Dr. Kerry Rowe honoured for leadership in geotechnical engineering

Posted on June 08, 2020


Dr. Kerry Rowe was recently recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the world largest Civil engineering professional society, for his leadership in geotechnical engineering research and practices. His ground-breaking work studying contaminants and waste containment is addressing some of the most complex challenges facing our world today, including how we manage the increasing amount of technological waste and chemicals that threaten our planet’s fragile ecosystem.

Geotechnical engineering involves the application of soil mechanics and hydrogeology to understand and solve problems involving the ground and the water within it. For Dr. Rowe, a major area of interest is the design of landfills and the containment of the materials within them. He notes that the 1978 state of emergency in Niagara Falls, where toxic materials were found near the city’s Love Canal neighbourhood, had a major impact on his research focus. “I knew we had to find a better way to do this, and I wanted to be part of that,” he says.

As our use of technology increases, so does the quantity of hazardous materials that are thrown away. Traditional waste types continue to need disposal but electronic waste such as smart phones and computers, as well as increasingly sophisticated children’s toys, Teflon cooking utensils, fire resistant fabrics, modern odourless socks, scratchproof eyeglasses, crack- resistant paints, transparent sunscreens, and stain-repellent fabric are now routinely discarded, resulting in a precarious mix of toxic elements in our landfills. Dr. Rowe’s research includes the design of landfills that can mitigate the effects of this waste.

Dr. Rowe notes that it’s critical to think about the long-term effects of products and the chemicals that are contained within them, such as elements found in fire-retardant or plastic products. “Sometimes chemicals originally designed to solve one problem end up causing another,” he says. “We can’t just design products without looking at the potential long-term, unintended consequences.” His research focusing on the long-term performance of contaminants reflects his commitment to this approach, with one currently published paper revealing the results of a 17 year-long study. “That’s three generation’s of PhD students,” he chuckles.

Dr. Rowe has contributed to projects around the world, and cites work in both the Arctic and Antarctica as being some of most interesting. There, they are looking at how to remediate soil using new materials under extreme weather conditions, which could then be replicated in other cold-weather regions.

Dr. Rowe’s ASCE honour adds to over 120 other awards received over a long and illustrious career that is still far from over. He still loves teaching, and is busier than ever with his graduate students and his lab. “We still have lots of work to do to manage our waste, and to find solutions that offer long-term benefits without harm,” he says. “As engineers, we have a duty to find better solutions for looking after our planet.”