Bourns College of Engineering’s Interim Dean Awarded Fulbright Grant

Interim Dean Sharon Walker will continue her research into desalination and water treatment at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Headshot of Sharon Walker, interim dean of the Bourns College of Engineering, and John Babbage Chair in Environmental Engineering, and Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering

Sharon Walker, interim dean of the Bourns College of Engineering. Photo credit: Jonathan Alcorn

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — The interim dean of the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, has been awarded a 2018-19 Fulbright grant to continue research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel.

Sharon Walker, who also serves as John Babbage Chair in Environmental Engineering and as a professor of chemical and environmental engineering, will use the grant to further her research into water treatment and desalination, as well as continue to build a fruitful relationship between UC Riverside and Ben-Gurion University.

Walker was previously awarded a Fulbright scholarship for 2009-10, which marked the start of her collaborative efforts with Ben-Gurion University. Her newest award will serve as an extension of those efforts and see her continue working with researchers at Ben-Gurion’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. In particular, she will be collaborating with Moshe Herzberg, an associate professor in the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment.

Depleting water supplies have become a major concern globally, and water treatment efforts continue to grow more critical as drought persists in nations across the world. Water conservation has become crucial in places such as Cape Town, South Africa, which officials estimate could run out of water completely by April 12, a date that has been dubbed “Day Zero.”

The effects of diminishing water sources have also been felt locally, with Riverside witnessing the effects of long-term drought firsthand. The city’s primary water sources — the Colorado River and the Sierra Nevada snowpack — have seen significant decreases in the last few years, said Walker.

“The average spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, California’s largest surface water storage, has decreased by about 10 percent,” she noted in her Fulbright proposal. She added water conservation efforts “come none too soon” as the 2015 measurements of Lake Mead — the reservoir for the Colorado River — was found to be at its lowest level since it was built in the 1930s.

Ben-Gurion University, located in Israel’s Negev Desert, is an optimal location for Walker’s continued research as the region’s average annual rainfall of 20 centimeters is comparable to the 26 centimeters received annually in the semi-arid region Riverside occupies. No stranger to their own water conservation needs, Israel has managed to achieve the highest rate of water reclamation in the world, with about 40 percent of its supply coming from reclaimed sources. Walker hopes to expand collaborative efforts with Ben-Gurion University to further both institutions’ expertise in sustainable approaches to water treatment and management.

Walker’s stay at Ben-Gurion University will also afford her the opportunity to collaborate with faculty with expertise in complex biofilms and membrane separation applications. She will work with Herzberg to test cleaning strategies that have been identified in her lab at UCR, allowing for validation of her group’s initial work. Her research focuses on membrane cleaning — specifically, developing more effective means of managing biofilm growth on the synthetic membranes used in water-treatment processes.

Biofilms consist of a mixture of organic molecules exuded by bacteria that can adhere to the surface of synthetic membranes and cause degradation in water quality and water-treatment efficiency.

“Biofilms essentially clog the pores of the membranes,” Walker said. “This leads to the treatment requiring greater amounts of energy consumption, and over time, the membranes become unusable. The ultimate goal of this project is to develop a transformative, scientifically informed, biofilm management strategy.”

Walker’s research aims to isolate individual components of biofilms to identify how various cleaning agents can alter or degrade each component in an effort to design more efficient cleaning strategies for effected membranes.

“Water is a crucial resource for all of humanity,” she said. “Developing robust technologies to ensure that we can have potable water sources is essential for the well-being of all. For nations such as Israel and the U.S., the ability to desalinate water … is paramount for ensuring water for its citizens and its agricultural production.”

The Fulbright Program is the leading international education exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries. The program, which awards approximately 8,000 new grants annually, was established in 1946 under legislation by Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It operates in more than 150 countries.

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