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Welcome to New CEEES Professor Marc Muller

Written by: Marijke Wijnen

Professor Marc Muller decided to become a civil and environmental engineer at nineteen when he found himself stranded in Cambodia. But this story does not start there, so let’s back up for just a moment.

Muller knew he wanted to become an engineer from a young age, but did not know what kind. In secondary school when Switzerland’s main engineering university hosted an open house, Muller went to presentations by a civil engineer, an environmental engineer, and a material scientist. The civil engineer spoke about designing a train schedule. Boring, thought eighteen-year-old Muller. The environmental engineer spoke about managing a wastewater treatment plant. That did not catch his attention either. The material scientist held up a synthetic diamond that he had fabricated himself. Muller thought, Cool and started university in the material sciences program.

He found chemistry and physics fascinating and relished his hands on courses, in one he got to forge his own knife.

But then things changed. During a break from University, Muller visited his uncle in Vietnam, and the two of them travelled to Cambodia, their family’s country of origin. On returning to Vietnam, the officials let his uncle by without a problem, but stopped Muller and would not allow him to re-enter. Due to complex visa rules, Muller and his uncle found themselves stuck on opposite sides of the international line. All his uncle could do was call out a single phone number to nineteen-year-old Muller.

Muller took a taxi back to Phnom Penh to find a telephone. The man on the other line turned out to be an environmental engineer doing community development projects in Cambodia. Muller spent a few days with this man before he was able to return home. During that time he learned about his work and was impressed by how one person could touch so many lives.

When Muller returned to Switzerland, he took on civil engineering as a second major. Since then Muller has engaged in humanitarian related projects across the globe. He’s worked on removing arsenic from water in Cambodia, building water systems in Tanzania, and developing micro hydropower capacity in Nepalese communities.

Professor Muller's guide and interpreter in Nepal.
Professor Muller's guide and interpreter in Nepal.

Initially Muller did not plan on becoming an academic -- he wanted to work on water-related projects on the ground. But as he continued his education from a Master’s in Switzerland to a PhD in Berkeley, he began to fall in love with science and became increasingly interested in harnessing the power of big data sources to answer important questions around pressing international water issues.

In addition while working in the field, he became frustrated by how slow it was to collect data in person, trekking from village to village. He wondered to himself, Is there a better way? That’s when he became interested in remote sensing. Here was a technology that had the potential to collect data on even the most inaccessible places in the world. He wondered if he could use remote sensing to answer questions that could help solve some of the world’s most dire water issues.

With these goals in mind, Muller began a postdoc position at Stanford. While there he used remote sensing to study water issues in war torn Syria. Syria lies upstream from Jordan along the Yarmouk River, a key water source for both nations. Over the years the two nations have devised numerous treaties around flow in the Yarmouk. For a number of years, the flow into Jordan was less than anticipated. Was Syria using more than its share of water or was this due to natural causes such as climate change?

Then in 2013 the flow into Jordan increased three fold. What had happened? Was it due to the lessening drought that had devastated the Middle East from 2006 to 2009 or was it due to the exodus of refugees from Syria?

Satellite images allowed Muller to estimate the extent of irrigated agriculture in Syria in 2012 and 2015.
Satellite images allowed Muller to estimate the extent of irrigated agriculture in Syria in 2012 and 2015.

Muller found that the increase in water could half be explained by decreased consumption due to the exodus of refugees and half by natural causes, related to a lessening of drought conditions. Professor Muller explains that these results were groundbreaking because, “It’s the first time that a causal link from conflict to water resources has been actually demonstrated.”

With this project and others Muller has focused on one specific locale, but with the hope that his findings would be applied more broadly. He explained, “I really enjoy projects that are potentially scalable. That are not specific to one issue in one place, but rather that build technologies and techniques that could be applied globally, so that’s why I’m particularly interested in uses of information from remote sensing or possibly twitter -- they are big data sources.”

This semester Professor Muller taught Sustainable Development in a Changing World, the first course required for the new minor -- Resiliency and Sustainability of Engineering Systems. Muller wove many water related issues into the syllabus and on Fridays, which Muller reserved for discussion, the class had many lively conversations about water as an economic good, water’s role in international conflicts, and water in sustainable development.

Professor Muller loved teaching Notre Dame freshmen and was impressed by how deeply they dove into complex, international problems. He explained, “It was really a real pleasure to teach and be taught by the students.”

In addition, Muller is excited by the research environment at Notre Dame. He explained, “The degree of collaborations between the departments and within the departments has been amazing here. I’ve really really enjoyed it.”

Professor Muller is building collaborations with various researchers from engineering, political science and biology. He is currently working on a project studying transboundary water issues between India and Bangladesh and a project on transboundary aquifer resource sharing, related to a treaty devised between Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Professor Muller during his time in Tanzania, building water systems.
Professor Muller during his time in Tanzania, building water systems.