Marcelo Mena: Engineering for the Common Good

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Unraveling the complex mechanisms of global warming will require the collaborative effort of generations of scientists and engineers around the world. And as global warming has raised the temperature of the earth’s environment, it also has heated up political rhetoric.

While most engineers focus on identifying and solving technical problems and leave social and political activism to others, Marcelo Mena is not among them. For Mena, the solution of environmental problems through improved technology is inextricably related to the solution of social problems through the enhancement of social capital.

“The applied sciences have a considerable impact on society, and therefore on public policy,” says Mena, who earned Master’s and PhD degrees in civil and environmental engineering at The University of Iowa in 2003 and 2007. “And, of course, the reverse is also true: public policy has a tremendous impact on the interaction between technology and human behavior.”

Mena cites an example from his own air quality research, which he began at Iowa and continues in his native country.

Chile suffers from a form of air pollution that occurs when aerosol pollutants created by smelters drift offshore and then become trapped in the atmosphere along the coast. The resulting bright clouds reflect the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere, which then cools the coastline.

“This process demonstrates the complexity of global warming, which doesn’t necessarily warm a local region,” Mena says. “It underscores why we must look at the regional and global mechanisms that together drive climate change.”

In an attempt to improve local air quality and public health, the Chilean government regulates smelter emissions and also attempts to accurately forecast air quality. When air quality is expected to reach certain critical levels, citizens are told to use only public transportation and not to use wood-burning stoves.

“But the forecasting model they employ just reacts one day to the next,” Mena says, “and can’t really account for the cumulative effects of pollution as it builds up over a period of days.”

Consequently, citizens in megacities such as Santiago are told not to drive on days that are relatively pollution free, and on days when the government mistakenly forecasts clear skies, dozens of children may end up in the hospital from pollution-triggered asthma attacks.

To help public policy makers refine their decision making effectiveness, Mena and UI civil and environmental engineering doctoral candidate Pablo Saide have spent the last year testing a new air pollution prediction model whose reliability has been enhanced by improved weather forecasting in Santiago. The researchers now plan to apply the model in other Chilean cities, and hope it eventually will help unravel the sources and predict the magnitude of megacity pollution in other countries.

“Marcelo is one of those people who is out to change the world,” Associate Dean of Engineering and Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Greg Carmichael says. “He is impatient with the status quo and has a passion for the concepts and practice of sustainability.”

Carmichael, who supervised Mena’s dissertation research and collaborates with his former student to tackle air quality issues in Chile, adds that Mena has the rare ability to translate his bona fide research skills into social and political action.

From early childhood, Mena evidenced a deep social awareness as well as an interest in science and environmental issues. He grew up in Villa Alemana, a “lower-income” suburb of the coastal town Viña Del Mar, and remembers playing as a young child in a nearby field that served as a local refuse dump near a stream that contained wastewater.

“I could imagine even then that these were problems that could be solved,” he says, “and when we moved to Iowa City so my father could work on his PhD in Mathematics, I realized it wasn’t normal to have polluted streams and that environmental issues were attracting the attention of the people in the United States.”

Mena completed high school in Chile and remained to earn a degree in biochemical engineering. He then returned to Iowa and earned a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering at the UI. He originally intended to study water quality, but after meeting Carmichael and hearing about the research conducted by the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research— co-directed by Carmichael and Jerry Schnoor who holds the Allen S. Henry Chair in Civil Engineering—Mena decided to focus on the relationships between airborne pollutants, weather, and climate, and work to improve air quality forecast models for his native country. Carmichael, Schnoor, and Mena’s father inspire and mentor Mena, and he and Carmichael have forged a strong research partnership that has resulted in the enhanced air quality forecast system—provided gratis to the Chilean government—that Mena and Saide are testing.

At the University of Iowa, Mena seized many opportunities to exercise his community activism. He co-founded the UI student chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, and he and Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Craig Just led groups of engineering students to the Mexican state of Puebla where they carried out service projects to enhance water quality in local schools.

Mena also became something of a household name in Eastern Iowa, where, as the music director for the local “sound alternative” radio station KRUI, he leveraged his talents as music director and disc jockey.

With his newly minted PhD degree, Mena began his academic career in 2007 as the chair of the new Environmental Engineering Department at Universidad Andres Bello Santiago, one of Chile’s most prestigious institutions of higher education. He now directs the school’s Center for Sustainability Research, and was a visiting Fulbright Fellow at California State University at Fresno for six months. He recently added a new position to his portfolio when he agreed to serve as an Energy and Climate Specialist for Fundación Chile, a private nonprofit corporation whose mission is to “introduce high-impact innovations and empower human capital,” thereby enhancing Chile’s global competitiveness.

Mena understands well the social, economic, and political impacts on local environmental quality and global climate change, and in his professional career he has linked his technical expertise with an understanding of the decision-making process in public and private institutions.

He is a member of the UI Water Sustainability Advisory Board and has written op-ed articles for the Huffington Post. In Chile, he is pondering whether to become a candidate for the Chilean Congress. His platform would focus on ways to help improve the lives of those who live and work in the country’s polluted cities.

Mena says that too often when politicians fail to improve the welfare of society, they lay the blame on a scientific model.

“But often the science is there,” he says, “and we must also continue to develop our economic foundation, social capital, and political will.”