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Class Acts: The Water Guy


When he was a senior in high school, Marc Edwards was sure he wanted to be a veterinarian. But after he spent a summer working with pets and getting bitten, he realized that “vets end up treating the owners more than the animals.” So he switched to civil engineering. Edwards is now a professor at Virginia Tech.

In 2004, homeowners in Washington, D.C., contacted him about leaks in their home plumbing. Working in part for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Edwards set out to investigate. He found astronomically high levels of lead — which can cause birth defects and mental retardation — in a few samples of D.C.’s water. Later, the Washington Post exposed the widespread nature of the problem. Edwards’ students eventually showed that the high lead came from chloramines, chemical disinfectants in the water, and that numerous children had been lead poisoned. The experience taught him not only about fighting bureaucracy but also about the quality of today’s engineering students. “You often hear that North American students don’t have a work ethic, and they don’t know this and they don’t know that,” he says. “But I will tell you that it almost brings tears to my eyes to think about my students’ commitment and the hours they invested. It was remarkable.”

Photo by Matthew Girard

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