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February 28, 2006

Paul Roberts, engineer and environmentalist, dies at age 67

Paul V. Roberts, a professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering who devoted his career to the protection of natural resources, died Feb. 12 of leukemia at his home in Cupertino. He was 67.

A memorial service to honor and celebrate his life was held Feb. 22 at Memorial Church.

"Paul combined a great concern for the natural environment with a love of knowledge, a passion for teaching and a great devotion to his students," said Perry L. McCarty, the Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Emeritus. "Professionally, he was dedicated to seeking better understanding of natural processes of environmental importance through interdisciplinary research."

A pioneer in wastewater reclamation, Roberts was the first person to hold the C. L. Peck, Class of 1906, Professorship of Engineering.

"Paul was one of the very best and admired environmental engineers of my generation," said Richard Luthy, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil Engineering. "He was drawn to environmental engineering both philosophically and intellectually, for he had discovered in himself a deep affection for the natural environment. He was a role model for me and many others for his approach to environmental research and his commitment to democratic ideals and peace."

Career changes

Roberts was born Nov. 27, 1938, in Washington, D.C., and spent his childhood in Pennsylvania. In 1960, he earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University, then pursued graduate study at Cornell University, where he met Inge RĂ¼sch. They married in 1965.

After receiving a doctorate in chemical engineering at Cornell in 1966, Roberts spent nearly a year in Chile as a visiting professor at Catholic University of Valparaiso and at Technical University Federico Santa Maria under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He returned to Cornell for a brief stint as instructor, then took an engineering job with the Chevron Research Co. in Richmond, Calif.

From 1968 to 1971, he was a research engineer at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park. However, his interest in nature and increasing concern about industrial pollution led him to change his career goals and devote his life to solving environmental problems. To that end, he enrolled in the Stanford School of Engineering's Honors Cooperative Program, which allowed him to pursue a graduate degree in environmental engineering while an SRI employee.

In 1971, shortly after obtaining a master's degree at Stanford, Roberts was offered the position of senior research scientist and group leader in process engineering with the Swiss Federal Institute of Water Supply and Water Pollution Control (EAWAG). In 1973, he was promoted to the head of EAWAG's engineering department and also became a lecturer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

A strong yearning to return to California led him to accept an offer from Stanford as research professor of environmental engineering in 1976. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and to the Peck Professorship in 1989. Roberts served as associate chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering from 1985 to 1990. He became emeritus in 2000.

Pioneering research

In his initial work at Stanford, Roberts directed a field study to evaluate the potential for reclaiming wastewater from the city of Palo Alto by using advanced treatment processes followed by injection and storage in the aquifer below the San Francisco Bay wetlands. The research focused on potentially hazardous chemicals in the water and their movement and fate in the environment.

"Paul pursued a fundamental understanding of key physicochemical processes affecting contaminant transport in the subsurface environment," McCarty said. "This was the beginning of Stanford's many significant contributions in this area."

In 1980, as groundwater contamination was becoming a nationwide concern, Roberts organized an international team of hydrologists, chemists, microbiologists and engineers to carry out the Borden field experiment in Canada, widely recognized as the most definitive study of the processes affecting the movement and fate of hazardous chemicals in groundwater. The large information set generated by the experiment has been adopted by regulatory agencies, engineering firms and industry to design remediation facilities for hazardous chemical contamination.

"Paul and his team clearly demonstrated over 20 years ago the scientific value of cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary university efforts to develop and carry out carefully designed large-scale field experiments to test hypotheses, validate mathematical models and generate understanding of important natural processes," McCarty said.

Roberts subsequently developed a field laboratory at the Moffett Federal Air Field near Stanford and launched the first studies to make use of unique biological processes for destruction of hazardous chlorinated chemicals in contaminated groundwater.

Extraordinary educator

Roberts' colleagues remember him as an extraordinary educator who deserves much credit for helping Stanford's Environmental Engineering and Science Graduate Program obtain its top ranking. He advised numerous graduate students who went on to prominent positions in industry and academia. Between 1983 and 1991, his doctoral students received five Academic Achievement Awards for outstanding research from the American Water Works Association.

"The esprit de corps that developed in the Environmental Engineering and Science Program with Paul's warmth and generosity helped in creating an exceptional teaching and research atmosphere for us all," McCarty recalled. "Those were splendid years, ones that not only we but also generations of students will remember with fondness for the rest of our lives. We have much gratitude for Paul's many contributions and collaborative spirit."

The author of more than 200 publications, Roberts was a member of the Swiss Academy of Sciences and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1997. He received the 1989 Scientific and Technical Achievement Award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the 1990 Founders Award from the U.S. National Committee of the International Association on Water Pollution Research and Control and the 2003 Founders Award from the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors. He also served on numerous committees for the EPA and the National Research Council.

Roberts is survived by his wife, Inge Roberts; three children, Nina, Christopher and Sebastian; and nine grandchildren.

The family asks those wishing to express their condolences with a gift to make a contribution to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, 3000 Sand Hill Road, Bldg. 1, Suite 155, Menlo Park, CA 94025.

Editor Note:

A photo of Paul V. Roberts is available online at (slug: "Roberts.jpg").



Mark Shwartz, News Service: (650) 723-9296,


Richard Luthy, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: (650) 723-3921,

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