Professor Deborah Thurston: Engineering a sustainable future

5/9/2018 Charlotte Collins

Professor Deborah Thurston reflects on her 30 years at ISE and details her current leadership role on a team endowed with $70 million to tackle sustainability in industry.

Written by Charlotte Collins




Design for sustainability has grown substantially as a field in Deborah Thurston’s 30 years as an ISE professor. As the node leader of Design for Reuse/Disassembly in a team endowed with a 70 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, it’s safe to say Thurston has put down roots in the sustainable engineering community. But what she’s enjoyed more than establishing herself is planting the seeds. 

“My favorite part is seeing it all kind of come together, and it comes from my experience, seeing the seeds I’ve planted 25, almost 30 years ago are coming to fruition,” says Thurston. “The research that we did long ago, now we’re bringing it to the industry floor. The students I taught in the eighties are coming back and bringing their own children.”

Thurston’s time at Illinois began in 1987, after finishing both her master’s and Ph.D. at MIT. The structure of her program there allowed her to stay interdisciplinary with her work; she earned her civil engineering degrees, but also had the chance to explore a number of environmental issues, such as pollution prevention, while still working alongside people in material science. 

After finishing her studies, Illinois caught her interest because of the flexibility of the ISE department (then known as General Engineering), as well as the esteemed status of the University. 

“It’s a very broad and yet very deep set of disciplines,” says Thurston. “That’s what drew me here, and Illinois is a top, top institution.”

Right away, she enjoyed the intellectual freedom bound up in the life of a professor where she could “spend your thinking time where you wanted to spend it.” She taught linear programming, engineering economy and decision making while researching pollution prevention. 

Thurston recognized in the University's summer 1999 General Engineering Newsletter for presenting papers at the Institute for Industrial Engineers Research Conference.
Thurston recognized in the University's summer 1999 General Engineering Newsletter for presenting papers at the Institute for Industrial Engineers Research Conference.

Thurston says her overarching goal as a professor is to instill a sense of curiosity in the students about the coursework beyond just answering test questions; she hopes they ask the questions that she might not have the answers to yet and aims to shape them into the kind of engineering professionals who are “not just checking a box or getting the right answer, but after [getting] the right answer, having ten more questions.”

With teaching, Thurston gets to see the fruits of her labor through keeping up with the accomplishments of her alumni and even receiving some of their children as second-generation Illinois students.

“The thing I’m most proud of is actually the students who are out there,” says Thurston. “Just recently, one of our students who I had at the very beginning of my career here is wildly successful, his son has just been accepted here at the University, he’s trying to decide which school to go to. It’s so rewarding to interact with our students who have been successful and then see their children considering coming to Illinois.”

Thurston’s current work with design for sustainability is just another seed she’s helping to plant today for a greener tomorrow. The REMADE Institute, which stands for Reducing EMbodied-Energy And Decreasing Emissions, is a group of universities and companies working on clean energy initiatives impacting U.S. manufacturing. 

Their $70 million in federal funding will be matched by private-sector commitments from industry and partners to help innovations in academia make their way to the industry floor and out of the “Valley of Death.”

“The ‘Valley of Death’ [is] where academics invent new ideas, like we create new approaches and new ideas, and then it just sort of sits there for quite a long time and then finally people in industry start using it,” says Thurston. “We’re trying to get over that quickly, and work with industry to solve their immediate problems with the tools that we’ve developed.”

To Thurston, sustainable initiatives are the most practical path forward for the manufacturing industry because of two major positives: morality and profitability.

“It’s the right thing to do, but number two it’s profitable,” says Thurston. “Waste is, by definition, an inefficient use of resources. If we can help industry recover or save energy, save those materials without having to start from scratch over again and form new materials, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

She feels her research is "very synergistic" with her work as a professor.

"The new knowledge you create in your reserach, you bring to the classroom, and similarly, what's happening in the classroom informs your research," says Thurston.

Both as a professor and as one of the leading engineers tackling sustainability in industry, Thurston hopes to keep forging ahead with her work, always planting seeds.

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This story was published May 9, 2018.