Professor Melissa Lenczewski, who directs NIU’s Institute for the Study of Environment, Sustainability, and Energy (IESE), has been named recipient of the 2021 Presidential Engagement and Partnerships Professorship.
The professorship is awarded annually to faculty members who foster reciprocal partnerships, undertake socially responsive research, engage external communities, mentor students in collaborative projects outside the university and develop a sense of civic responsibility that transcends disciplines.
As IESE director, she spearheaded development of NIU’s undergraduate program in environmental studies and leads faculty from five colleges in tackling interdisciplinary issues related to the environment, sustainability and alternative energy. In her classrooms, Lenczewski consults and partners with industry professionals to keep lessons updated and ensure students are prepared for their professional careers.
But her work extends beyond classroom walls and even country borders. She engages both students and external partners in projects abroad—from Mexico to Myanmar—as well as in Illinois.
The focus of her expertise is something that we often take for granted but couldn’t live without. “Access to clean drinking water is essential to human life,” Lenczewski says. “My research, teaching and engagement focuses on water quality and contaminant hydrogeology.”
For more than a decade, she has collaborated with Mexico’s Yucatan Scientific Research Center, providing students from both institutions with water-quality research opportunities in the karst terrain of the Yucatan, a region that includes Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
In 2016, those efforts expanded under an annual summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, funded by the National Science Foundation. More than 25 students from colleges and universities across the country have participated in the REUs, which focus on increasing Latinx participation in STEM fields.
“Dr. Lenczewski’s organizational skills and energy are driving forces behind the collaboration and engagement,” says Rosa Maria Leal-Bautista, an NIU alumnus and researcher at the Yucatan center. “She has the unique ability to bring together different research groups for the scientific and learning benefit of both institutions.”
For the past seven years, Lenczewski also has been working in Southeast Asia, where she has helped to identify projects for IESE faculty and students.
Myanmar, one of the world’s most isolated countries, had few if any hydrogeologists when Lenczewski began working there. She developed workshops introducing hydrogeology to the faculty of Yadanabon University and the University of Mandalay and is collaborating with the University of Yangon to create new degrees in water studies. It will be the first program of its kind in Myanmar and will address the country’s dire need for water professionals.
Closer to home, Lenczewski is investigating water quality throughout the South Branch of the Kishwaukee River. Additionally, she and a student team are conducting water quality research at a new prairie restoration site on campus.
These types of real-world research experiences spark student interest and help them see a path forward. Jessica McKay was first inspired by Dr. Lenczewski as an NIU undergraduate.
“As I transitioned to graduate school, I wanted to continue working with Dr. Lenczewski not only because of her being an excellent researcher but also because of her increasing involvement with international collaborators,” says McKay, who conducted research in Cancun, served as an REU graduate assistant and earned her NIU master’s degree. She’s now pursuing her Ph.D. at Texas A&M University on topics related to diversity and inclusion in the geosciences.
“I truly cannot think of a person more deserving and fitting for this award,” McKay says.