Mark Wiesner says Iowa’s rigorous academics and mentorship put him on the path to success
Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When Mark Wiesner arrived at the University of Iowa campus in 1978, he knew he wanted to be an environmental engineer, but his education up until that point had focused on the liberal arts and sciences, not engineering. Fortunately, professors in the UI College of Engineering were quick to set him on the right track.

“The first thing they had to do was turn me into an engineer,” says Wiesner, who graduated from the UI with a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering in 1980. He received a PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1985. “It was a very different way of thinking. They definitely put me and my classmates through the paces.”

Today, Wiesner is director of the Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology at Duke University, where he investigates the relationship between nanomaterials—natural and manufactured, or those produced by human activities—and how they enter the environment, their biological effects, and their ecological impacts. And although he’s been away from Iowa for many years, Wiesner says he continues to use knowledge he gained in the early days of the environmental movement, a time when the UI and other schools were starting to offer coursework in the fields of environmental science and engineering.

“It was definitely an exciting time,” Wiesner says of the 1970s, a decade that also saw the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. “There was a lot of enthusiasm for really doing things right in the environment, and a lot of people entered the field with great optimism and idealism. Even then, the UI had tremendous faculty, especially in terms of wastewater treatment and water treatment.”

During his time at the UI, Wiesner worked with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Jerald L. Schnoor, who taught him the basics of environmental fieldwork and transport modelling, or the principles of momentum and environmental processes that determine the spread of pollutants in air, water, and soil. Over the years, Wiesner and Schnoor have kept in contact, initially as student and mentor and later as colleagues and friends. Both men are members of the esteemed National Academy of Engineering.

“Jerry has done a lot over the years to move the research focus of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to new important environmental topics,” says Wiesner, who as a graduate student worked with Schnoor on an early study of the accumulation of pesticides in fish. “The department has become a research powerhouse with an impressive roster of graduates.”

For his part, Schnoor remembers Wiesner—who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and received his bachelor’s degree from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—as a student who was “on fire with ideas.”

“Some of them were good, some of them not so good, but a few were genius,” says Schnoor. “When you have genius in the classroom, teaching becomes a piece of cake. You just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Schnoor and Wiesner got a chance to reconnect recently when Wiesner returned to the UI campus to serve as the keynote speaker at the December 2017 College of Engineering graduation ceremony. During the ceremony, Wiesner was inducted into the University of Iowa Distinguished Engineering Alumni Academy, an honor bestowed upon alumni who have made significant contributions in engineering achievement, leadership, and service to the profession and society.

And although it was Wiesner who was in the spotlight, he quickly credited his friend with launching him on a successful academic career.

“Meeting Jerry was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me professionally, and he had a profound effect on everything else that happened to me in my career,” Wiesner said.

Wiesner went on to encourage engineering graduates to “be scientific, be ethical, and be creative,” and told them to prepare for the future, because “the torch (of technology and science) is being passed to you.”