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Student’s Research Looks at Interconnections of People, Environment

Giving News

By Kathleen Mabley

Behind the headlines about climate change is a complex subject that is the focus of research around the world. Emily Grubert, MA ’10, a recent Harrington Graduate Fellow, has a particular climate-change concern: water, and the effects that conventional energy production have on it.

Growing up the daughter of a petroleum engineer and a civil engineer, Grubert initially had no plans to follow in their footsteps. Now that she has, though, she appreciates the heritage. During her undergraduate research at Stanford Grubert kept encountering the work of UT’s Michael Webber, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, associate director of the Center for International Energy & Environmental Policy, and fellow in the Strauss Center for International Security & Law.

Harrington Fellow Emily Grubert

Harrington Fellow Emily Grubert

Webber’s research and expertise aligned with the type of work Grubert hoped to do as a graduate student. Realizing that UT would be an ideal place to pursue her graduate work, she found the perfect match for her interests in the Jackson School of Geosciences’ innovative Earth and Energy Resources program, where she has worked with Webber and other scientists.

“My central interest is around what happens to energy because of our concerns about climate — and then what happens to land, air, water, and people because of energy,” Grubert says. “The program gave me the latitude to take classes in a lot of related areas, including policy, law, and nuclear engineering.”

With the support of her donor-funded fellowship, Grubert was able to finish her master’s degree in one year. But because her interests encompass so many disciplines, she decided to remain at UT to earn a second master’s degree, this one in environmental and water resources engineering.

“Climate change represents a major threat to people,” Grubert says, “not because the human race can’t survive it, but because our traditional assumptions that things in the future will be similar to the way they were in the past might not be valid. This makes planning for infrastructure difficult.”

For example, she says, what if we build long-term projects for water supply based on where and when we expect rain to fall — and then precipitation patterns change? “Water is expected to be one of the environmental systems that is most affected by climate change, and our ability to plan for things like power production and agriculture depends on our ability to understand what our water resources are.”

Grubert continues to examine various land use options and their potential effect on water. She is also studying water use in conventional energy resources, identifying the differences, for example, in natural gas and coal. Looking forward, she plans to pursue a PhD, gain industry experience, and then attain an academic position at a university like UT where she can do further top-level research.

“Now, more than ever, there is an opportunity to look at environmental issues as interconnected systems,” she says. “Decisions made in one area, such as water use, affect not only the water itself, but air, land, and ultimately people.”

Learn more about the Donald D. Harrington Fellows Program.

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