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Professor Harnessing Advanced Technology to Address Environmental Issues

December 29, 2003

For many people, “exciting new technology” conjures images of iPods, camera phones and flat-screen TVs. For UC Merced Engineering professor Tom Harmon, the concept means something a bit different but no less thrilling: sensors as wispy as hair that can gauge when, where and how much pollution enters a body of water.

Harmon, who recently joined the founding faculty of UC Merced's School of Engineering, will continue his ongoing research into the fate of environmental contaminants using new sensor technology that is revolutionizing the way scientific data is gathered.

“It is such a big issue nationally - how to use sensor technology to track the things you need to track, whether it be home security or contaminants in the atmosphere,” Harmon says. “It's an interesting time as the information technology world is merging with science. Technology is helping scientific results come faster and be more conclusive, helping researchers know immediately what's happening.”

The wealth of research opportunities provided by the Merced River watershed and the San Joaquin Valley's agricultural uses provide an ideal environment for Harmon's work and are part of what drew him to UC Merced. He hopes to build upon the work of the U.S. Geological Survey, which has identified specific areas of contamination along the Merced the old-fashioned way: by periodically collecting samples of water and analyzing them.

Harmon envisions a day when a networked system of embedded sensors all along the river will talk to each other and immediately flag when and where toxins in the water exceed established limits. Precision monitoring of water could result in “Fertilize” and “No Fertilize” days just as “Burn” and “No Burn” days have evolved from air pollution monitoring.

A similar project Harmon is working on at a wastewater treatment facility in the Southern California community of Palmdale will be deployed within the next two months. As he monitors that effort, he will continue his work to develop cheaper sensors that will enable affordable mass production. He hopes to begin monitoring the Merced River later in 2004.

“Sensor technology will change the way we do environmental science and change the way we answer questions about what's good for us and what's bad for us, and how good and how bad,” Harmon says. “It is a very exciting time for us.”

Harmon's research has been enabled by receipt of a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation's Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS). The $20 million grant, paid over five years, was awarded to a team of researchers of which Harmon is a member, and was one of only six grants awarded from a field of hundreds of applicants.

“Professor Harmon typifies the outstanding scholarship that will take place at UC Merced,” says Dean of Engineering Jeff Wright. “His research focusing on the development and use of sensor networks to improve environmental management is unique and important for our region.”Wright adds that Harmon is also a leader in environmental engineering education. “We're very fortunate to have faculty of Tom's caliber at UC Merced,” he says. “Tom has pioneered new techniques and technologies for teaching engineering, and is rapidly gaining a national reputation for educational innovation.”

Another reason Harmon was drawn to UC Merced was the excitement of building a program at a first-tier research institution and creating a brand-new curriculum - specifically, one that aims to show engineering students why they are studying what they're studying, rather than merely promising them they'll use it someday. “The opportunity to be on the ground floor of a new university - especially a UC campus - is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I had to seize while it was there,” Harmon says.

Harmon comes to UC Merced from UCLA, where he was an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He holds an M.S. and a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Stanford University.

UC Merced is the 10 thcampus of the UC system and the first major research university to be built in the United States during the 21 stcentury. The campus is scheduled to open in fall of 2005, and eventually will grow to serve 25,000 students. Initial undergraduate degree programs will include computer science and engineering, environmental engineering, biological sciences, earth systems sciences, world cultures and history, and social and behavioral sciences. Initial graduate degree programs include world cultures, social and behavioral sciences, quantitative and systems biology, molecular sciences and engineering, environmental systems, and computer and information systems.