Eco-Hydrologist Lawrence Band Works to Solve “Wicked Problems”
When he was a college student majoring in geography in the 1970s, Lawrence Band drove a New York City cab in the summer. At the time, of course, Band, a native of the Bronx, didn’t know that he would one day be an internationally respected eco-hydrologist, a scientist working on the advanced edge of the search for solutions to some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges: for one thing, “eco-hydrologist” was a career that didn’t even exist then.
Yet decades later, the time Band spent navigating the streets of gritty late-’70s New York turns out to be relevant to his work. Band, who joined the UVA faculty in 2017, holds joint appointments as both the Ernest H. Ern Professor of Environmental Sciences in the College and as a professor in the Engineering School’s newly launched Department of Engineering Systems and Environment—reflecting the fact that Band’s work as a researcher crosses disciplines.
He studies not only natural watersheds but their urban counterparts. In examining where the water goes in cities and the ways that people interact with their environments, Band draws on the intimate knowledge of an urban landscape and its people that he acquired behind the wheel of a taxi. “You learn quite a lot about the spatial patterns and temporal patterns of the city by driving a cab,” he said. He calls it “becoming familiar with your field of study.”
Water is one of the 21st century’s most complex global challenges. Devastating drought and catastrophic flooding, vanishing aquifers, polluted waterways and waterborne disease, warming oceans and rising sea levels—each demanding in its own right, these problems are also complicatedly interconnected with each other as well as with the accelerating crisis of climate change.
“We call them wicked problems—the ones that are just really tough to solve,” said Andres Clarens, associate director of the University’s Environmental Resilience Institute (ERI). Launched in 2017, the ERI is one of four recently developed pan-University institutes created to draw on knowledge and expertise across Grounds and beyond the University to rapidly accelerate the pace of research, discovery, and implementation of meaningful solutions to “big challenge” problems like climate change and global health.
Urgently important and yet dauntingly difficult, these problems will demand unprecedentedly multifaceted, interdisciplinary solutions. “There are no silver bullets,” said Clarens. “If you really want to make progress on these problems, you need to engage everybody.”
And what Band, who calls himself “more of an integrator than a specialist,” brings to UVA is years of experience working across traditional boundaries and engaging multiple partners and stakeholders in just this way. “That is work that Larry has been very good at doing throughout his career,” said Clarens.
It’s an undertaking that can be “immensely challenging” in its own right, says Band. “You have to put teams together of people with very different backgrounds, who often initially speak very different languages and have very different assumptions.”
Yet that approach, he said, will be vital. “This is what our grand challenges are demanding.”
Lawrence Band meets with students in his office.