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Former Department Head Mort Barlaz retires after 34 years with CCEE

When reflecting on his wide-ranging 34-year career with CCEE, Morton Barlaz, former department head and Distinguished University Professor, feels a distinct sense of gratitude.

“I’m really grateful,” he emphasized. “I’ve had an amazing career, and I’ve been able to accomplish a lot. I have been involved in really interesting research and worked with great students, colleagues and practitioners all over the world.” 

Barlaz retired from the department in December 2023, and it is difficult to put into words the impact that Barlaz has had on CCEE, whether as a researcher, a department head, a teacher or a mentor.

Barlaz, who earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan and an M.S. and Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Wisconsin, first joined CCEE in 1989 as an assistant professor after working in environmental engineering roles in the private and public sectors. He was promoted to professor in 2000, served as associate head from 1998-2006 and as head from 2010-22. He was appointed as a Distinguished University Professor in 2015.

As department head, Barlaz faced unprecedented challenges with grace and perseverance, such as the peak of the COVID pandemic and the department’s move from Mann Hall on main campus to Fitts-Woolard Hall on Centennial Campus. Barlaz helped grow the department to more than 50 faculty members.

“We went through a big growth spurt since Mort started as department head,” said Professor Francis de los Reyes, who has been with the department for about 25 years. “We had growth in faculty, research and students and transitioned to a new building — it’s all been positive growth. The department has always had a good atmosphere, and it’s not always easy to maintain that culture as you grow. But Mort made sure that the culture stayed and the department was a good place to be.” 

Downey Brill, who served as department head from 1998-2005, said his first impression of Barlaz was that he was bright and very capable.

“There are certain people you can always count on, and he’s one of those people,” Brill said. “He put an emphasis on quality, improving the staff and enhancing the graduate program. Some of the most important things are things that go on in the background — some extremely challenging and tough issues — and he’s attacked them with the right values and right attitude. He excelled at dealing with the department being a human institution.”

Professor Brina Montoya remembers when she joined the department in 2012, she immediately recognized Barlaz as a strong mentor who would be an important part of her career.

“He’s always been passionate about the success of junior faculty and of each individual,” Montoya said. “He has a calm demeanor and is very honest — he doesn’t mince words and is thoughtful with what he says. He has a really strong sense of good judgment and an ability to understand different situations. … If I need to solve a problem, he’s the first one I think about asking.”

Throughout his time as a professor and department head, Barlaz continued to be one of the top researchers in solid-waste engineering and landfills. He has authored more than 160 peer-reviewed publications and made hundreds of presentations all over the world. He has been involved in research on various aspects of solid waste since 1983, including research on biological refuse decomposition, methane production and the biodegradation of hazardous wastes in landfills. His research forms the basis for much of the work done to assess the impact of landfills on methane emissions inventories. Barlaz is also recognized for his research on the application of life-cycle analysis to evaluate environmental emissions associated with alternate solid waste management strategies. Most recently, he has been working on the processes that contribute to heat accumulation in landfills and on the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from landfills.

Barlaz has won numerous awards for his contributions to research, including a National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellowship, the Perry L. McCarty Association of Environmental Engineering & Science Professors Founder’s Award and the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists Gordon Maskew Fair Award. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Association of Environmental Engineering & Science Professors.

Brown and Caldwell Vice President and Chief Engineer- Southeastern Business Unit Bill Eleazer (MSCE 1995) said Barlaz was a “really, really good teacher — and an even better researcher.

“It’s hard not to love the guy. He’s intense, but he’s got his head screwed on straight, and he’s well balanced.”

“Dr. Barlaz has had a commendable work ethic, diligently pursuing his research in solid waste management,” said Asmita Narode (Ph.D. 2023), who was mentored by Barlaz and is now a research environmental engineer at RTI. “His passion for the subject was infectious, leaving a lasting impact on my own career path.”

Barlaz imparted his knowledge onto his many students, through both his courses on solid waste management and water chemistry and his mentorship of undergraduate and graduate students.

“Dr. Barlaz was my favorite teacher and mentor of all time,” said Sierra Schupp (BSENE 2018, MSENE 2020), who now works as a solid waste-environmental engineer at HDR. “He was instrumental in guiding me to my career today, and I couldn’t be more grateful for his guidance throughout the years.

“Beyond his technical abilities, Dr. Barlaz was caring and supportive. He encouraged students to be their best selves, treated everyone with respect, and I saw firsthand how he looked out for my classmates on an individual basis, even related to personal matters. I would not be half the engineer I am today without having Dr. Barlaz as my advisor. He has made a lasting, positive impact on the solid waste industry and those who are part of it.”

James Levis (MSCE 2008, Ph.D. 2013), former CCEE research assistant professor, said Barlaz “was an amazing mentor and excellent teacher.”

“While he obviously had the technical knowledge and experience necessary to be an exceptional faculty mentor and teacher, he also showed an enthusiasm for the material he taught. He was also the busiest person I knew, but he always made time to answer questions and provide advice.”

Many also have fond memories spent with Barlaz outside of the classrooms and labs. Barlaz, an avid outdoors enthusiast and whitewater paddling aficionado, has led an annual weekend camping and rafting trip for more than a decade.

“Over the past five years, I’ve had the privilege of joining these outings, gaining a glimpse into his passion for adventure,” Narode said. “On the river, the thrill of navigating rapids mirrored the energy he brought to his work.”

As a professor emeritus, Barlaz will still be active in the department conducting research but plans to spend more time exploring the outdoors.

“I plan to paddle as much as my knees, shoulders, and wife will tolerate.”