One year ago, a team of five faculty members, including Assistant Professor Benjamin D. Leibowicz from the Operations Research and Industrial Engineering (ORIE) program in the Cockrell School of Engineering, received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish a new NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program at The University of Texas at Austin. NRT programs combine cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research with bold and transformative models for STEM graduate education and training. The theme of this new NRT program at UT Austin is food-energy-water systems (FEWS). Specifically, the research team will investigate how renewable energy can be leveraged to expand unconventional water sources for agriculture, and how energy-containing resources can be harvested from agricultural wastewater.

Co-Principal Investigator (PI) Dr. Leibowicz is joined on the project by lead PI Charles Werth, Professor in Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering; Co-PI Alex Huang, Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering; Co-PI Polina Sela, Assistant Professor in Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering; and Co-PI David Eaton, Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

The NRT program anticipates training a diverse group of 36 MS and PhD students with backgrounds in engineering, geosciences, and public affairs. Of these 36 students, 18 will be funded as NRT fellows. UT Austin will collaborate with Prairie View A&M University for fieldwork and with four minority-serving Texas institutions.

Over the past year, Dr. Leibowicz and the NRT leadership team have worked to refine the project’s research and education visions, institutionalize its educational components, establish protocols for regular external evaluation of the program, recruit students, build connections with partner institutions, and award the first round of NRT fellowships.

The first cohort of NRT students and fellows formally entered the program this semester. Among them is ORIE PhD student Erick Jones, who grew up in Houston and earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M University before earning a master’s in ORIE at UT. Erick’s research has focused on modeling the synergies between distributed electricity and water treatment technologies. By intelligently managing the water treatment technologies as flexible loads that consume electricity when it is abundantly available, integrated electricity and water systems can operate more efficiently and mutually enhance one another. In the near future, Erick will work with Dr. Leibowicz and Dr. Sela to extend these concepts to agricultural settings where water is often scarce and unconventional supply options (such as desalination) require significant energy inputs. All NRT students must be co-advised by multiple faculty members from different departments, as a reflection of the highly interdisciplinary scope of the research.

The NRT team is also in the process of introducing two new portfolio programs for UT graduate students, which will remain available after the conclusion of the grant period. First, a FEWS portfolio will recognize students who complete a set of four interdisciplinary FEWS courses across four areas: systems analysis, science and technology, policy, and food and agriculture. In the systems analysis area, many NRT students will take Dr. Leibowicz’s ORIE course on Systems Modeling. This unique course teaches students to formulate mathematical models from scratch in order to analyze solutions to complex policy and strategy challenges. Second, a STEM career development portfolio will prepare UT engineering graduate students for a wide range of future careers. This portfolio program will combine coursework in communication skills and personalized areas of career interest (such as entrepreneurship, teaching, government, and so on) with experiential learning in the form of internships, volunteering, and civic engagement.

The NRT program reflects the important role that ORIE researchers and practitioners can play in addressing complex grand challenges that affect all of society. ORIE methods such as systems modeling, optimization, economics, and decision analysis are all critical for properly comparing and assessing alternative solution strategies.

For more information and updates from the NRT program, please see its website or follow the NRT team on Twitter.