Spring/Summer 2015 | By Melanie Ginsburg
The Nelson Institute’s Water Resources Management (WRM) program remains, even after 50 years, an extraordinary graduate program. It attracts outstanding students who learn through hands-on projects that benefit real communities, led by teams of volunteer faculty from a wide range of disciplines.
WRM requires a leader who can inspire students and foster collaboration, and Anita Thompson is ready for the challenge. Born and educated in Minnesota, Thompson holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree and doctorate in biosystems and agricultural engineering, all from the University of Minnesota.
She has been a professor of biological systems engineering at UW-Madison since 2002. She studies sediment delivery in agricultural watersheds; how the pathogen Cryptosporidium (present in cattle manure) moves through soil and to groundwater; and water resources impacts associated with biofuel crop production systems.
Thompson recently shared some insight about WRM and her plans as the incoming program chair. She will assume this position in the fall 2015 semester as Ken Potter, who has led WRM for more than 12 years, enters retirement.
In Common: What is your favorite thing about WRM?
Thompson: Getting the opportunity to work with a group of students who come from such a diverse academic and professional background. I teach a small watershed engineering course and I’ve had a lot of WRM students take my course. They bring unique perspectives, ask great questions and approach issues from different angles. Getting the opportunity to work with a group of students like that on really practical water resources challenges is exciting to me.
What do you think is the most important thing to teach these students?
One of the real advantages of the WRM program is its interdisciplinary structure and wide-ranging course requirements for students. I think carrying through on that and teaching the importance of interdisciplinary solutions and developing the skills to work together on these complex problems is really critical.
What is your vision for the program?
I want to see this program continue to be successful and continue to attract top students in this area. Increasing student numbers will be a priority. I want the Nelson Institute and the Water Resources Management program to continue to be the place that people interested in this type of professional work really want to go.
This program is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Are there any new or emerging issues that weren’t a consideration 50 years ago when the program was founded?
One issue is that there is a greater need to address competing uses for water resources. People in urban areas need water for various reasons, there are different kinds of agricultural production systems that require it, there are manufacturing processes, and they’re all tapping into the same water supply systems. Meeting all of these demands and protecting the high-quality resources that we have is going to be really important.
How do you see WRM preparing students to do that?
Certainly through their coursework and their interactions with the various faculty on campus that are involved with the program or serve as their advisors. The practicum provides the students with tools and resources that they can extend and use throughout their career. The program integrates the physical, biological and social sciences, which is necessary for us to address these issues.
Now tell us, are you a Badger fan or a Gopher fan?
Badger fan. I certainly still have an allegiance to the Gophers, and I’ll cheer them on when they’re not playing the Badgers, but I love the Badgers.
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