Charles R. O'Melia was surprised last month when he learned he would receive one of the most prestigious honors in the field of water-related research and technology, the Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke Prize.
"I was surprised because a colleague of mine at another institution had been nominated for the Clarke Prize, and I wrote a strong letter of support for him," said O'Melia, who is the Abel Wolman Professor of Environmental Engineering at Hopkins. "I was anticipating that he would be elected, but, of course, I was very pleased that I won."
Among environmental engineers, the Clarke Prize, established in 1993 by the California-based National Water Research Institute, is particularly noteworthy because the annual recipient receives a gold medallion and a $50,000 award, which can be used for any purpose.
Reviewing a career spanning more than four decades, the institute singled out O'Melia for his "substantial contributions to the basic understanding of physical and chemical processes for water treatment and the behavior of particles in the natural water environment."
In addition, O'Melia recently completed a challenging term as chair of a committee that reviewed the management of New York City's drinking water supplies.
If O'Melia was surprised to receive the honor, which was slated to be presented last Friday in Los Angeles, one of his former doctoral students was not. Menachem Elimelech, who is now Llewellyn West Jones Professor of Environmental Engineering at Yale University, nominated his mentor for the prize.
Elimelech said O'Melia's research into the way hazardous particles travel through water and his findings about how best to remove them "have been very important to the drinking water industry. Many of the practices that are now used in water treatment plants are based on his research."
Elimelech, who chairs Yale's environmental engineering program, added, "He's widely considered one of the foremost experts in filtration and coagulation. I felt he deserved the prize."
Although it is given without strings, don't expect O'Melia to use the prize money for a personal spending spree. "I'm going to keep the medal and give away the money," the Hopkins professor said. "I made that decision before I won."
He added, "If I'd won the lottery, I wouldn't give all of that money away. But this was an award associated with some of the work I've done, and I didn't want to profit from it. I wanted to recognize some of the places that have helped my wife and me to get here. It was a team effort."
O'Melia plans to give some of the prize money to Manhattan College, where he received his bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1955, as part of an endowment honoring Donald J. O'Connor, a professor who introduced O'Melia to environmental engineering. "Most people have a special place in their heart for their undergraduate institution," he said. "It sounds a little corny, but my fellow undergraduates and the faculty at Manhattan College were the ones who introduced me to the idea of having a dream in life, of thinking about the possibilities of the future."
The remaining funds will benefit Fontbonne Hall, a Catholic girls high school that O'Melia's wife, Mary, now a secondary school principal, attended.
O'Melia's fascination with the bridges and tunnels of his native New York City led him initially to study civil engineering. But he soon found himself drawn to the growing field of environmental engineering. "It just seemed more intellectually challenging at the time," he said. "It also allowed me to do something that involved serving the public."
He earned his master's and doctoral degrees in the field at the University of Michigan. Afterward, he taught at Georgia Tech, did further research at Harvard University, then served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before moving to Hopkins in 1980.
For the Clarke Prize presentation ceremony, O'Melia prepared a talk about real-world water management challenges. These included the spread of cholera at a lake in Rwanda, the political tensions and scarcity issues surrounding water supplies in Israel and the ecological damage caused by runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. He also touched on the challenges of balancing property rights, potential health hazards and treatment costs in providing safe and reliable drinking water to residents of New York City.
Although he has served as a consultant on major water policy issues and advises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on drinking water quality, O'Melia still considers himself "a microscopic research guy at heart." His research focuses largely on what happens at the interface where water meets a solid material, such as soil or a membrane that is used to remove pollutants from water.
His work has earned him numerous other honors and awards in the field, including election in 1989 to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering.