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Leshner Fellow Pei Xu Convened Stakeholders Across Borders to Discuss Drought Management

Pei Xu is leading a pilot-scale research project at the Jacob A. Hands Wastewater Treatment Facility in Las Cruces to develop a treatment process for reuse of wastewater
Pei Xu is leading a pilot-scale research project at the Jacob A. Hands Wastewater Treatment Facility in Las Cruces to develop a treatment process for reuse of wastewater.
Photo credit: NMSU photo by Vladimir Avina

In April 2019, Pei Xu co-hosted a conference on water, bringing together regulators, water users and water managers from Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico to discuss strategies to address their shared challenge of drought. Xu, a professor of environmental engineering at New Mexico State University and a 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, had attended the first year of this conference, which was held in Texas and focused on desalination. Afterward, she asked the organizer Ed Archuleta if she could co-chair the next one with him, hold it in New Mexico, and broaden it to agricultural and water security. This turned into her biggest effort over the course of her Leshner fellowship year, and one she plans to participate in again, next time in Mexico. “We had meaningful dialogue and excellent feedback from the participants, but we need to continue this interactive approach to bring all stakeholders to work together in order to solve the problem,” she acknowledges.

Xu’s overarching goal for her public engagement is to involve the public in decision-making about water and help them take actions to protect themselves. Empowered by the Leshner fellowship to “just say yes to everything,” her activities ranged from organizing a science café in Las Cruces, New Mexico about their freshwater supply, to participating in videos about her research produced by her university, to being interviewed for local television, newspapers and radio. As a result of some of those interviews, both a neighbor and a nurse at her doctor’s office commented that they had read and were intrigued by her research on recycling municipal wastewater.

As part of her longer-term efforts to build engagement and solutions around water security, the conference Xu helped lead was a successful step. About 250 people attended, including regulators, farmers and water managers from the U.S. and Mexico, and they received positive feedback on most of the 100 or so responses to their surveys. The fee to attend was minimal thanks to sponsorships, and presentations were short (approximately five minutes each), reserving most of the time for discussion. “This was my first time organizing a conference,” Xu said, “and it was a great learning experience… “it really opened my eyes and my mind to how important public engagement activities could be -- how people are just waiting to be involved in this kind of dialogue.”

To follow up on the event, in addition to holding another one in a year or two, Xu and her co-organizers put the presentations and breakout group discussions online and have held several smaller water planning meetings focused on strategic topics like grant-writing for water projects.

Xu found a major benefit of the Leshner fellowship to be contributing to one another’s work: one of the other Leshner Fellows, Wendy Jepson of Texas A&M University, came and gave a talk at Xu’s conference, and Xu is now on the advisory board for one of Jepson’s projects. She also notes that broader impacts are very important for NSF grants, so her public engagement will continue in part through that avenue. She currently has an NSF grant for the next five years to work on treatment of alternative waters for use in irrigation, so she will continue to talk with farmers about the technology they are developing, and how to best help them.

“This fellowship was such a rewarding experience for me. It provided me with more opportunities to talk to different stakeholders – the general public, farmers, ranchers, and helped me further develop my network,” says Xu. “It was a very productive year.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to a group of mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society. Pei Xu is part of the 2018-19 food and water security cohort. The 2019-20 cohort is focused on human augmentation, and the 2020-21 cohort (to be announced in February 2020) on artificial intelligence.