Current: Why did you choose to join Current as its Senior Scientific Advisor?
Sharon Feng: I have been involved from day-one in the creation of Current. In fact, I was a part of the work group that launched Current at the White House Water Summit in March 2016. I won’t go as far as to say that “this is my baby,” but I do feel like an aunt watching the birth and growth of a favorite child. I have always been passionate about what Current could bring to national and global water technology innovation scene. Once Current launched, I sat in on nearly every board meeting, and I am also deeply involved with the Program Committee. So, when I was asked to step in and lead Current Research after Current’s chief scientist, Dr. Seth Snyder, moved from Argonne to Idaho National Lab, it was natural for me. I am excited about the opportunity to contribute even more to Current’s growth.
Current: You are also Senior Associate Dean of the Institute of Molecular Engineering (IME) at University of Chicago. How is IME helping to understand the unique properties of water and develop new ways to treat and use water more efficiently?
SF: IME is a unique academic institution. Its mission is to develop impactful technologies to solve the big challenges facing humankind. Its inherent, cross-disciplinary nature affords the opportunities for researchers with diverse expertise and interests to collaborate and tackle these difficult scientific and technological problems together.
IME is the home for many of world’s renowned scientists whose research activities touch various aspects of water, ranging from the world’s best theoretical scientists who study the fundamental behaviors of water molecules in various environments to the material scientists whose research can help to develop the next generation of sensors and membranes. For example, Professor Jim Skinner is the world’s foremost expert on water’s hydrogen bonding networks, and Professor Giulia Galli is known for her work in water behavior in solid lattice. Several of our researchers work at the cross-section of chemistry and biology and bring very unique perspectives to solving water problems. For example, Matt Tirrell, Dean and Founding Pritzker Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering, is looking at a bio-based technology in sequestering phosphorus in wastewater. Overall, IME is one of those rare places where all disciplines of science work together. There really are no disciplinary boundaries at IME, which makes IME and the University of Chicago an important partner for Current.
Current: What role can the institutions and the scientists that are part of Current’s Research Consortium play in helping to commercialize new solutions to pressing water problems?
SF: Current Research can have the biggest effect when there is a defined market need and connection. The role of Current Research is to gather the best researchers and institutions together and align their capabilities to best serve customers. Current is uniquely positioned to bring industry and utilities stakeholders to the table to identify their needs and align our research capabilities to address those needs. Industry and utilities are looking for solutions and we are here to deliver those solutions. Historically, researchers and innovators are not able to efficiently connect. Current can facilitate these connections, increasing the speed to market of innovative solutions.
Current: The water sector has generally been quite risk-averse. Faced with growing issues such as drought, urban flooding, and nutrient pollution, what is needed to help more efficiently embrace the innovations needed to address these? How can the capabilities of Current Research help?
SF: Culture change in this industry is a big challenge. Other than bringing sound science to the table, researchers can be more mindful in understanding market need, so they can develop solutions that are really valuable. The Current Demonstration program can help by providing scientists the opportunity to show the applicability of new technology in the real world and provide a path to validate and de-risk innovations for the marketplace. Meanwhile, the Current Connect program has the potential to change this culture by fostering trust among stakeholders who can work together to bring disruptive new technologies to market while still ensuring compliance and safety
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