Several interviews over the next few weeks with Dean Mark Zappi of Engineering will look at his goals, and how Engineering can serve as a large stimulus to many other Colleges and Departments.

Where were you before coming to UL?

Mississippi State University, where I was a chemical engineering professor, and I directed two centers.

I believe you held a professorship there.

I held the Texas Olefins professorship.

Tell us about the two centers you ran at MSU.

The first one was an environmental engineering center, which focused on developing innovative techniques for treating polluted matrices, that is, water, air, soil, sediments-- we focused primarily on treatment, we also looked at chemical fate, and we worked with people in toxicology on environmental impacts as well. We did a lot of work for industry, and the Environmental Protection Agency and funding agencies. A lot of processes we worked on were based on biological systems, so we designed microorganisms that could eat hazardous wastes.

So you were using microbes to treat waste?

And other organisms. Plants; we did a little bit of phytoremediation [using plants to break down or collect chemicals] work.

I would imagine there are a lot of plants in the Louisiana wetlands that would be suited for phytoremediation.

Yes. Before I went to MSU, I worked in Vicksburg at the Waterways Experiment Station (WES). We looked at constructed wetlands as a means to treat some pretty elaborate, complex wastes such as the explosives TNT & RDX.

Did you find any plants that our readers would recognize that proved to be good at remediating toxins?

Yeah, many of your emergent and submergent plants in your wetlands systems work quite well. We used a mixed group of plants that included cattails, a lot of the reeds, even algae that participate in that type of system.

We're trying to resurrect grasslands here, did you work with any prairie grasses?

We worked with grasses at our other center. That was a consortium of four Mississippi universities, Southern Miss, Jackson State, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. We were the lead institution; that project was funded by the Department of Energy and the state of Mississippi. We looked at innovative uses of biomass. Biomass is primarily plant based, but we did work with some animal-based biomass. In the case of grasses, we worked with the Agriculture people, looking at which crops produced large quantities of biomass on a yearly basis. When you talk about plant biomass, people immediately think of trees. But as an engineer, when I'm working a plant for 30 or 40 years, I'm not interested in how much tonnage is out there in the field at any point in time, I'm interested in how much tonnage an acre will give me every year. So we look at tons per acre per year-- yield rate-- and what you find is that grasses dwarf, by far, what trees can do. A healthy group of pine trees will yield about 2 tons/acre/year over a 20 year life, where some grasses will produce as high as 20 tons/acre/year. So for grassland areas and prairies, we look at things like switch grass. The President has specifically mentioned switch grass in several of his addresses, and even in his State of the Union, as a biomass source for alternative energy.

You attended UL. When did graduate?

I received my BS from UL in civil engineering in 1984. I worked on specializing in environmental issues by taking a lot of electives.

Where did you go after that?

To WES [Waterways Experiment Station] in Vicksburg, which is a large Army Corps of Engineers research laboratory. I was hired as a research environmental engineer, and worked my way up to head a group that focused on bioprocesses, and oxidative processes for treating contaminated media. By the time I left, we had grown from a one-man group, just me working on my research at $50-100,000 per year, to a group with 10 full-time researchers and 25 students, with a budget of $6-7 million per year, on money that came from competitive grantwriting.

What is your career grant funding total?

I'm going to say somewhere around $30 million plus, probably higher than that.

How long were you at WES?

Total, I was there 15 years, but I had worked there 5 years during and after high school in Vicksburg, before starting college at UL. Every summer at UL I worked there, and I also took off a year and a half from college to work at Waterways. So I was there another 11 years after I graduated. I literally grew up in a laboratory; from 10th grade on, I worked in a lab. My summer year after 10th grade I spent in Denver, Colorado, working on a project with the Corps of Engineers, helping the military treat wastes produced from nerve agent production.

 

What kinds of nerve gases?

GB [Sarin gas], mustard. They made three different nerve agents, and they also produced pesticides there. It was interesting. One group classified the ground there as the most contaminated place on Earth. I totally disagree, there a lot worse polluted areas, but it was pretty nasty.

So when did you leave WES?

