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Marc Edwards wins “Genius Grant” for drinking water safety efforts

Cited for “playing a vital role in ensuring the safety of drinking water and in exposing deteriorating waterdelivery infrastructure in America’s largest cities,” Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards has been named a MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Edwards can use the accompanying $500,000 grant — often referred to as the “Genius Grant” — in any way he chooses. He was among a class of 24 fellows selected from hundreds of nominees in 2007 for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.

“As a group, this new class of Fellows takes one’s breath away,” said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. “As individuals, each is an original. To the person, they confirm that the creative individual is alive and well, at the cutting edge, and at work singularly and powerfully to make our world a better place. They are people who will change and influence our times.”

Since joining the faculty of the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, where he holds the Charles P. Lunsford Professorship, Edwards has achieved international renown for applying the principles of aquatic chemistry to solving problems related to corrosion and drinking water infrastructure degradation.

While investigating elevated levels of lead in the District of Columbia’s water supply in 2003, Edwards and his graduate students discovered that the use of chloramine as a disinfectant in tap water had caused lead to leach from the pipes in thousands of homes.

This research linked several cases of lead poisoning, earlier thought to be caused by lead paint, to local tap water. The findings also revealed systemic weaknesses in the regional water testing program, prompting the Washington Area Water Authority to replace lead service lines throughout the district.

In 2004 Edwards was asked to testify before Congress about the lead problem, and Time magazine, dubbing him “The Plumbing Professor,” featured him as one of the nation’s leading scientific innovators.

He has since expanded his research to other cities, defining better ways to test local water and predict the risk of chemical contamination in urban infrastructure. “Through his exhaustive research efforts,” according to the MacArthur Fellows biography, “Edwards is making critical contributions to the health of individuals and communities throughout the U.S. in an often-neglected area of domestic public safety.”

Along with Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering colleague Andrea Dietrich, Edwards is co-principal investigator on a $1.64 million National Science Foundation project aimed at solving widespread problems related to the effects of corrosion on drinking water quality and infrastructure.

Among Edwards’ other honors are the Walter L. Huber Civil Engineering Research Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award — the commonwealth’s highest honor for faculty — from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Edwards came to Virginia Tech in 1997 from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where, in 1996, the National Science Foundation selected him as one of only 20 young engineering faculty members in the nation to receive a Presidential Faculty Fellowship. He completed his master’s degree and Ph.D. in environmental engineering at the University of Washington and earned his bachelor’s degree in biophysics from the State University of New York at Buffalo.


Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards has been named a MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.