When he came to Arizona State University 26 years ago, Peter Fox joined only one other faculty member with expertise in environmental engineering — and that colleague retired one semester after Fox’s arrival.
At that time, ASU students interested in doing research or obtaining a degree in that emerging branch of engineering had to move on to graduate school at another university.
Today, ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering has a highly reputable environmental engineering graduate program that has been recognized nationally and internationally, and now Professor Fox’s ASU colleagues include many prominent researchers in the field.
Many people had a hand in making that happen, but Fox is acknowledged as “the one who got it all started,” says Bruce Rittmann, a fellow professor in the Fulton Schools and a much-awarded researcher in environmental biotechnology.
Fox has served as adviser to more than 100 students who have earned master’s degrees and more than 20 who earned doctoral degrees in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, and he has mentored hundreds of undergraduates who have focused their studies on a concentration in environmental engineering within the accredited civil engineering program.
But in the near future, he will be able to see ASU students earn degrees from a new undergraduate program focused specifically on environmental engineering.
Joining a list of all-stars
Fox’s leading role in all this progress is a large part of what has earned him this year’s top educator award from the Water Environment Federation, a major international organization of water-quality professionals.
He accepted the Fair Distinguished Engineering Educator Medal on Sept. 27 at the WEF Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference, the largest event of its kind in the world.
The award, which “recognizes accomplishments in the education and development of future engineers,” is named in honor of Gordon Maskew Fair, a Harvard University professor of sanitary engineering known for not only teaching students the technical aspects of the field but inspiring them to use their skills to protect and enhance environmental quality.
The medal is awarded to recognize the contributions of those whose work as educators reflects Professor Fair’s ideals.
“Peter’s past body of work and his current service, research and outreach have been instrumental in driving our environmental engineering graduate program to national prominence. I cannot think of anyone else who is so deserving of this award,” said professor G. Edward Gibson Jr., director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the Fulton Schools.
Sought-after water resources expert
Fox says he is further honored because the past winners of the award comprise “a list of all-stars” in the environmental engineering profession.
Fox’s all-star status is emphasized by former student Carlos Padilla, who nominated Fox for the award.
Padilla earned a master’s degree under Fox’s mentorship and is now the water resources department assistant director for the city of Mesa, one of many of Fox’s students who have gone on to leading roles in industry and at national laboratories, or have started entrepreneurial ventures and run successful businesses.
Those and many other students have gotten the benefit of learning from a teacher whose work to develop improved techniques, processes and systems for water treatment, recharge, reclamation and reuse have made him a sought-after consultant and research collaborator.
Fox has advised federal, state and regional government agencies and served on public task forces for major water resource sustainability efforts throughout the western United States and in other countries — including Australia, Israel and Jordan.
Locally, he earned the Arizona Water Association’s Environmental Education Award in 2013 and the organization’s top research award four times in previous years.
On a larger stage, he helped to establish the National Center for Sustainable Water Supply. Headquartered at ASU, its partners included Stanford University, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Arizona. He directed the center for eight years.
Biggest reward is impact on students
He was an executive committee member for the effort to develop a national road map for water desalination and purification, a joint venture of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Sandia National Laboratories.
Fox is currently a project leader for one of the major research thrusts of the Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Systems center, called NEWT, a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center.
The center is charged with developing compact, mobile, off-grid water-treatment systems that can provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost effective.
For the past five years, he has also been serving as the graduate program chair for the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, where he impacts students' education across all discipline areas in the school, including civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, construction engineering and construction management.
Fox says the bonus for all this varied work is being able to share the lessons and results from his leadership and research endeavors with his students.
“That is what makes this a great job, the combination of doing research and teaching,” he said. “In the end, the biggest reward is contributing to the lives of the students.”
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