Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet MEGAN KONAR, who joined the faculty of the University of Illinois Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2013. She holds a master's degree and Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from Princeton, as well as a master's in water science, policy and management from Oxford and a bachelor's in conservation and resource studies from the University of California, Berkeley.
You teach classes called "Water Resources Engineering" and "Globalization of Water." Have you always had an environmentalist interest?
I developed an interest in nature and the outdoors as a kid hiking with my parents. I also trace back my fascination with water resources to growing up near Lake Michigan, and especially the Great Chicago Flood of 1992, which made a big impression on me as a child.
What have you learned about interactions in water, food and trade? How does trade impact water use and sustainability?
This is still an active area of research for me. Some of my recent research has revealed that trade leads countries to use less water on average. However, food-supply chains are exposed to increasing water risks, such as drought, floods and depleted water supplies. In the future, I hope to better understand how to decrease the impact of these risks for our food security.
As a visiting expert in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, have you reached any conclusions about how the government could better intervene to manage water hazards and food supply?
As a scientist, I seek to provide information that can inform policy makers. However, policy necessarily involves many other important factors such as ethics, politics and culture, which decision-makers must also take into consideration.
Tell us about your research on the unintended consequences of crop insurance.
I worked with Tatyana Deryugina to examine the impact of crop insurance on water use for irrigation. We found that crop insurance leads farmers to irrigate their crops more. This is likely because farmers have an incentive to plant more risky crops when they have crop insurance. The riskier crops also tend to require more water for irrigation. However, water is just one factor that decision-makers will want to consider when weighing the costs and benefits of crop insurance.
How are global supply chains using critical aquifers?
Critical aquifers currently produce a large share of our global grain supply. Many of these groundwater resources are being unsustainably mined. This means that in the future, these reserves will run dry and we will not be able to grow grain in many of the locations that we currently do. Groundwater depletion represents one threat to future grain-supply chains.
What infrastructure do we need for future resiliency?
This is what I am trying to determine in my current research. Civil engineers are currently facing a conundrum. We know that we will need new and improved infrastructure to help us adapt to a changing climate. However, since the future is uncertain, it is difficult to determine exactly what infrastructure we need, which can lead to underinvestment in infrastructure.
Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from early on?
I avoided automating my code when I was a new graduate student. However, in research, you will repeatedly need to adjust your calculations. This is very cumbersome to do when you have to redo each piece of the analysis manually. Now, I have learned the beauty of code to create replicable research. It has a higher fixed cost up front, but it pays off in the long run!
TECH TIDBITS ... from MEGAN KONAR
Do you have interests in social media? Are your startups on any of them? I have recently joined Twitter after hesitating for many years. My colleagues and friends finally convinced me that it is a helpful way to keep up with current research and to let others know what I am working on.
What's your favorite app? Instacart. You can order groceries when your flight lands and you don't have any food in the fridge!
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Book. I still like holding a physical book and turning real pages. I am reading "Everything is Obvious" by Duncan Watts.
Do you have an entrepreneurial hero? Michael Lewis. He is an amazing communicator of technical subject matter. His gift is the ability to swaddle technical content in story. A review of his recent book "The Fifth Risk" is very apt: "I would read an 800-page history of the stapler if he wrote it" (John Williams).