While at WES I earned my MS and my PhD in chemical engineering at Mississippi State. In 1995, I saw the the Federal government was moving toward contracting out more research. I was very much interested in doing research, and in employing so many students I realized I had fallen in love working with young people and helping with with their careers. It quickly became apparent to me that my first loves were working with kids and doing exciting research, and I knew I needed to get into the university. So I interviewed several places, and Mississippi State made a very nice offer. I started there in 1996.

What were your significant accomplishments at MSU?

Several things. First, we founded the two centers. We re-established hazardous waste treatment research which had died away over the years. Then we took Mississippi State and made them a national power in biofuels and bioproducts. Bioprocesses were basically non-existent when we started, a few bits and pieces here and there. By the time I left, we had built a powerhouse. I also originated and designed the blueprint for a large research & development program in biofuels and bioproducts that started the year after I left. And on the academic side, I started a lot of new classes. I was also the graduate coordinator, and we doubled the size of our graduate program, and dramatically increased the number of PhD's we produced. I am big believer in the importance of graduate school, I'm a big believer in undergrad. In the team we had, I was very active in improving classes and developing new classes, particularly the fundamental chemical engineering courses, and specialty courses is bioprocessing and environmental.

I believe you also had a lot of success with a growing problem in colleges of engineering, which is recruiting Americans.

We basically went from less than 5% US students, to 60%. And of that, over half were female students.

Tell us about the importance of minorities in engineering.

It's very important. Diversity in race, country of origin, even diversity of sociological views are important, because engineering is simply an applied way to respond to societal problems. So if you don't have a good grasp of society's needs, and you don't provide leadership in that area, your really can't be effective as a professional.

Your family comes from this area.

On my mother's side. My mother was a Durand from St. Martinville, which is an old agriculture-oriented family from there. Her father opened up one of the largest canning operations in the South. It went bankrupt in the '60's, but it was very well know under the labels of Pine Grove, and Durand. So she was from St. Martinville.

My dad was born and raised in Panama. His grandfather came over from Italy with a French company, as an engineer to build the Panama Canal. When the Americans took over, he stayed on, he was one of the chief engineers on the project. Then my grandfather-- my father's father-- was a civil engineer that built highways all through South and Central America.

During WWII, my father's siblings had to declare citizenship, and had an option. They had wanted to declare Italian citizenship before the War. My dad declared American citizenship, and everybody else claimed Panamanian. So when WWII broke out and they started drafting, one brother went over to fight for the Italians, my dad went to fight for the Americans, the others were neutral. But my dad and his brother were technically on opposite sides.

My dad was drafted, sent to boot camp, and quickly hooked up with a bunch of boys from Loreauville. They adopted him. After the War, they invited him to stay with them. He fell in with the area and became an adopted Cajun from Loreauville, where he met my mother on a blind date. And... life took off.

Did he ever tell you why he fell in love with the area?

The people, fun-loving people, people who were open. I mean, here you have a kid from Panama that didn't speak English until he was in his teens. Both my parents spoke a primary language other than English, mother grew up speaking Cajun French, dad grew up speaking Spanish. So dad fell in love with the people. They were open, they were friendly, their culture was very European. He was raised mainly in French culture, his mother was born and raised in Paris.

So he spoke French as well as Spanish?

No, they grew up speaking primarily Italian, and Spanish.

Did your father have an accent?

He did, he sounded like Ricky Ricardo.

Rumor has it that the real reason you came back to UL was to get a faculty discount on Ragin' Cajuns tickets.

That's true.

It is?

Mmm-hmm. All the years that I was gone, I became a rabid UL fan, even as a student here. It got so bad that when my brother really needed to talk to me, he would send me an e-mail with the title "UL coach fired," or "UL voted national champions," something like that. He knew I'd open it. I'm really proud of the University, and very proud of our athletic programs.

So when the Deanship opened up at UL, obviously we are not-- yet-- one of the better-funded schools in the country, and there are lot of challenges here. So what were the opportunities you saw?

Well, I've always been part of organizing very successful teams. We've been able to go and form teams two different places. We went from basically nowhere to national prominence both places. There is a method to that madness; the second time was so much easier than the first. I think I can see that the third time is easier than the second. Of course, it's a lot more ambitious to move a College forward, than it is a research team. But it's basically the same formula.

To read Part II of this article, click here.