Michigan Tech Research Forum

Fall 2019 Distinguished Professor - Dr. David Watkins

|October 16, 2019 Theme: Utilitarian Engineering 

Lecture presented by  Distinguished Professor David WatkinsUtilitarian Engineering: Promoting Equity and Sustainability Under Resource Constraints

Research Statement: Research shows that happiness and life satisfaction scale with the logarithm of income. This supports the use of utility functions (and their derivative, demand curves) in engineering models for managing resources and planning infrastructure investments.  Examples of resource management models that ultimately seek to maximize societal utility--both for current and future generations--will be presented, along with some limitations and research directions.  The talk will begin with a disclaimer that, despite having a Ph.D., the speaker has no formal training in philosophy.

Six Questions with Distinguished Professor David Watkins

Q1. You have a strong focus in your work on sustainability and infrastructure. How did you come to choose this path? Or, did it choose you? 
It was in high school that I first heard about the number of people worldwide who did not have access to sanitation and clean water, and I became interested in environmental and water resources engineering.  My interests have broadened since then, as I’ve learned more about interconnected issues in development, resource consumption, and climate.

Q2. How do your research and teaching complement each other?
On a personal level, as much as I appreciate the challenge and excitement of research, it can also be frustrating and even a bit daunting at times.  Teaching reminds me of what I do know, and it’s rewarding to share new advances with students and see them become more interested and adept in a topic.  Students often bring new perspectives to problems, too, which can expand my thinking.

Q3. What has changed the most in your field over the past decade (or two)? 
One of the biggest changes in the past 10-20 years is the amount of environmental data available, including both observations and model re-analyses (the use of physically based computer models to “fill in” between observation points). In water resources planning and management, we are continually striving to make the best use of the data available.  

Q4. What is the biggest challenge in your fields of expertise? 
Even as more and more data become available, there is increasing recognition that we can’t rely solely on observations of the past to plan and design for the future, mainly due to climate change (warming oceans and atmosphere, and changing circulation patterns).  Engineering standards are starting to take this into account, but there’s no consensus on how to adjust design standards.  One approach that is emerging is to account for greater uncertainty, while also ensuring that systems don’t fail catastrophically when their design event is exceeded.  But we still have a lot of work to do to better understand the risks and tradeoffs in our designs.

 Q5. How does Michigan Tech work for you as a home base? 
My work has benefited a lot from the size of the campus and relative ease of working across departments and disciplines.  The only real downside for me is the frequency of flight cancellations.

Q6. What's next in your research?
I think the confidence in regional climate projections will increase significantly in the next decade, allowing for improved climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.  I would like to continue working on integrated approaches to mitigation and water, energy, and food security, as well as contribute to adaptation planning for some of the most vulnerable areas, such as coastal and drought-prone regions.