Alumnus Profile: Derek Etkin | WSSS | Tufts University

Alumnus Profile: Derek Etkin

by Libby Mahaffy

WSSS Alumnus Derek Etkin

Derek Etkin, a 2008 Tufts graduate in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and a WSSS alumnus, took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Libby Mahaffy in late March 2010. Derek is currently a Water Resources Engineer at CDM Smith in Cambridge, MA. The following is an excerpt of their phone interview.

Libby Mahaffy is a graduate student in the UEP program and an intern at the Tufts Institute of the Environment.

Learn more about Derek here.

Libby Mahaffy: Why did you join WSSS?
Derek Etkin: I first heard about the Civil [Engineering] department before I heard about WSSS because of professor Rich Vogel and professor Steve Chapra. They are big names in the field of water resources and I was interested in their research. Then when I spoke with Rich Vogel and Paul Kirshen, they both mentioned the WSSS program. With my focus it seemed like something I wanted to do.

LM: Was there anything surprising or unexpected about the WSSS program?
DE: I was impressed by the personal relationships I developed with people in a wide variety of disciplines. Their insights – in conversations in the hallway, after classes, in the library – really served me well. They were able to give me perspective on what might have become a very focused, discipline-specific research project I was working on. Some of those conversations led me down interesting, interdisciplinary paths in my own graduate research.

LM: What was your favorite part of the WSSS program?
DE: Those relationships I mentioned were facilitated by the practicum. I really liked the practicum, it was an opportunity for me to take initiative and pursue my own interests. It let me off the leash of civil engineering to explore a broader range of topics. I joined the WSSS program for that reason and the practicum allowed me to do that. Alewife Brook wasn’t exactly the Bahamas [the current WSSS practicum] – but it was great!

LM: What was the most challenging part of WSSS?
DE: There were a lot of opportunities provided by WSSS that you can spend your time on – you know, lectures, going to talks, reading articles that different people put up [on the website]. That’s a challenge for students in graduate school! At least in our program [CEE] it’s all about your thesis research and that’s so demanding in terms of time, that I needed to stay disciplined to stay multi-disciplinary! I had to make sure I made an effort to be able to take advantage of everything that WSSS offered.

Another difficulty was as the CEE representative on the student advisory committee. Trying to get professors and academics who were used to doing research in a very tried-and-true way -- focusing in and publishing papers in their own field -- to collaborate and get involved with WSSS was challenging, even if their particular interests were totally relevant to interdisciplinary water research. The academic rewards system leaves something to be desired in terms of promoting interdisciplinary research, at least as I saw it.

LM: How are you using what you learned in WSSS in your current work/profession?
DE: I’m a water resources engineer, involved in projects that require computer modeling of water systems, like reservoir and irrigation networks, stormwater collection systems, combined sewer overflows, and watershed planning. When you’re part of a team of engineers and sometimes economists and planners you need to understand their different goals, what they’re looking for, how they see these infrastructure and water systems. My experiences in WSSS have helped me communicate with them and do a better job. On a few occasions I’ve been directly involved in some more integrated watershed management projects where my knowledge of other fields outside of hydraulics and hydrology has helped me come up with interesting ways to model these systems and try to incorporate different objectives into our project. Of the planners and more policy-oriented people outside of engineering that I have to work with, those people who have some background in engineering are really well-served. I would imagine that would be the case of graduates from the WSSS program.

LM: What’s one piece of advice for an incoming WSSS student?
DE: Graduate school is all about what you put into it. It’s a rare opportunity before you embark on a real profession to explore different opportunities within and outside of your field. That’s an opportunity that kind of closes down a little bit when you actually start working professionally. I don’t know that everyone I was a student with – or even myself – really appreciated that enough. So much of the time when you’re in grad school you’re so focused on just getting the class finished, just getting a certain grade, just finishing the paper you’re working on – you lose perspective. The people I saw who were the most successful at WSSS were the ones who were most self-motivated and would find new things to learn about and then learn about those things, in addition to whatever coursework they were asked to do by the professors.

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The Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) program is a graduate research and education program that provides Tufts students with interdisciplinary perspectives and tools to manage water-related problems around the world.

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