Dec. 5, 2013

Christine Shoemaker wins national engineering award

Christine Shoemaker

Christine Shoemaker, the Joseph P. Ripley Professor of Engineering, has won the 2014 National Engineering Award from the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES). The award will be conferred at the National Academy of Sciences/Engineering Building in Washington, D.C., in April. Shoemaker is on the faculty of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and of Operations Research and Information Engineering.

The award is “for contributions to engineering education, research and inspirational leadership, including becoming in 1985 one of the very first women engineering department chairs in a U.S. university, and founding and leading a 10-year international UNEP/SCOPE project on groundwater contamination in developing countries.”

Shoemaker initiated the UNEP/SCOPE (United Nations Environment Program/Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment) project in 1985, when environmentalists were beginning to understand the dangers of underground contamination by industrial chemicals after episodes like Love Canal.

Based on new research, it was becoming evident to scientists and engineers in the U.S. and Western Europe that protecting groundwater against pollution was cheaper and more effective than trying to remove the pollution after it was in the soil and groundwater, Shoemaker said.

“My colleagues and I felt it was urgent to get this scientific information to developing countries, which did not yet have much industrial pollution or expertise in the area,” Shoemaker said. “With quick action these countries had the possibility to take preventive action.”

Shoemaker helped plan workshops around the developing world and also identified and worked with local organizers, invited internationally leading scientists in the discipline to speak, and worked with the SCOPE organization to raise funds from UNEP and other sources.

“Because it was so early, I think this project had an important impact,” Shoemaker continued. “In most of these countries, ours were the first international workshops on this topic.”

By 1985 Shoemaker had been on the Cornell faculty for 13 years, and during most of that time she was the only regular woman faculty member in the College of Engineering. That year she was appointed chair of the Department of Environmental Engineering.

“It was a very difficult position at that time because social attitudes were different,” she said.

The National Engineering Award recognizes “inspirational leadership and tireless devotion to the improvement of engineering education and to the advancement of the engineering profession, as well as to the development of sound public policies as an engineer-statesman.”

Each of the major engineering societies can nominate one person for the award, and only one is awarded each year.