Dean's Message
Spring 2015 No.26
Freeing the Earth
Prof Irene Lo has become the first Hong Kong member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, elected for the impact of her research and practical advances in solving environmental challenges. She talks to In Focus about her work in decontamination and outlook on engineering
When Prof Irene Lo heard the news that she had been elected an Academician in the Technical and Environmental Sciences branch of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, her initial reaction was: "Not me?!" The Civil and Environmental Engineering professor was equally surprised and delighted to find she had become the first Hong Kong scholar to receive the honor from the august body, which comprises over 1,500 top scientists, researchers, philosophers and artists from Europe, Asia and the US, and includes 29 Nobel Laureates.
However, Prof Lo has certainly earned her place among the Academy's members after more than two decades of high achievement and technological innovation at the School of Engineering. Her focus over this time has been clean-up solutions to the major environmental problem of contaminated soil, sediment and water, and her influence has been global in both academic and professional engineering worlds.
"I see a problem in reality. Then I look for the root cause and how to solve it," Prof Lo explained. "I start with work in the laboratory and gradually move to a full site test of the technology. Publications are important but not my ultimate goal. For every piece of research I do, I must think of the application. The most exciting part is when you see the technology actually working. There is a real sense of discovery."
Prof Lo was one of the early exponents of environmental engineering as it expanded from sanitary engineering (mainly issues related to water and wastewater) into a wide-ranging university discipline in the 1980s. She was attracted by the scope of the subject, which involved integration of physics, chemistry and biology – all subjects she was good at and enjoyed from her time at Shau Kei Wan Government Secondary School in Hong Kong onward. Environmental engineering's potential to improve the quality of people's lives was another significant draw.
Joining HKUST in 1992 as a junior faculty member, Prof Lo has gone on to bring fresh dimensions to research and applications for water, soil, and solid waste pollution control. During sabbatical leave in 1999 at the Technical University of Denmark, she had the opportunity to collaborate with Prof Peter Kjeldsen, another leading figure in groundwater and soil remediation, and seek ways to bring their scientific findings related to permeable reactive barrier technology to fruition in the outside world. “It worked in the lab but we needed to show people it worked in the field to have real impact," she said.
This they managed to do when they partnered with the Danish Environmental Protection Agency in tackling groundwater that had become polluted by chlorinated hydrocarbons at the Vapokon site on Fuen Island in Denmark. In Hong Kong, Prof Lo received Research Grants Council funding to assist the project mainly on the support of a PhD student to work in Denmark and conduct preliminary test and site monitoring work.
The resulting full-scale fieldwork brought an immense amount of useful data for understanding the mechanism involved in permeable reactive barrier technology, publications in leading journals, and two major awards from the American Society of Civil Engineers. "The breakthrough was learning how to set up a monitoring system to find out whether the pollutants in groundwater had been removed or not. The data showed they really were reduced. They were being treated and removed on site," Prof Lo explained. In 2006, the research was extended to groundwater contaminated by chromium, arsenic and other toxic anionic pollutants.
Closer to home, Prof Lo has carried out projects to clean up the Shing Mun River in Sha Tin and the Sham Chun River at the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The first involved a bioremediation technology and was carried out together with the Hong Kong government's Civil Engineering and Development Department. The second trialed a soil/sediment washing technology for a joint study conducted by the Hong Kong and Shenzhen governments. "Every site is unique, depending on the pollutant and the nature of the soil, so you have to use different technologies to deal with it," she noted. Currently, she is working with a private company over an environmentally friendly technology to clean up marine mud and reuse it on site.
Such cutting-edge fieldwork has a useful impact on her teaching, another area to which she devotes much thought and effort and has brought University commendations. "When I apply my research on site, I use such information in my teaching," Prof Lo said. "My students benefit a lot as they really see how it can be used. It is not just a concept anymore."
Prof Lo is keen to see more women become civil and environmental engineers and thinks high school students with an affinity for the three major sciences and a rational mindset will find the areas rewarding. "The word 'civil' in civil engineering stands for 'civilization'", she pointed out. A greater female presence could also bring new perspectives and vision.
Other changes she is looking forward to include the valuable networking opportunities she foresees following her election to the Academy, an institution which focuses on developing knowledge, disseminating scientific information, and implementing major multinational projects. She is already noticing a stream of offers to speak at conferences and believes that the international connections that Academy membership can bring will create wider exposure for the School and HKUST.
On her attainment of this standing, she remains modest, seeing the accolade not as personal achievement but simply as heartening evidence of the contribution she has been able to make to society. "My research students congratulated me and said it was a great honor," she said. "To me, it is international recognition of my work over the past 20 years."
Firmly Grounded Achievement
MS and PhD, University of Texas at Austin, 1990 and 1992

Fellow of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE), 2009
Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 2009

Research interests: include remediation technology for contaminated soils and sludge; solidification/stabilization of contaminated marine mud/sediment/soils for beneficial reuse; bioremediation of sediment for odor suppression and organic biodegradation; chemical reduction of chlorinated hydrocarbons and reducible inorganic compounds by permeable reactive barriers; nanomaterials for water and industrial wastewater treatment; life cycle environmental assessment of materials

Professional awards: include ASCE James Croes Medal, 2004 (first Chinese principal investigator to win since 1912); ASCE Samuel Arnold Greeley Award, 2007; ASCE Wesley W Horner Award, 2009; ASCE EWRI Best Practice-Oriented Paper Award, 2012; Research Excellence Award, School of Engineering, HKUST, 2013

Teaching awards: include Michael G Gale Medal for Distinguished Teaching, HKUST, 2006; Distinguished Teaching Award, School of Engineering, HKUST, 2007