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A legacy of pure water

School of Nursing
Brian Shell works closely with Ed Bouwer, the Abel Wolman Professor for Environmental
Engineering, to conduct wasterwater treatment research. Photo by Steve Spartana

It's been nearly a century since Abel Wolman '13, '15, the father of environmental engineering and a longtime faculty member at Johns Hopkins schools of Engineering and Public Health, spearheaded an international effort to improve water sanitation standards, saving millions of lives in the process.

Through the decades since, the university has remained a leader in the science of clean, safe and accessible water, pursuing an interdisciplinary approach that calls on the talent of experts from across the institution. One of them -- Abel's son, M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman -- was a Johns Hopkins graduate and a distinguished member of the faculty for more than 50 years before his death in 2010.

Today, Edward J. Bouwer is one of the faculty members to carry on the legacy of the two Wolmans.

Bouwer, who holds a professorship named in honor of Abel Wolman, is an expert on water quality and wastewater treatment processes and has consulted on cleanup and contamination containment for both the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. He also recently partnered with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, helping launch their new Conservation Center and investigating mercury bioaccumulation in both captive and wild dolphins.

Just as Bouwer's research extends Johns Hopkins' eminence in the field established by the Wolmans, he also is laying the groundwork for future breakthroughs in water quality research by mentoring post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates.

A team of students is working with Bouwer to understand the impact of pharmaceuticals and personal care products on water quality. Among these young researchers is Brian Shell, Eng '12, an undergraduate who has been working with Bouwer since he enrolled at Johns Hopkins. Shell is featured in the video on this page (which was taped before Reds Wolman's death) and in this excerpt from a Johns Hopkins Engineering magazine article titled, "Hopkins Full Circle."

As a student at the nationally acclaimed High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey, Brian Shell '12 had an inkling that he wanted to pursue water studies. He had teamed up with a Rutgers University professor on research looking at water issues. He hoped to continue that work, at Johns Hopkins University.

But he knew family resources would be a factor. The son of a schoolteacher and environmental planner, Shell began looking at schools after his junior year. He contacted Hopkins because he wanted to work with nationally acclaimed water expert Edward J. Bouwer, the Abel Wolman Professor of Environmental Engineering and chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. "Hopkins was always my first choice," Shell says. "But I didn't want to fall in love because of the financial constraints."

Within months, Shell was in a difficult spot. He had been offered two full-tuition merit scholarships to other top academic institutions. His parents promised him they would make Hopkins work, but he felt uneasy turning down other offers. Then, on his birthday, Whiting School Vice Dean for Education Ed Scheinerman called. He had been selected for the Charles R. Westgate Scholarship in Engineering.

"It was such a relief, such a weight lifted off my shoulders," Shell says. "My mother was teaching. I couldn't call her. So I called my dad at the office. We waited to give her the great news."

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