In a city like Boston, our relationship with water is as easy and unconsidered as turning on the tap – until, as we saw for a few days in May, a breach in the city’s water supply left 2 million residents fearing their tap water was unfit to drink. Suddenly, water became something one could not afford to take for granted.

For Bostonians, the inconvenience was temporary. But as long as human beings continue to multiply on a finite planet, securing clean water will be a permanent problem — and for a billion people around the world, it already is. Water has a way of seeping in everywhere, too, right to the core of our most daunting global challenges, from energy and famine to megacities and climate change. The pressure for solutions will only intensify across this century, as the Earth’s population grows by two billion people.

Securing enough clean water for the world poses problems that draw on a broad set of academic disciplines, from civil and environmental engineering to chemistry, biology and materials science, from architecture and urban planning to political science, economics and management. It is, in other words, a challenge perfectly suited to the fluid interdisciplinary strengths of MIT.

With more than 50 faculty members across all five Schools engaged in water-related research, MIT is helping to lead the global charge for solutions, from devising innovative technologies for water purification, seawater desalination and wastewater recycling to assessing global policies that drive water pricing, conservation and supply. And our current work builds on a long tradition of pioneering water research. For instance, when the Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and Engineering was established in 1950, it immediately took on the challenge of creating a scale model of Boston Harbor, to study water flow and erosion. Today, the lab’s current director, Professor Dara Entekhabi, is leading a path-breaking NASA project that aims to measure global soil moisture from space; the data will shed new light on links between the water, energy and carbon cycles, and improve predictions of weather, drought and floods. And Professor Heidi Nepf, an expert on water flow through wetlands, has demonstrated the impact of aquatic plants in rivers and streams on the health of coastal ocean waters.

To train the next generation of leaders in the field, the Institute offers more than 50 courses involving water. And we are leading the cross-disciplinary conversation with events like our recent campus conference, “Rethinking Water: A Critical Resource,” which highlighted vital topics from water-energy-food nexus to the challenge of achieving water solutions on a global scale.

In the late 19th century, MIT’s first female graduate, Ellen Swallow Richards (MIT SB 1873), carried out the arduous science that spawned America’s first water quality standards. In the 20th century, MIT researchers like MIT Professor Emeritus Peter Eagleson helped establish the very discipline of hydrologic science, and MIT earned the distinction of becoming the first institution of higher learning to be designated a National Sea Grant College. Today — as you will see in this issue of SPECTRVM — MIT researchers are pursuing equally bold approaches to the water challenges of the century we call our own.


Susan Hockfield

Susan Hockfield