When associate professor David James arrived in Las Vegas in 1990, UNLV had just been listed as an “up-and-coming university” by U.S. News and World Report. The civil and environmental engineering faculty member has seen campus transform from a comprehensive regional university to a thriving urban research institution. His own contributions include efforts to increase environmental research and advocacy, as well as K-12 outreach.
We know our faculty and staff can have a profound effect on their students, but tell us about a lesson you learned from a student.
I’ve learned a lot from my students, and it has been great to see how capable they are in areas where I did not have the needed skills or knowledge. Years ago, I was assigned a project to evaluate water quality data for Lake Mead and Las Vegas Wash. I had to consolidate all the data from three dischargers’ monitoring efforts into a single database, but I didn’t know anything about databases!
By a sheer stroke of luck, I hired a student who worked for the Southern Nevada Water Authority after making a comment in class about GIS databases. Working with databases was second nature to her, and she trained me on everything I needed to know. I wouldn’t have been able to complete the project without her help. I had another student build a wind tunnel we needed for a project to measure dust emission factors, from scratch.
One thing I’ve learned about Southern Nevada, we’re always thin regarding resources. If you want it done, you need to be able to do it yourself and do it fast. That’s what our industry and agency employers expect.
What would surprise people about working in academia compared to a “civilian” job?
The workload. As a faculty member, you’re never away from your work. The magnitude of expected productivity for faculty, especially for science and engineering, is enormous. You need to love working in academia because you’ll be working 60 to 80 hours a week. You teach, advise, submit grant proposals for external funding, come up with state-of-the-art ideas, test and research those, and then you need to be able to communicate them to the scientific community.
It’s even more complex for women in this because of society’s conflicting expectations about women’s roles compared to men. The high workload is a cultural problem everywhere, and it makes it challenging to attract and retain women in STEM.
What inspired you to get into your field?
My parents were the initial impetus. They loved the outdoors and wanted me to have fun doing activities where I wouldn't be as involved in the intrigue of corporate and government politics. As an undergraduate, I decided to take an immersive experience at the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute’s Bodega Marine Laboratory doing marine biology research. I loved every minute of it. After that, I worked at a plastics company, but I wasn't satisfied. Seven years later, I went back to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, where I earned my MS and Ph.D. degrees in environmental engineering science.
When I arrived at UNLV after earning my Ph.D., I realized our lab facilities were at the beginning of being developed. Still, I could collaborate with other faculty members and do fieldwork. I seized those opportunities or created them to do the things I was most interested in. We all have those “should've, would've, could've” moments, but I don't have many of them. I'm happy with who I am and what I'm doing.
Can you tell us about your research at Lake Arrowhead and how it has changed in the last year?
The purpose of the Lake Arrowhead project is to develop a how-to manual for water agencies interested in implementing reuse of highly treated wastewater to augment their water supplies. It’s called “Surface Water Augmentation by Indirect Potable Reuse.” We found two partner agencies at Lake Arrowhead that needed additional information about how their lake worked and they offered us their support. We were able to perform the monitoring, conduct the tracer study, build a hydrodynamic model, and learn a lot about Lake Arrowhead in the process. The project has been going on since August 2017 and now we’re writing the how-to manual.
Due to travel restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we haven’t been able to go back to the lake, but there are plans to return [this spring] to service our instruments, and then return again this summer to begin a follow-up project.
Can you tell us more about your K-12 outreach? How has the pandemic affected your outreach and what plans are there to get back to the classroom?
I started doing K-12 outreach in 2012 through my professional society, the Nevada Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). However, my interest began in 2010 when I attended a national science and technology festival at the National Mall in Washington. We were doing a simple activity called the “Pop Fly Catapult,” where we put two paint sticks, a spool, tape, a ping pong ball, and a Dixie cup together, and it would shoot the ping pong ball everywhere. It was a hit and on my assigned shift, I spent the next two hours handing out pop fly kits to parents and their children as fast as we could.
When my assigned shift was over and I went outside our booth, sitting on the ground with her backpack, blue jeans, and a sensible sweater was a young teacher looking at the direction sheets and figuring out how to put the kit together. She looked at me and asked if she could get 25 more kits. That broke my heart; because being married to a former school teacher, I realized she wanted to engage her students and improve their learning but didn’t have the resources. At that moment, I realized I had to do something about it
In 2012, after approaching my NSPE-Nevada board members and obtaining some initial support, I was able to obtain some grant money from NASA’s Nevada Space Grant program and recruited volunteers to begin K-12 outreach in Las Vegas. Since then, through a combination of another grant and private donations, we’ve reached approximately 40,000 students through a range of STEM activities. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely shut down the face-to-face outreach. NSPE-NV’s outreach committee is still active. Instead, our outreach chair has organized handouts of food baskets to support the greater needs of the community. We intend to keep the committee alive and begin outreach once our communities begin to heal.
Congratulations! This year you celebrate 30 years at UNLV. Can you tell us more about your experience at the university?
I’ve had incredible opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have been able to experience anywhere else. This includes growing with the campus, the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering and the civil and environmental engineering and construction program from the ground up, working in a state-of-the-art research building (the Science and Engineering Building), serving as a department chair and associate vice provost, and conducting environmental research that benefits local communities.
The changes I’ve seen at the university and in the community have been extensive as well. Our student population has more than doubled, we’re granting a much larger number of graduate degrees, and research expenditures continue to grow across campus.
At the same time, Southern Nevada has grown tremendously, and that need to continually accommodate more people has pushed us to improve how we use resources, including water. Our community now operates some of the most advanced water treatment and wastewater treatment plants in the world. Being in a geographic area that has grown so much in the past decades has provided great opportunities for students. Our ability to attract quality faculty has also gone up because we’re much more research-centric. UNLV will be a crucial driver in the Southwest if we're going to transform our economy. I'm glad to be a part of it.
When did you realize campus had changed from the time you got here?
I started seeing changes to UNLV from the moment I got here. First, the Rod Lee Bigelow Health Sciences building was constructed, followed by Robert L. Bigelow Physics building. Other signature moments include the construction and opening of Lied Library and the surrounding services buildings and dormitories, and then the opening of the Sciences and Engineering building in 2012.
I remember taking a campus tour when I first arrived and visiting the tiny bookstore that, at that time, was supporting 14,000 students. I thought, “Boy, that’s small!” However, campus planners prioritized the construction of a new bookstore, as well as other new spaces, because they were desperately needed. Afterward, the College of Fine Arts expanded its footprint with new performing arts and rehearsal spaces in the late 1990s. The new Student Union was constructed in 2008-09 and we went from having a Student Union designed to accommodate 5,000 students to one that can handle 20,000. Now they’re thinking about expanding that one as well!
UNLV is an entirely different place from what it was 30 years ago, and I’ve been privileged to grow with it.
If you weren’t working at UNLV, where do you think you’d be?
I like to think I would be working for a water resource agency or at a county or state national park. Maybe I would be managing a wastewater treatment plant or working for the United States Geological Survey. I would also do some outdoor education, teaching others why a particular resource is important and why they should be excited about improving their environment. Give me a pickup truck and a couple of instruments, and I'll be a happy guy!