Chris Duffy, esteemed professor of civil engineering, set to retire

Chris Duffy at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico where he worked on a desert recharge study. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Chris Duffy has spent nearly 30 years dedicating his life to civil engineering education and research at Penn State. Now the time has come for him to step back and enjoy what he has so rightfully earned — his retirement.

Duffy has served in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering since 1989 as an associate professor and full professor. His research and teaching have focused primarily on stochastic and numerical modeling of groundwater flow and solute transport and modeling of large-scale hydrologic systems.

Looking back, Duffy credits the intertwining of his teaching with his research as one of the most rewarding aspects of his time at Penn State. 

“I really enjoyed teaching time series analysis, which deals with statistical problems in water, hydrology and the environment,” Duffy said. “It weaves very nicely into my research, and I think that's a strength of Penn State. I've really been able to develop my career notions and path in unison with my teaching.”

He also has enjoyed teaching the introductory level fluid mechanics course because it is one of the first courses that truly exposes students to water as it relates to engineering.

Former doctoral student Mukesh Kumar, now an assistant professor of watershed hydrology at Duke University, said Duffy’s vast knowledge of engineering and easygoing personality made him an outstanding professor.

“Chris’s deep domain knowledge, an astute recognition of where the science is headed and his ability to communicate to a wide variety of audiences, made him a great educator,” Kumar said. “I saw in Chris an invisible leader, a person who put a lot of effort in advancing community science, without feeling the need for recognition.”

In fact, Kumar said he applies much of what he learned from Duffy toward his own academic career.

“He always encouraged me in my desire to understand problems from first principles and to question everything, even if it took time,” Kumar said. “But most importantly, I learnt that you can be a good researcher and make a tangible impact, while being kind and empathetic to everyone … these continue to be the guiding principles of my research group as well.”

Early exposure to civil engineering

Given how enthusiastic Duffy is about his work, it is no surprise that his interest in engineering began as a child when his father first introduced him to the field.

Duffy grew up in northern New York near the Canadian border in the small town of Ogdensburg, which sits at the mouth of the Oswegatchie River on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River. His mother, Ann, was a teacher. His father, James, worked as a construction administrator at an architectural engineering firm, where he managed large projects throughout New York.

“Every summer, I had summer jobs with contractors my father knew, so I always had work in construction,” Duffy said. “I worked on high-rise buildings, I worked on residential construction, all kinds of things.”

Given his childhood experiences, Duffy chose to attend college for civil construction technology at the State University of New York at Canton.

After two years and an associate degree in civil construction technology, Duffy was drafted for the Vietnam War, where he worked for the United States Navy Construction Battalion. He served two tours in Vietnam before returning to college to finish his studies, but this time his focus was in the environmental and water resources area of civil engineering.

Duffy moved to New Mexico and attended the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) where he completed his bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering and his master’s degree in hydrology. He then got married and started working as a research associate for NMT while he completed his doctorate in hydrology.

It was during his doctoral studies that Duffy started focusing his research on groundwater and river hydrology. 

“The first one I worked on was the Rio Grande River, looking at the hydrology of mountain runoff and salinity due to agriculture,” Duffy said.

He graduated with his doctorate in 1981 and accepted his first faculty position at Utah State University, where he began as an assistant professor and was promoted to associate professor. 

“I worked on all kinds of interesting problems in the mountain west,” said Duffy.

For almost 9 years, he worked on the hydrology of the Colorado River, Yellowstone National Park and the Great Basin region of Utah and Nevada.

Then, on sabbatical in the late 1980s, Duffy saw an advertisement for an associate professor position at Penn State. The close proximity to New York and the reputation of Penn State drew him in. He applied soon after and has been at Penn State ever since.

“The position was a step up from what I was doing, so when the opportunity came, we took it,” Duffy said.

During his professional career, Duffy has had more than 50 years of funding support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). That funding has allowed him to do a multitude of unique, collaborative projects.

“The beauty of the NSF is the flexibility of doing very basic science and water and environmental research in areas that are really cutting edge,” Duffy said. “That's been the real joy of it.”

Through NSF funding, he’s looked at the water resources of ancient societies in Guatemala and Mexico, studied the sustainability of water resources in the arid southwest and researched the waterworks history of Central American native cultures. He’s collaborated with ecologists, geochemists, soil experts, climate scientists, computer scientists, historians, hydrologists, anthropologists and archaeologists, all of whom came together in the name of scientific exploration.

While Duffy is incredibly proud of the career he’s built and the legacy he’s leaving behind, he does have a few regrets.

"I regret not having spent more of my time one-on-one with students,” he said. “I just never seemed to find enough time to do that.”

And though he understands the importance of committee meetings, he said he would not miss how much of his time he spent in them.

Once retired, Duffy still plans to stay active in his field. He’s writing a book about data analysis and time-series analysis in hydrology and has numerous professional papers that have yet to be written, but he also plans to enjoy some long-awaited free time.

He wants to spend more time with his wife, Sue, a former assistant economics instructor at State College Area High School who now works part time at CenClear Preschool, and his three children: Jamie, his eldest son, a firefighter who graduated from Penn State; his second son, Colin, who works in electronics and graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Technology; and his daughter, Katie, who trains preschool teachers and is also a Penn State graduate.

Duffy also hopes to spend more time outdoors and at his summer home, which sits along the St. Lawrence River in New York.

“I like to fly fish, so I’m going to go fishing quite a bit more often,” he said.

As he casts his line in the bright summer sun, the part about working at Penn State that Duffy says he’ll miss the most is “fishing for ideas,” which he says is a “real intellectual sport.”

Last Updated June 21, 2017