EHE Department Spotlight: A Conversation with Department Chair Marsha Wills-Karp


In August last year, Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and Whiting School of Engineering announced the creation of a new academic department. The Department of Environmental Health and Engineering combines the strengths of the two departments that have come together to form it: Bloomberg’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences and Whiting’s Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering.

The Johns Hopkins Water Institute sat down with Marsha Wills-Karp, the chair of the new department, to discuss the vision for Environmental Health and Engineering’s future and how it may impact those working on water issues. Dr. Wills-Karp was formerly the chair of the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences and the acting chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering.

Q1: What is the vision for how this new Department of Environmental Health and Engineering will conduct cutting-edge research and prepare students to tackle the major environmental challenges of our time?

Our overall vision is to improve the health of the Earth and its inhabitants by combining the expertise of environmental engineers and public health faculty.  Bringing the two groups together allows us to not only identify the impact of the environment on human health, but to also take this knowledge and translate it into the development of novel technologies, and or policies that will mitigate the harmful effects of the environment on human health. We envision strong bi-directional interactions between engineering and public health faculty and students. The rich diversity of the academic and research activities of the faculty (from the basic science of biological processes, to environmental and health policy), provides a wealth of interdisciplinary research and educational activities for our students at all levels. Upon graduation they will be prepared to meet the environmental challenges of the future-- which will require innovative cross-disciplinary solutions.  To our knowledge the configuration of our new Department is unique around the country and will greatly enhance our ability to solve the pressing environmental health challenges of the 21st century.

Q2: JHU has a long history in water leadership beginning with Abel Wolman’s work to establish the formula using chlorine to render drinking water safe for human consumption. Did Wolman’s legacy impact the decision to create the new EHE department?

I think it certainly did. What many people don’t know is that Abel Wolman was the head of a department called Sanitary Engineering, which existed between the two schools. Sanitary Engineering eventually became the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health. Abel’s vision that environmental engineering and public health should be integrated is now being realized. So in essence we have come full circle.

Additionally, this historical relationship eased the transition, particularly from the Whiting side, because there was already a history within the department of focusing on the effects of the natural environment on human health-a focus which is rare in other Environmental Engineering departments around the country.

Q3: What are the areas for key collaborations in water that you believe the new EHE department is best positioned to take on?

We have a broad spectrum of things going on. Historically, the engineering side of the department has focused on problems surrounding water treatment, so that will clearly continue to expand. As some of the more traditional issues of sanitation such as bacterial contaminant are being dealt with effectively in more developed countries, people are now turning their attention to other contaminants in the water supply. For example [Kellogg Schwab’s research] group is looking at viruses in water, which are not necessarily filtered out. Another area of interest is the impact of pharmaceutical drugs and other water contaminants that have not been the focus of water treatment in the United States. We are preparing to hire someone who will focus on examining the impact of the existing water treatment processes upon the breakdown and activity of pharmaceutical drugs currently found in the water supply. 

Sara Preheim in the Engineering department is looking at the effects of climate change on nutrient uptake by plankton and other organisms in the ocean, which impact not only life in the oceans, but by extension food, as well as the water cycle in its entirety. She utilizes very sophisticated molecular biology approaches to assess how these organisms share nutrients and how changes in ocean temperatures impact these symbiotic processes and how changes in these interactions impact the water cycle.

A major focus for the department right now is on the Chesapeake Bay Region because of its local impact. Additionally, a number of people in the department work to try to convince industrial players, particularly on Maryland’s Eastern Shore not to continue contaminating the waters through runoff from the chicken farms and the dumping of large quantities of other pollution associated with farming. As this pollution contributes to algal blooms and other problems in our waterways it is important to address this issues from many angles.

Finally, many department members are looking at fracking and its impact on water quality in the State. Given that Maryland currently has a moratorium [on hydraulic fracturing] and Pennsylvania does not, I believe that we have an opportunity to really investigate what the impacts of fracking are on watersheds. 

Q4: How can the Water Institute as an information gathering and knowledge sharing resource help to promote the transdisciplinary goals of the EHE department? 

The main thing would be to promote communication between departments and between faculty members who are interested in those particular issues. Additionally, to communicate this information with the outside world beyond the department and being close to Washington, in order to hopefully have some kind of policy impact with regulators who are playing an important role.

Q5: What changes, if any, do you see happening between the Homewood (Engineering) and East Baltimore (Public Health) campuses to foster collaborations in the coming years? 

We are looking into investing in more video and other types of conferencing technologies, in order to make it easier for students and faculty to interact and collaborate across the Department rather than having to go constantly go back and forth between campuses.

We are also currently hiring faculty who will be joining the department soon and will likely find it easier to work between the two very different structures and cultures. 

I think long term we will probably have a much more integrated curriculum for students – on the undergraduate as well as graduate level. After a couple of years go by, people will not be aware of the original divisions. Students certainly will be able to study with professors on both sides. The goal is really to train the next generation of public health practitioners and environmental engineers at that interface, as they become the next leaders in the field. 

Q6: Is there any other exciting news you want to share with us about the new EHE department?  

[The EHE Department] received one million dollars from a donor who actually comes from the financial world. Although her background is from outside of environmental sciences and engineering, she was very excited about this new adventure. She and her husband have provided funding to enhance the integration of the two disciplines. We are utilizing these funds to support pilot projects with partners from both sides. We’re really excited about this opportunity, not just from a financial point of view but the fact that someone who is not actively engaged in environmental issues would recognize the excitement and the need for this innovative approach-bodes well for the future in terms of trying to fund these efforts.


Environmental Health and Engineering, EHE, Environmental Health Sciences, EHS, JHSPH, Marsha Wills-Karp

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of Johns Hopkins University or the Johns Hopkins University Global Water Program.