Mercer adding graduate degrees

As scientists grapple with the health effects of steroids, prescription drugs and endocrine disrupters in drinking water, Mercer University is adding two new graduate degrees focused on finding innovative solutions to these and other environmental challenges.

The college recently announced it will offer a master’s degree in environmental engineering and another in environmental systems through night classes, starting this fall.

The degrees are designed to prepare students for careers in protecting public health, policing environmental regulations, designing landfills or water treatment systems, managing environmental laboratories and more.

President Obama’s economic stimulus package is expected to create many new green jobs and pump billions of dollars into improving water and sewer infrastructure. In Georgia, the stimulus is expected to total $624 million for infrastructure and science, according to the federal government’s Web site.

Mercer’s new programs will educate professionals who can fill some of these jobs, said Richard Mines, environmental engineering professor and director of graduate programs at Mercer.

“Hopefully, a lot of stimulus money is going to be put into water and wastewater plants and sewers,” he said. “This stuff is over 100 years old, and it will take a lot of people to fix this.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the environmental engineering sector will have a job growth rate of 25 percent between 2008 and 2016, more than double the average projected for all occupations.

Those who earned undergraduate degrees in engineering are eligible for Mercer’s master’s in environmental engineering, while those with undergraduate degrees in scientific fields are eligible for the environmental systems degree, Mines said.

“Anyone who understands environmental systems is going to have a very valuable skill, because we’ve all been living in silos where we focus on our own specialty,” said Carol McClelland, executive director of California-based Green Career Central. “Now there is a greater understanding of interconnectedness.”

The Mercer programs include four major areas of study: biotechnology and remediation (cleanup), water quality, solid and hazardous waste and air quality. Some of the courses also will focus on green engineering, sustainable design and emerging pollutants such as prescription drugs.

Mines said he hopes some students will work with their professors on original research that could benefit the Macon area. For example, Mines said he and another Mercer professor would like to expand their research on using ozone, a chemical oxidant, to treat wastewater and remove contaminants associated with personal care products and drugs.

Mines said the program will teach innovative approaches such as how to make a landfill function as a “bioreactor” for faster decomposition.

Mercer already offers an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering, and those students can choose a five-year track to earn a master’s degree, too. Andrew Evans of Cumming, a rising senior at Mercer, said he is considering this option because he’s interested in a career in public health.

Mines said several local engineering firms have expressed interest in the environmental engineering degree, particularly since new rules eventually will require all professional engineers to have a master’s degree.

Scott Mattox, an environmental engineer with Hodges Harbin Newberry & Tribble in Macon, has been accepted into the environmental engineering graduate program. Mattox works with landfill and surface mine design. “It just seemed like a golden opportunity for me,” he said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.