue expanding my scientific horizons and boundaries and help solve global societal and human challenges.”

Chandran’s research on the global nitrogen cycle and engineered wastewater treatment has been widely recognized. In 2011 he received a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to develop a transformative new model in water and sanitation in Africa. His work is focused on integrating microbial ecology, molecular biology, and engineering to transform wastewater, sewage, and other “waste” streams from problematic pollutants to valuable resources. Traditional facilities for biologically treating wastewater remove pathogens, organic carbon, and nutrients, where necessary, through decades-old technology that requires vast amounts of energy and resources, releases harmful gases into the atmosphere, and leaves behind material that must be discarded. Chandran has a different approach to wastewater treatment: he investigates producing useful resources such as fertilizers, chemicals, and energy sources, in addition to clean water, in a way that takes into account the climate, energy, and nutrient challenges we face today.

Chandran, who joined the Engineering School in 2005, is the third SEAS professor in six years to receive a MacArthur grant. He has also won the Water Environment Research Foundation Paul L. Busch Award (2010), a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2009), and a National Academies of Science Fellowship (2007). His appointments prior to joining Columbia include his role as a senior technical specialist (2001–2004) with the private engineering firm Metcalf and Eddy of New York, where he contributed to New York City’s efforts to achieve significant improvements to its water quality. Chandran earned a BS (1995) from the Indian Institute of Technology at Roorkee (formerly University of Roorkee) and a PhD (1999) from the University of Connecticut.

The MacArthur Fellowship grants are awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Fellows are nominated anonymously. Each year, the MacArthur Fellows Program invites new nominators on the basis of their expertise, accomplishments, and breadth of experience. They are encouraged to nominate the most creative people they know within their field and beyond. Nominations are then evaluated by an anonymous committee of about a dozen leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities professions, and for-profit and nonprofit communities. The committee recommends recipients to the President and board of directors, and the final list is usually announced in September.

Chandran discusses the first large-scale survey of 12 wastewater plants across the U.S. that shows the magnitude of N2O emissions from these plants may be more variable and complex than previously thought.