Coin and card tricks intrigue Kala Vairavamoorthy, but the urban water management expert knows no sleight of hand can make public health challenges disappear on a global scale. • Innovation, not magic, makes the dean of the Patel College of Global Sustainability at the University of South Florida, a leader in optimizing resources — water, food, energy, people — from Singapore to Stockholm, Tanzania to Tampa. • Dr. V was 2 when his parents left Sri Lanka for London, where he would ultimately pursue his father's career of water engineer, as did two of his four siblings. Water scarcity was evident to him as a child on family visits to Chennai (formerly Madras), India, when "water was available an hour a day or every two days." That motivated him to earn a doctorate in water and environmental resources from Imperial College London, as well as master's degrees in public health and civil engineering. • Dr. V, 46, has been a professor and chairman of the department of sustainable water systems at UNESCO-Institute for Water Education, his father's alma mater, in Delft, Netherlands. Next, as chairman of water engineering at the University of Birmingham in England, he directed the $35 million SWITCH project leading research in 12 cities managing "time bombs," his term for urban water systems facing climate change, population growth and aging infrastructure. • Now a Carrollwood resident, Dr. V, a married father of two, spoke to Times reporter Amy Scherzer about expanding USF's international network, break dancing ("I was pretty good at it when I was 18"); and Tampa's mass transit deficiency.
Working with tsunami refugees in Sri Lanka in 2004, how did it feel to put academics into action?
I had been a water professor for quite a long time, but I realized how much I valued the profession when I saw how quickly I could have an impact. I worked with OxFam inspecting potential pollution of water sources, disinfecting wells, designing water supplies for transitional camps and reinstating damaged systems.
What a coup to lure you to Tampa. How convenient is it for international networking? And how do you inspire such obvious loyalty, evidenced by many colleagues following you here?
Tampa is a very attractive, very appropriate place to bring international experts. The research we are doing is very relevant to Florida as a state with a precious and fragile ecosystem. The team worked with me in the Netherlands, then moved to Birmingham, U.K., then hit the ground running in Tampa, already knowing what we wanted to do. That quickly accelerated the ambitions of the university. We share a vision, international and interdisciplinary, about the future. We all believe we can make a difference in livability. We are confident our cities will become more sustainable. The work of our group is very intense, very meaningful and impacts how we solve problems.
So what do you say to climate change deniers?
Climate change is happening, our earth is warming, the scientific evidence is clear. But for me the key with all environmental-related issues, is to be impartial, not evangelistic. We polarize people on both sides of the discussion promoting it like a religion. We need to look at the scientific evidence, and the maths. If it works out, you should do it. In a more transparent way, you get traction. From my experience, the maths always shows it is better to be sustainable.
Under your leadership, the Patel School of Global Sustainability transformed to Patel College, gained a new concentration in sustainable entrepreneurship, awarded 50 master's degrees, etc. What else tops your list of accomplishments since you arrived in 2010?
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With the generous support of Dr. Kiran Patel's inspiring vision, we transitioned to a college with world-class faculty in the area of sustainability. I am really pleased with the success of our students in getting jobs in the green economy. To strengthen that success, we will be employing a staff person to see that each will have at least three (job) interviews by the time they graduate. I am quite confident that our college will be one of the strongest in the U.S. and internationally.
We established ourselves as quite a serious international player sitting on advisory committees that are steering the global agenda, such as the Global Water Partnership, UNESCO, International Water Association and UN Environment Program (UNEP). On May 10 we hosted a meeting of the U.N.-Habitat Partner University Initiative with 40 delegates representing 23 nations coming to Tampa.
Locally, we are working with student government to make USF the "smartest" campus in the U.S. and a model of monitoring resources to be more sustainable. We have one staff member helping develop curriculum for Hillsborough County magnet schools. We host the Tampa Bay Clean Cities Coalition and the Resilient Tampa Bay Initiative to reduce vulnerability to flooding and extreme events.
What surprises you about living in Tampa?
Tampa strikes me as a city with ambition. I didn't know that . . . very diverse and dynamic. People are very kind and helpful, so we assimilated quickly.
Highway driving can be quite frightening, more risky, and it's hard to get around without public transit.
But the weather is a lot better than the U.K. It's nice to come to work every day and the sky is blue. It makes you more productive.
As a self-described big-picture optimist, what keeps you from getting frustrated?
Bureaucracy frustrates me, but unlike in the U.K., things are very streamlined here. I like to brainstorm and I'm very lucky to have staff to implement and operationalize. I always believe anything is possible. There's a song I like, by Supertramp, called Take the Long Way Home. One verse goes like this:
Does it feel that your life's become a catastrophe?
Oh, it has to be for you to grow, boy.
When you look through the years and see what you could have been.
Oh, what you might have been if you'd have had more time.
I never want to be in that position. If you really want it, you get it.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3332. Sunday conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.