Rice brownfields expertise has impact in China

Ward addresses students at third Eco-City Forum in Tianjin

Rice University faculty and students strategizing on the status of Houston’s brownfields – polluted, abandoned sites in dire need of rehabilitation – are stretching their influence to China.

Rice microbiologist Herb Ward spoke to thousands of students in Tianjin last month about a project near and dear to him at Rice: Civil engineering students, in collaboration with students at the Rice School of Architecture, developed plans to rehabilitate Houston-area brownfields that show potential for contributing to civic life.

Rice microbiologist Herb Ward addresses the audience at the Eco-City Forum in Tianjin, China, last month.

The occasion was the third annual International Eco-City Forum, a September conference focused on what may be the largest brownfields project to date. The governments of China and Singapore are building Eco-City on a 30-square-kilometer site on the outskirts of Tianjin that will house 350,000 people when completed in 2020. What was a dumping ground for toxic waste has undergone extensive cleanup, with the removal of contaminated soil to a depth of 15 feet and the restoration of a large lake over three years.

Ward’s talk covered not only brownfields but also a range of environmental issues facing China, where he said a remedial process that has long been under way in the United States is just beginning to take root under the watchful eyes of Rice alumnus Wei Chen ’00 and his colleagues.

Ward was invited to speak by Chen, a Nankai University professor and director of the Tianjin Key Laboratory of Environmental Remediation and Pollution Control. Chen returned to China in 2005 after he earned his doctorate under Rice’s Mason Tomson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and spent five years with engineering consulting firm Brown and Caldwell on the cleanup of the Port of Houston. He returned to Rice this month to attend the university’s Centennial Celebration and to strategize on the next steps for collaboration between his laboratory and Rice to advance the environmental cleanup of polluted sites in his homeland.

Chen’s background is “the perfect preparation for the work needed in China today,” said Tomson, the founding co-director with Chen and Amy Kan, a Rice research scientist, of the China-U.S. Center for Environmental Remediation and Sustainable Development.

In 2005, Chen said, China was “starting to realize there were a lot of problems with soil and groundwater pollution. Before that, it was all air and water, whatever you can see. But for soil and groundwater, we didn’t have much experience.”

“When China raised its environmental agency to the administrative level, they created what they call key laboratories, which have been a great force in environmental protection and research,” said Ward, Rice’s Foyt Family Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “They go all the way from the academy level through the university level, down to the city level, and they serve various purposes. When they formed these laboratories and started looking for appropriate leaders, they first looked at their distinguished graduates in the U.S. They picked Wei and said, ‘You need to come home, and here’s why.’ They wanted people with international experience, and it’s worked out very well for them.”

Returning to China, however, did not weaken Chen’s connection with Rice. Through meetings and conferences at Nankai and Rice, the center has served as a model of collaboration with ongoing projects in environmental remediation; air pollution prevention, control and modeling; and environmental policy, law and regulation. A recently announced program sponsored by the center will bring groups of Chinese high school principals to Rice to help prepare their students for studies in America.

“It is incredibly gratifying to have this long-term, substantial scientific relationship with a former student,” Tomson said. “As a general rule, particularly in international scientific collaborations, these things take years and years to grow. They don’t just happen one day because you get a grant. These are personal, and they’ve lasted a long time.”

“I always think of Mason as my American father,” Chen added. “You do need that kind of relationship to really have a long-term collaboration.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.