Steering the waters of sustainability

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A. Sue Weisler

Eric Williams’ research includes developing energy models that are environmentally friendly and affordable.

Eric Williams, associate professor in RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability, sees the change in his line of research as symbolic of the current narrative on the sustainability landscape.

“It used to be all bad news,” Williams says. “Now we try to look ahead, avoid problems, understand what problems are the important ones.”

Williams researched the environmental effects of electronic waste during his 10 years at Arizona State University. After coming to RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability last fall, he has taken a proactive approach to sustainability. His research includes creating models in which energy can be more environmentally friendly and affordable, and influencing U.S. policymakers to help alternative energy become more of a standard in the energy industry.

“How do we get an idea of where this technology is going?” inquires Williams.

Technology is the main facet in Williams’ energy research. He focuses on systems assessment including fuel cells, the movement of electricity and photovoltaics, among others.

However, his attempt to change the landscape of sustainability goes beyond academia. He serves on the board of the National Research Council, which aims to improve government decision-making and public policy, increase public understanding and promote the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge in matters involving science, engineering, technology and health. Sustainability and environmental advocacy are at the core of the council’s attempt to advise policy makers.

Getting the word out is part of his mission. In 2008, Williams testified before Congress on the effects of electronic waste. Williams outlined compelling evidence that helped change environmental policy.

“He is a champion for sustainability,” says Nabil Nasr, director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability. “We’re glad to have him on the team.”

However, sustainability hasn’t always been the center of his research. While doing postdoctoral physics research in Japan, Williams was inspired by the Japanese culture of sustainable living.

“I wanted to do something in an area where I could contribute to society,” says Williams. “I wanted it to be socially relevant.”

He noticed a different culture—a wiser way of doing things. “Their lifestyle is less impactful than the American lifestyle,” Williams says. “It’s just part of their culture.”

Being an advocate for the environment was an easy choice.

Despite conveying confidence in environmental advocacy and responsibility, Williams says there’s always cause for concern. “There is always a new environmental thing we need to be worried about,” Williams says.

Williams is highly focused on his research—entrenched in long hours and constant travel—but his priorities are clear. His office in GIS is littered with colorings from his two daughters, Maya, 7, and Hana, 11.

“I’m a family man,” Williams says.