Engineering in the Environment

Rick Luettich uses his engineering education to study ecological problems facing North Carolina

Luettich stands on a dock

Rick Luettich uses his engineering education to study ecological problems facing North Carolina

Rick Luettich looks at home on the dock that sits behind the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries in Morehead City. Luettich is an Alumni Distinguished Professor in the department of earth, marine and environmental sciences in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

Working as a professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences since 1987 and serving as its director since 2004, Luettich’s path to the institute is a story of interdisciplinary research at its finest.

In the late-1970s, he enrolled at Georgia Tech as a civil engineering major. While most of his classmates showed interest in transportation, buildings and other infrastructure, Luettich was more interested in his classes on fluids.

Luettich went on to pursue a doctorate in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For his dissertation, he conducted research at Lake Balaton in Hungary — a large, shallow waterbody with a maximum depth of just 40 feet. Luettich wanted to know how water motion disturbed sediments on the bottom of the lake.

“The department at MIT was very interdisciplinary,” Luettich shared. “I was challenged to learn about more than physics and the nuts and bolts of engineering. Rather, I was challenged to think about how the various pieces fit together to deal with broader environmental issues.”

Upon completion of his program in 1987, Luettich knew he wanted to use his engineering abilities to pursue environmental problems with an interdisciplinary team of people.

Enter the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, which was advertising a position for “someone with experience in physical engineering willing to work with biologists, geologists and chemists.”

While Luettich had never conducted research on the ocean, he believes he was hired at IMS because of the field experience he gained from his freshwater studies.

“The institute was a great fit because of its mission to serve the citizens of North Carolina,” Luettich said. “It’s very much applied research, which looked an awful lot like engineering research as I’d experienced it.”

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