Baolin Deng in his lab

Professor Baolin Deng tests a water sample in the Aquatic Chemistry and Engineering Lab, part of the Missouri Water Center in Lafferre Hall. Photo by Zac Anderson

When Baolin Deng, University of Missouri William Andrew Davidson Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and co-director of the Missouri Water Center, went off to college at China University of Geosciences, he dreamed of discovering hidden mines and treasures. Little did he know that removing arsenic and other pollutants from water would actually be his calling.

“My research has focused on applying principles of environmental engineering and chemistry to address water quality issues in both human-built infrastructures and natural systems,” Deng says. “The ultimate goal is to mange resources to protect human health and ensure sustainability.”

Deng and colleagues at the Missouri Water Center, a joint effort with the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, recently secured a $5 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to better understand and manage the state’s water resources and three U.S. Geological Survey grants for affiiliated projects. 

Deng also has been instrumental in helping shape requirements for MU’s new environmental engineering degree. He says students will need knowledge and skills in a broad range of areas to address today’s environmental challenges.

Learn more about this distinguished researcher and educator in our Q&A.

What are your latest research projects?

Water has a wide range of uses, for instance, it is used for drinking, ecosystem services and agricultural activities; so water quality requirements and mitigation approaches vary.

My current projects include removal of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from water, water quality monitoring and control technology development for harmful algal blooms, development of advanced membranes for desalination and water reuse, and evaluation of water quality impact to endangered mussels in Missouri with focus on sediment particles.

Do you have an example of how your work has made a positive impact?

My group has been developing technologies to remove arsenic from water. Arsenic contamination in drinking water supplies represents a major health risk to over 200 million people worldwide. Overexposure to arsenic is known to cause skin lesions and hard patches on the palms and feet and is associated with diabetes, stomach cancer, lung cancer, leukemia and other diseases. Our technologies and processes, which use highly effective sorbents for arsenic sorption, are particularly suitable for water purification in small and underserved communities, thus improving people’s health.

How did you become interested in environmental engineering?

My route to environmental engineering was serendipitous. I grew up with little exposure to concepts of environmental protection and environmental engineering, so I went to college with mining and volcanoes in mind, aspiring to become an engineer or geologist who would discover new mines and treasures. Three years into my master’s program, my plans changed during a six-month field study at a tin mine in southwest China. 

During the trip, a site engineer led a group of students and faculty to a burial ground. I learned the dead, more than half a dozen, had all been miners who had become site directors, only to die from radon exposure. That shocked me. While finding new mineral resources is essential for society, what’s the point if people cannot survive? After that experience and subsequent learning about the connection between environmental quality and health, I decided to refocus my career toward health and environmental engineering. 

What brought you to Mizzou?

Mizzou offers an exceptional environment for both teaching and conducting research. The collaborative culture among the faculty coupled with the comprehensive range of disciplines available creates a highly conducive atmosphere for academic research. Additionally, my family and I greatly enjoy living in Columbia. The city's extensive parks and trail systems are remarkable, offering everything one could wish for in terms of outdoor activities. Moreover, the ease of getting around town adds to the overall quality of life here. These aspects collectively make Mizzou and Columbia an ideal place for both professional growth and personal fulfillment.

Baolin Deng in his office at the College of Engineering
Tell us more about MU’s new environmental engineering degree.

Environmental engineering is an inherently cross-disciplinary field that requires practitioners to fully understand our land, water and air resources. To effectively tackle current environmental challenges, students must be equipped with knowledge not only in chemistry, biology, physics and traditional engineering disciplines, but also in a broad array of subjects, including social and behavioral sciences, economics, environmental health and sustainability, among others. 

How does your research inform your teaching?

My research is an integral part of my teaching activities and vice versa. For example, my group has been developing membranes for desalination and water treatment, and I directly incorporate our research findings into my lectures. Another pertinent topic I cover is mining waste management. Missouri has a rich history of mining coal, iron and lead. Managing mine tailings, or byproducts, presents a significant challenge. Our research is aimed at extracting rare earth elements from mine wastes — elements crucial for manufacturing iPhones, Teslas and many other products — while simultaneously addressing associated hazards. We teach science developed in research essential in maintaining environmental sustainability, and we mentor undergraduate and graduate students for discovery and technology development. 

What do you enjoy most about being co-director of the Missouri Water Center? 

I am privileged to work closely with many excellent faculty members whose core research expertise lies in water and ecosystems. My role not only allows me to be a cheerleader for their success but also provides opportunities to engage with a diverse range of stakeholders. Through these interactions, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the water-related challenges and opportunities facing Missourians. I have become more aware of the interconnectedness of food, energy and water, as well as the critical need for community-involved solutions.

What advice do you have for early career faculty members?

I don’t have any advice, just some thoughts that I feel might have helped me in my academic endeavors. 

  • When selecting a proposal to write and a project to work on, it helps to think critically about the grand challenges society faces and the impact of your work if the project is successful. 
  • Developing solutions to maintain environmental sustainability, the focus of my research, often requires approaches from different disciplines, so I am quite open to collaboration while at the same time being selective and considering what I can contribute based on my core expertise. Working with colleagues across disciplines is rewarding because it enhances your research productivity and opens doors to new opportunities. 
  • Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is essential. It’s easy to get caught up in the demands of academia. Taking time to enjoy nature and outdoor activities, such as exploring the Missouri River or biking the Katy Trail. Nature is always inspiring; it helps generate curiosity and maintain sanity.