53 Game-changers: Frances O’Donnell

Frances O’Donnell, assistant professor in civil engineering, is considered an expert on the world’s most abundant natural resource – water. Her research centers on ecohydrology, or the relationships between vegetation and the water cycle. Her passion developed while she was earning her bachelor’s in biology from Harvard University.

“The beauty of what I study is that it applies to several subjects including engineering, forestry management and agriculture,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell’s interest led her to Princeton University where she graduated with her doctorate in civil and environmental engineering. She then became a postdoctoral scholar at Northern Arizona University before arriving in Auburn in August.

O’Donnell’s research examines the sustainability of water resources, particularly in water-scarce environments.

On the flip side, she also studies how vegetation can affect water and the ecosystem. And now that she’s in the College of Engineering, she’s adding the human factor element to see what impact more densely populated areas have on both vegetation and water resources. O’Donnell also hopes to assist communities in developing a stronger resilience to floods and other natural disasters.

“Ultimately, by studying the effects of water on vegetation, I want areas that are prone to environmental threats to have flood readiness plans and other processes in place to prevent major damage,” O’Donnell said.

One of the highlights that sold O’Donnell on Auburn Engineering was the multiple opportunities to collaborate with peers across campus. She is currently partnered with faculty members in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and the College of Agriculture.

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