Former UConn student Chandran earns MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant'

Former UConn student Kartik Chandran, currently a Columbia University professor who earned his Ph.D. at UConn in 1999, won a MacArthur Foundation grant for his innovative work in wastewater treatment. (Courtesy/John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

A former University of Connecticut student has been named a “genius.”

A MacArthur Genius, that is. The annual MacArthur Fellowship elects between 20 and 25 fellows each year for their prestigious award. Those chosen are given $625,000 to further their creative pursuits – be it journalism, poetry, or, in UConn’s own Kartik Chandran’s case, environmental engineering. 

Chandran, currently a Columbia University professor who earned his Ph.D. at UConn in 1999, won the award for his innovative work in wastewater treatment.

When asked whether he would now compel his students and colleagues to address him as “genius,” Chandran answered in his characteristically humble, businesslike way.

“I don’t think anything changes,” Chandran said.

With regards to his UConn tenure, Chandran had nothing but fond things to say of his alma mater. 

“I really enjoyed my time at UConn,” Chandran said. “It provided a very conducive, enabling atmosphere to study. It was a very wholesome experience for me – the general atmosphere was great. I basically learned about biological waste treatment and biological nitrogen removal as a Ph.D. student. In terms of how it influenced what I do, I really continued along these directions.”

UConn’s Next Generation initiative is set to bankroll science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs at the university with billions of dollars. Chandran is pleased with UConn’s emphasis on STEM.

“I’m honestly very happy to hear that UConn is investing in the STEM direction,” Chandran said. “This is crucial for UConn, the state of Connecticut and beyond. I think it’s always good to focus along directions of green water, green energy, access to energy and nutrition. I focus on these global challenges, but I don’t focus on them individually – I try to see a link in how they contribute to multiple challenges.”

Chandran suggested that UConn should take an interdisciplinary approach to STEM, saying it’s important that STEM programs find a way to combine with other schools like architecture.

“While difficult to put these programs together, I think this is what students need to be exposed to these days,” Chandran said. 

With $1.5 million in aid from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, Chandran has done notable work in rural Ghana, where he and his Engineers without Borders students, “re-engineered source-separation toilets to both provide sanitation and recover nutrients for use in agriculture,” and is “testing the large-scale conversion of sludge into biofuel while also providing new training opportunities for local engineers and managers,” according to the MacArthur foundation website. 

Essentially, Chandran takes wastewater, traditionally stigmatized as useless, and attempts to extract positive purpose from its nutrients. 

But this is only a part of Chandran’s work. When speaking with The Daily Campus, Chandran mentioned his time in New York while finishing up at UConn. There he worked with other engineers at removing organic carbon and nitrogen to get clean water, while also trying to figure out how to emit less energy and greenhouse gases.

“It is not true that clean water and clean air are incompatible,” Chandran said. “We now know a lot more, and the concept of clean water and clean air conflict is not there. They are in concert, not in conflict.” 

This pervasive societal attitude towards wastewater – that we have to get rid of it – is misguided, according to Chandran. The professor says that wastewater could help with food shortages and resources like biogas. Chandran also cautions not to focus solely on wastewater - that food waste can contain valuable resources as well. 

Chandran has paid tribute to UConn in the past. He said that his UConn Ph.D. advisor, Barth Smets, pushed him towards the work he does today. 

“One of the first projects that I worked on, starting during the fall of 1997, was on improvements to the design and operation of a biological nitrogen removal plant in Connecticut,” he said, “and this really set the tone for my research and technology development that I do currently.”

The MacArthur foundation argues that their fellowship recipients are more than just “geniuses.” In fact, the foundation avoids “using the term ‘genius’ to describe MacArthur Fellows because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess,” the website states. “The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.”
Chandran embodies these principles. 

With the money from the fellowship, Chandran plans on extending the original project in Ghana and looking into how resources such as biodiesel might be created through other avenues. 

“My years at UConn created the foundation for a lot of work that I do now, and the concepts, ideologies and work ethic that I learnt while at UConn permeate my activities even today,” Chandran said in an earlier interview.

UConn students can take solace in the fact that there is perhaps a genius among them today.


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.