Adding new value to a career spent fostering interdisciplinary education

Linda Abriola is ready to reclaim her faculty identity. The computational modeler, National Academy of Engineering member, National Academy of Arts and Sciences member, U.S. State Department Science Envoy, and former dean at Tufts has arrived on College Hill for an opportunity to strike out again as an educator, teacher and researcher — something she hasn’t been able to singularly focus on since early in her career.

Linda Abriola“What happens when you step down from a leadership role at an institution is that it becomes difficult to assimilate back into the faculty,” Abriola said about her 12 years serving as Dean of Engineering at Tufts University, and then followed by the last five years as a professor there. “Brown is giving me an opportunity to do that, and what is attractive to me, what brought me here, is the great interdisciplinary collaboration. The lack of boundaries between disciplines and the caliber of the faculty and the students are real draws for me. The size of the institution, too, is something where you feel you can make a real difference.

“I’m really struck by the intellectual vibrancy of the place, the spirit of community that I feel. Even under Zoom conditions, it comes across,” she said.

She comes to Brown to enhance a core group of senior faculty women in the School of Engineering, but breaking traditionally male bastions is something Abriola has embraced since walking into her first civil engineering class as an undergraduate at Drexel. This attitude has afforded her opportunities, like the many committees on which she has served for elite groups like the National Academies, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Stockholm Environment Institute board of directors, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She was the lone female academic in the civil engineering field when she was elected to the NAE in 2003.

“It was a very strange time to be starting out,” she said, thinking back to her earlier days in academia. “But I had advantages in a field that was so male-dominated. People remembered me. I was asked to do all kinds of things that I probably wouldn’t have been asked to do until I was more senior, but I was chosen because women were so underrepresented on these committees.  

“I could have probably collapsed from all the service, but it helped me to meet people faster than I would have otherwise, so it was helpful to me in my personal and professional growth.”

In 2016, Abriola was tabbed as a science envoy for the U.S. State Department. “It was such an exciting opportunity to travel to Nepal and Uzbekistan to give a series of lectures there.  

“I was able to visit a number of universities and learn a little about their water resource problems and issues, and hopefully open some doors for the state department,” she said. The goal of the U.S. Science Envoy program is to develop partnerships, improve collaboration, and forge mutually beneficial relationships related to science and economic issues between other nations and the United States, with emphasis on women in STEM and water resource engineering in South and Central Asia. The hope is that foreign government agencies and universities might make connections with envoys that they would not make with U.S. government officials.

“I also got to speak to women there — women don’t have many examples of leading scientists coming to their universities and meeting with them. Unfortunately, at that particular time, the program wasn’t emphasized in our newly elected administration, so follow-up grants and programs were difficult to come by. But as a result of that program, I brought ideas back to Tufts and used some of those experiences in starting a master’s program in sustainable water management (Tufts Institute of the Environment). I established that program with the thought to attract students from all over the world, to work on these issues, to be educated in these issues and go back to their countries and really make a difference. It was clear that these types of programs are really important and are needed.”

Throughout her career, Abriola has sought to not only increase the representation of women in engineering, but at the same time to foster interdisciplinary research and education. She built her reputation as an environmental researcher at the intersection of experiments and mathematical modeling, with much of her research involving collaborations with colleagues from diverse academic disciplines. In her short time in Providence, she has already reached out not only to applied mathematics and chemistry, but also the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

She is beginning to develop a new course for upper level undergraduates in her field of groundwater flow and transport. “That’s where I grew up, that’s my field. That’s what I know best, and I haven’t been able to do that for a long time, so I’m looking forward to getting back into the classroom and teaching what I know and giving students the benefit of that knowledge,” she said.

Abriola’s interest in groundwater remediation can be easily traced back to her first job in industry after graduating Drexel. The soap plant in Staten Island where she worked as project engineer had a number of groundwater problems. “It sort of piqued my interest, so I looked at programs in groundwater when I was looking at graduate schools,” she said of her decision to earn advanced degrees from Princeton.

I bridge the gap by bringing the modeling down to the application. I enjoy that sweet spot when you’re helping experimentalists design experiments, interpreting data, taking what they learn and applying it to the field.

Linda Abriola Joan Wernig Sorensen and E. Paul Sorensen Professor of Engineering

The class she is now formulating would be a basic hydrology class, encapsulating the pieces offered now at Brown in several different science and environmental courses, but devoted completely to how water flows in the subsurface, how to measure properties of the subsurface and predict water supply, and also talk about transport of contaminants. There would be a large emphasis on modeling in the course, Abriola said, giving students a real-world problem to solve, and using commercial software to develop a computer model of sites.

“The other thing that attracted me to Brown is the strength of the mechanics and applied mathematics programs,” Abriola added. “What I do relates to those, and I’ll be very excited to meet all the faculty in those groups and see whether I can develop collaborations. I’ve already been in touch with (engineering professor) Yuri Bazilevs about participating in his new computational engineering master’s program. What I do is similar to what Yuri does, but I apply computational work to groundwater. I was trained more in mechanics, but over the years I’ve done an awful lot of work on the chemistry side and that’s why I’m sitting in chemical and environmental engineering. I sort of am the interface between the folks who work in applied mathematics and the folks that work in environmental engineering and chemistry and soil science. I bridge the gap by bringing the modeling down to the application. I enjoy that sweet spot when you’re helping experimentalists design experiments, interpreting data, taking what they learn and applying it to the field.

“At this stage of my career, I want to add value,” Abriola said. “That’s what I really care about. Building out collaborations, using my knowledge and, if needed, my experience in higher administration and academics to help enrich the school. I’m very grateful to be here, and to be here as the Joan Wernig Sorensen and E. Paul Sorensen named professor, well that’s a wonderful honor that was offered to clinch the deal. It really means a lot.”