Dublin City University looks to pool its expertise in water

2 Jan 2015

Fiona Regan, associate professor in environmental sensing at Dublin City University

Dublin City University (DCU) is planning a new Water Institute to tackle the big issues in the field, Prof Fiona Regan tells Claire O’Connell.

Water was one of the hot topics in Ireland in 2014: flooding, metering and protests put H2O front and centre in the public consciousness.

But while water may be a hot potato politically, Prof Fiona Regan at Dublin City University wants to get to grips with the wider issues of water, from how technology can be used to monitor quantity and quality, to how research can help to inform policy and encourage consumers (both at home and in industry) to conserve this precious resource.

Big questions about water

“It’s great to see people exercised about things in this country, and people are highly exercised about water charges,” says Regan, who is associate professor in environmental sensing at DCU. 

“But even beyond charges, we need to think more deeply about how we resource and use water and the impacts of not having it. It’s not only the domestic users, industry needs water, too – many of the large multinational companies with sites in Ireland require access to huge water resources, which in turn supports our economy and jobs.”

How we monitor and use water is a central strand of the proposed DCU Water Institute, through which Regan is looking to bring together researchers across a spectrum of activities in DCU, from technology to law and communications.

“At the moment the institute is a project in development, but we are keen to establish it formally in 2015 if everything is in place,” she explains. “And it will allow us to tackle issues around water in new ways and build some scale based on our existing research.”

Technology keeps an eye on water

Regan is the lead principal investigator of the SmartBay Ireland project, a test and demonstration site in Galway Bay, and she directs the Marine & Environmental Sensing Technology Hub at DCU, that researches and builds technologies to monitor conditions in the sea, rivers and lakes.

“We do end-to-end technology development, where we translate the fundamental research of material science into technologies and information,” she explains, describing projects that use sensors and video to capture information about contaminants, ‘biofouling’, changes in water chemistry and early warnings of flooding.

“For several years we have deployed technology in Poolbeg (Dublin) to monitor water quality, and to develop algorithms for decision support around flooding,” she says.

“We are also working with University College Cork (UCC) in the Lough Hyne marine reserve (in Cork), a beautiful site that could be used as a testbed for climate change monitoring because what is happening out at sea in the bay impacts the lake water, so we have been measuring changes in the lake in real-time.”

DCU is also heavily involved in the UNEP GEMS/Water initiative, which is led by UCC, and works with fellow partners Trinity College Dublin, NUI Galway and Irish Aid to help improve water monitoring in under-resourced regions. “Part of our involvement in this initiative is to look at how we can monitor across countries that don’t do any monitoring currently,” says Regan.

Pooling expertise

She hopes the proposed DCU Water Institute will widen campus research on water to include aspects such as law, policy development and communications in the coming years, and the conversation about the proposed institute is already connecting people.

“Recently, a researcher who works in the area of law and government has asked me to contribute to a policy paper on water – I doubt we would even have met if it weren’t for us talking to people across campus about bringing different disciplines together to work on water,” she says. “And there will be a lot more examples of that happening as we roll it out.

Public engagement is another big channel for the initiative, Regan adds.

“Already on Twitter we run ‘fact of the day’ and also ‘word on water’, which tries to encourage people to think about water in everyday life. So if you are going to a concert or a big social event, what are the implications of that event for water usage – it’s helping people to see it from that perspective.”

Countries’ work on water

Regan also sought to spread the word at the recent conference Water: The Greatest Global Challenge, hosted by DCU, where researchers and industry representatives spoke about their work on water and the internet of things, quality monitoring, decision support, energy and future challenges.

“We had people from Mexico talking about moving to less water-intensive crops, from Catalonia, where issues with water scarcity mirror our issues with waste-water contamination, and from Sweden, where the speaker had an interest in ‘trans-boundary’ issues, such as a river flowing between two sites that are in conflict,” she says.

“We would hope that our work will link into these global issues, as well as projects in Ireland.”

The human element

Overall, Regan wants the research to improve how we manage and understand water, not just with technology but through mindset, too. 

“Aside from all of the science and technologies, it’s about getting everyone to understand that they have a role to play in this resource,” she says.

“Technology plays a part, but the key is that consumers really want to protect water – they need to want to do rainwater harvesting, to look at how we can not just save money, but conserve this resource.”

Prof Brian MacCraith, president of DCU, says there is excitement about the vision and potential of the proposed Water Institute.

“A central feature of DCU’s strategy is to focus our research expertise on major global issues and the Water Institute is a great example of this. Water supply and quality affects everyone on the planet and we expect the institute to deliver outputs of both national and global significance,” MacCraith says.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication