Syracuse University Magazine

Cliff Davidson


Vision for a Sustainable Future

Cliff Davidson is ready to ignite an engineering revolution. He wants engineers to help lead the way in creating a sustainable society, one that considers the consequences of technology and development and takes a long-term view of our actions on the natural world. "The idea behind sustainable engineering is to reeducate the world's engineers so they use their science to understand how things have to be redesigned," he says. "Engineers are critically important in any type of sustainable development and have to take a leadership role in telling the politicians and other decision-makers what needs to be done. So we're talking about a big change in the way engineers think and practice."

These beliefs motivated Davidson to accept the Thomas and Colleen Wilmot Chair in Engineering at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science and an appointment in the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems (SyracuseCoE) in 2009. For the previous 32 years, he was on the faculty of the departments of civil and environmental engineering and engineering and public policy at Carnegie-Mellon University, his undergraduate alma mater in Pittsburgh. Davidson, an award-winning teacher and air-quality researcher who holds a Ph.D. degree in environmental engineering science from the California Institute of Technology, has spent most of his career focused on aerosol physics, earning an international reputation for his studies of atmospheric particles. More than a decade ago, however, his research interests shifted toward sustainable development. He recognized the need to further the cause and developed a course on the environmental effects of engineering decisions. "I found it harder to focus only on work with aerosol particles under a microscope when I saw what was going on in the real world," he says. "That was a real driving force."

For Davidson, the endowed chair provides the perfect opportunity to act on his beliefs. It connects him with the SyracuseCoE and, in particular, its involvement in the sustainable development of the city's Near Westside. "The Near Westside presents tremendous opportunities you might not get in other areas for decades," he says. "Since it's targeted for development in a number of ways, I think it's an open door for introducing the whole concept of sustainable neighborhoods with sustainable buildings and energy. It could move us closer to solving problems that plague cities all across the country." 

Davidson is in the sustainability arena for the long haul. And that should come as no surprise. After all, he is a marathon runner, and he and his wife, Megan, share a passion for the wilderness. They hike, camp, and consider themselves "winter enthusiasts." This respect for the environment and a belief that engineers can help shape a sustainable future drive Davidson to share his knowledge with students and alert them to their role in preserving the planet. "We have to teach our engineering students about the link between engineering design and its impact on the natural world," he says. "We have to emphasize the long-term, global picture and get our students to think holistically."            —Jay Cox

Photo by John Dowling

Thomas and Colleen Wilmot Chair in Engineering

Cliff Davidson, L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science

Trustee Thomas C. Wilmot Sr. ’70 and his wife, Colleen, endowed the chair with a multimillion-dollar gift to position the selected faculty member at the interface of the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems and the Syracuse Enitiative program. The chair will guide students in the development of new technologies that can be licensed or used to spin off technology companies.