Jim Malley: Professor, UV disinfection expert, EWB volunteer
November 8, 2017

Jim Malley is the Boss Cat. It’s a fitting nickname, bestowed by his engineering students, because he is administrator of the environmental engineering program at the University of New Hampshire. He’s also a renowned expert in UV disinfection who has a lifetime goal of improving drinking water quality for 2 billion people – presently at 1.4 billion served. Malley recently spoke with Connections by phone from his UNH office, which his students call The Landfill.

You’ve worked in drinking water for nearly four decades, taught more than 4,000 students, earned a PhD, volunteered hundreds of hours for AWWA, and traveled the world with numerous water groups including Engineers Without Borders. What moment stands out the most?

I have a picture of it on my wall. It’s five UNH students in the Dominican Republic serving clean drinking water to about 200 little kids wearing blue shirts and their beige pants -- their school uniform. That would be probably the happiest moment, after quite a few obstacles to get that project done. I don’t know which sticks in my heart the most, the look on my five UNH kids, or the look on those little kids.

Of all students you’ve taught, who made the biggest impression? Being a geek, I have, since the start of my career, kept a list of my top 20 students. I call them my 20 Legacy Students. I won’t name any names, but they’ve stayed in our profession; they’ve probably stayed in drinking water. Some of them, understand, are in their 50s. Some are leading their firms, CEOs and whatnot. They make me so happy to be part of their journey, of the tapestry they are painting in their lives.

Jim MalleyDo they know they are in your top 20? And what happens if a better student comes along? Do you bump someone off the list? Actually, I have 17 members so far, so there are three empty slots. God willing, I will be here another five or six years and will be able to fill all the slots. I didn’t tell some of the early ones until years later. But more recently, I have tried to tell them once I put them on. I want them to know they’ve done a lot of really cool stuff. 

What is your biggest accomplishment? On the professional side, hands down it’s the students I have had the honor of helping. 

You are head of the MalleyCATS research group at UNH. What are your current projects?
I have always tried to keep a robust applied research program going, so I have three master’s students working for me. Working under them are about 12 to 15 undergrad research assistants who are just learning. All of these projects are in some form of drinking water disinfection, which is my strength. Most of them using ultraviolet disinfection, or some combination of UV chlorine, chloramines that sort of thing.

What is the toughest thing about your job? Staying current. When I started this job, I was 29 going on 30, and I was only a few years older than my top grad students. Now I’m 59 going on 60 and, of course, they have stayed in the same age group. They are 18 to 24. So staying current, understanding how they learn, what they are interested in, what the new technologies are.

What is your motto in life?
Refuse to fail. 

How long have you been involved with Engineers Without Borders?
In one form or another, I’ve been interested in that work since the 1980s. I’ve been on projects with them as a faculty adviser to students probably since 2000.

DRcatsHow many EWB projects have you worked on? Altogether, eight. I want to also give credit that the actual program here at UNH has been run by Professor Tom Ballestero and Professor Robin Collins. At the UNH level I have been part of five EWB projects, and I also helped AWWA on the Community Engineering Corps, only as an advisor. Eight projects, if we lump them all together as EWB – CEC. Two in the Dominican Republic, one in the Philippines, Beijing, South Dakota, Arizona, Virginia. My eighth one was related to the Manila project and I did a spinoff project from there in Malaysia. 

What is something unexpected you’ve learned in your career?
The biggest surprise is how much I’ve learned about myself, and how much I’ve changed since I graduated in 1980 from Rutgers. 

Can you give an example? Patience with students and projects. I was one of those kids who wanted to stick their hand up and answer every question the teacher asked, just totally type A, from New York, New Jersey area an in your face sort of person.  I’ve learned over the years that every one of my students has gifts. Those gifts are different, and I need to be patient to see how their gifts develop and grow. So, patient with people, patient on projects. Like I said, in the Dominican Republic especially, everything was so tough to accomplish. 

You were named to the University of Massachusetts Academy of Distinguished Alumni, the most recent in a long list of awards. What recognition has meant the most to you? The one I look at on my desk that makes me feel happy and proud is the Crystal Award for Outstanding National Research Project from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers. It’s a favorite, because our students got so involved. It was a Water Research Foundation collaboration lead by UNH that involved several key organizations involved including MWRA, SNWA, Black & Veatch and UMASS. We had graduate students and undergrads working on it and several of them landed jobs with our collaborators. We worked on UV and ozone mostly together in synergy, trying to get the most cost effective, and minimize energy use and provide well disinfected water. 

In the program for the Distinguished Alumni Award, it says your lifetime goal is to improve drinking water quality for 2 billion people – presently 1.4 billion served. Can you explain? The first thing that sentence shows you is what a nerd I am.  I love to count things. I’m probably the guy that touches every fence post as I walk with my dog. To make a long story short, I’ve had the privilege, mostly though my ultraviolet disinfection work, to be part of teams that provided water for say New York City, Seattle, Beijing, Manilla.  Over the years, I would try hard to figure out if we’re working on this water treatment plant for the city of Seattle, how many does it serve? If we’re working in the Dominican village, okay, well that’s another 1,200. So, I pretty much keep score. I was very fortunate to work in southeast Asia, where they have enormously large cities. Beijing is, I think, 19 million. I always like to emphasize I’m usually a tiny part of the project.  I’m not the guy pouring the concrete or even doing the hard-core engineering, drawings and designs. I’m usually giving advice on UV, or helping students and operators learn, or doing some process engineering calculations. 

Do you have any nicknames besides Jim? Around here, I’m called Boss Cat. We usually put the ‘Cat’ in caps. The mascot of UNH is the wildcat. A number of years ago, my undergrad researchers and my grad students were thinking we should have a name as a group. As I say, there about 15 of us, and with me on top, 16 of us. So they decided we should be the Malley Cats. So our group name of researchers is Malley Cats, and I of course then am the Boss Cat.

The students thought that was cooler than saying the Malley Lab. In academia right now, it’s much more fashionable for researchers to have, say, the Linden Lab at CU-Boulder – which is a really famous, awesome UV research group. But our kids are a little younger and they thought Malley Cats and Boss Cat was the way to go. 

Is there something that people would be surprised to know about you? (laughs) Yeah, probably.

Can you share? Sure, I’m getting to a stage where, ‘Who cares?’ (laughs)…..I think people who have seen me give talks, teach classes or chair meetings would be very surprised that I’m shy and insecure and worry constantly. 

Still? Yeah, I still get incredibly nervous before a class lecture. I practice my lectures. But admittedly, and the reason I think it would surprise a lot of folks, is I think I’m pretty darn good at overcompensating for it. 

Thank you for being a Member Spotlight. Anything else you want to add? I think this sort of an article is water driven and profession driven. But certainly, without a doubt, my kids, my wife, and my dog are the reason I get out of bed every day. So, Brian, and his wife Carin, Shannon, Joyce and my dog, Petey. They are really everything to me.