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Jim Field poses outdoors

Colleagues and former students around the world are paying tribute to Jim Field, who retired from the University of Arizona in May 2023, for his global achievements in environmental engineering.

Jim Field Receives International Honors for Bioremediation Work and Mentorship

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Jim Field Receives International Honors for Bioremediation Work and Mentorship

April 25, 2024
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UA professor emeritus of chemical and environmental engineering in the spotlight for research contributions and graduate student guidance.

Jim Field, professor emeritus of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Arizona, continues to stack up honors worldwide for his decades-long work in environmental remediation and biotechnology.

“All of my research to develop and implement environmental biotechnologies has required an international approach,” said Field.  “I am most proud of the fact that many of my former graduate students and postdocs went on to have successful careers as university professors.”

At fall 2023 symposiums in the Netherlands and Mexico, more than 100 colleagues and former students paid tribute not only to Field’s bioremediation advancements, including for hazardous compounds left behind from military explosives, but also they spoke of his commitment to collaboration and the enduring place he holds in their lives.

“My cooperation with Jim was exceptional from the first day I met him in October 1983,” said Gatze Lettinga, professor emeritus at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Field’s PhD adviser. “He was the first and the last American who wanted to communicate [with me] in Dutch,” said the 88-year-old in Delft, The Netherlands, at the gathering dubbed a “Jimposium.”

Lema and Field in front of a screen at a symposium
Juan M. Lema, left, embraces Jim Field at the Mexico symposium.

For most of his career, Field has developed game-changing biochemical processes and biodegradation methods, which use microorganisms that consume hazardous compounds and produce harmless waste in their place to quickly and easily decontaminate soil and water. Among his research, he pioneered low-cost anaerobic wastewater treatment technologies in Latin America.

“Field’s career is an impressive work of enthusiastic collaboration with colleagues and the more than 50 PhD and master’s degree students he has advised,” said colleague Juan M. Lema, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, during the XIV Latin American Workshop and Symposium on Anaerobic Digestion in Querétaro, Mexico.

Merging Collaboration and Creativity

Collaboration and creativity have always gone hand in hand for Field – whose father, a patent attorney, was a hobbyist painter, and mother a printmaker. He spent much of his young life in Washington D.C., poking around in the garden before elevating those interests to an academic career that dug deep into water and soil sustainability.

From his years studying and teaching in the Netherlands and postdoc work at the Autonomous University of Barcelona throughout a prestigious 22-year career at the UA, Field, also fluent in Spanish, honed his understanding of how a multitude of perspectives lead to the best, most creative solutions.

“You have helped many students reach their full potential and inspired a new generation of researchers to continue your work in academia,” said one former PhD student, Lourdinha Florencio, at the Delft symposium. Florencio is now professor of environmental engineering at the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil. 

In fact, tributes from a number of students and colleagues at the “Jimposium” carried the common theme of teamwork, community and humanitarianism.

“It is incredible what you have achieved in all respects: the high scientific quality, the quantity and the wide scope of your research, the crucial support you gave to many PhD students,” said former doctoral student Francisco Cervantes, a professor at Engineering Institute, Autonomous University of Mexico, Campus Juriquilla. “You have developed very innovative procedures directed at the treatment of toxic wastewaters, and many chemical industries have benefited from your efforts.”

Field earned his BS and MS in environmental science from Virginia Tech before completing a PhD in environmental technology from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. After his postdoc work in Barcelona, he taught for nine years at Wageningen University before joining the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the UA in 2001. He retired in May 2023.

Field’s career at the UA, where he was named the College of Engineering’s 2022 da Vinci Fellow, a distinction reserved for outstanding scholars, creators and humanitarians, included roles as assistant and associate dean of engineering graduate education, head of the U.S-Mexico Binational  Center for Environmental Health Sciences, co-leader of the Field-Sierra Research Group, International Water Association fellow, and coordinator for a program focused on water sustainability and boosting exchange in the Americas.

“I have had the opportunity to work with Jim for more than 20 years,” said  Kim Ogden, chair of the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. “He is an established scholar in the field of bioremediation with over 300 peer-reviewed publications in high impact journals, and he has been truly committed to ensuring the success of his students and the next generation of engineers.”