Meet the Researcher, Kerry Howe, Director of the Center for Water and the Environment, and Professor, The University of New Mexico
By Jeanette Torres, NM WRRI Program Coordinator
For this month’s Meet the Researcher, we had the opportunity to interview Kerry Howe, Director of the Center for Water and the Environment (2013), and Professor (2015) at The University of New Mexico (UNM) located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Kerry has taught nine different courses at UNM for the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, and currently offers courses on physical/chemical water treatment processes and sustainable engineering. The latter provides students the opportunity to learn about identifying, quantifying, managing, and reducing the environmental impacts caused by modern society.
Howe has advised over 40 graduate students during his UNM career. He has mentored students funded by the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) in the past, and is currently advising Jasmine Anne Quiambao, a student who was awarded an NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant for her project entitled, Evaluation of Heavy Metal Adsorption onto Microplastics. According to Howe, this project investigates the impact of microplastics in the environment and the ability of microplastics to be a vehicle for other types of environmental contamination, particularly toxic metals like arsenic and uranium, which can adsorb to microplastic surfaces. This student researcher’s study has also been featured this month, and can be found here.
Howe has expressed that all aspects of his job at UNM are important, and requires a delicate balance; however, he believes the educational objectives of his students must come first. As the director of a research center, he feels it is his duty to help prepare UNM students for their future engineering careers. Due to this strong sense of leadership, he strives to provide the best learning environment possible for undergraduate and graduate students alike by assisting them in developing experiments, offering coursework advisement, and being available for final writing review. Additionally, Kerry is responsible for a variety of administrative tasks including approving proposals, managing budgets, identifying new funding opportunities, interacting with the public, and providing a strategic vision.
Kerry received his BS in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984, and earned his MS in Environmental Health Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1986. Howe continued his education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he completed his PhD in 2001. He is a registered professional engineer in both Wisconsin and New Mexico, and is a Board-Certified Environmental Engineer with the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES). While in consulting, Kerry was involved in the design of numerous water treatment plants, culminating with his role as the lead project engineer for the design of a 100 million gallon per day water treatment plant. He has provided independent technical reviews of water quality, worked as a project manager for plant startups, conducted several desktop corrosion control studies, directed full-scale tracer tests in treatment plants, and more.
Howe has over 30 years of environmental engineering experience with a focus on physicochemical water and wastewater treatment. His unique area of expertise is membrane-based technologies, including membrane filtration and reverse osmosis (RO). Kerry states that the main areas of his research involve investigating methods of improving process efficiency by understanding and preventing fouling of membrane surfaces, supplementing potable water reuse by recycling treated municipal wastewater, and minimizing the waste stream/concentrate from brackish water desalination by RO. Disposal of RO waste concentrate is an expensive process and can have environmental impacts. Kerry’s research diligently seeks to improve the RO process and reduce the amount of waste being disposed. This has led him to the creation of a patent issued in 2013 entitled, High Water Recovery from Desalination Systems using Ion Exchange Technology.
In one of his RO research experiments, Kerry and his colleagues focused on the removal of contaminants of emerging concern and discovered that the functional chemistry of organic compounds can have an impact on the removal process. According to Howe, methyl and hydroxyl increase rejection, but halogens, and carbonyl groups decrease rejection. This helps to explain RO inconsistencies concerning compounds of similar molecular weight and hydrophobicity. He continues by saying the results of their research revealed how different membrane products vary in their ability to remove low-MW neutral organics, and proposed boron as a surrogate compound to classify the organic removal abilities of RO membrane products.
Kerry’s additional research can be found in an expansive repertoire of over 170 works including publications, presentations, technical reports, and manuscripts. He is an author of two major textbooks about the treatment of water entitled, Principles of Water Treatment, and MWH’s Water Treatment: Principles and Design. Howe and colleagues have been published in over 30 peer-reviewed articles with his most recent printed in Desalination (2020) entitled, Mineral Recovery Enhanced Desalination (MRED) process: An innovative technology for desalinating hard brackish water.
In conjunction with his research activities, Kerry is an active member of four professional affiliations including the American Water Works Association, and the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors. He is an invaluable member of several committees, peer reviewer for many water and environmental engineering journals, and serves as the state representative for the AAEES. Howe has been the recipient of over ten honors and awards throughout his career. He was designated as UNM’s 65th Annual Research Lecture Honoree in 2020, and was awarded the Stamm Endowed Research Award in the previous year.
Kerry states that one of the main goals of his career has been to protect public health by improving municipal water treatment. He mentions that his research endeavors effectively investigate fundamental principles while remaining grounded in the practical applications that will be usable by utilities and consultants practicing in the profession. Kerry plans to continue moving forward on helping pave the way for future UNM engineering students and being an active participant in his research on potable water reuse.