What's My Story: Biological and Agricultural Engineer

Albert Rubin

Albert Rubin is a retired biological and agricultural engineer working to restore the soil—the living skin of planet Earth. As a boy, Dr. Rubin discovered that dried sludge made the orange trees in his neighborhood bloom and bear fruit. That science experiment led to a lifetime career in soil science. Although Dr. Rubin retired from the department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at NCSU in 2004, that doesn’t mean he’s not working. These days he is building soil fertility with Compost Now and Brooks Contracting, converting animal waste into a soil conditioner at Fort Bragg, and using reclaimed water for crop and forest irrigation, turf irrigation and cooling water.  

When did you discover you wanted to work with agriculture?
I grew up in Riverside County, California. I used to play and explore the area along the Santa Ana River. In the 1960s, before the Clean Water Act or the EPA, sewage treatment was less sophisticated and a boy could snoop around the machinery. I noticed that sludge from the treatment plant beside the river would make the grass grow greener. In eighth grade, my first science project was to test what would happen if I applied some of the dried sludge to a small orange grove. I was amazed at the results. I did this experiment again for my 11th grade science fair entry and got the same results. I was fascinated that you could take this leftover byproduct and convert it into something that incredibly useful!  

What did you study in school?
I wanted to understand the chemistry and biology of soil and nutrient cycling. I wanted to understand how all organisms fit into their environment, performing synergistically. This was just about the time that Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. In one course, we learned from R.H. Whittaker about the how the changes in elevation as you move up and down the Appalachian Mountains defined different niches for the soils, plants and animals in the same area on a map. I wanted to know how the subtle changes in chemistry and biology fit into the larger ecosystem. Then I got drafted.

Where did your career take you?
When I got home, I went back to school thinking about a career in sanitation, epidemiology, in water quality, or soil science. I ended up doing it all by getting a Masters in Adult Education. I went to work for the Water Resources Research Institute at NCSU in 1976 and got to plan ahead for the future of wastewater management across the state. I worked as a Water Resources extension agent and then moved into the faculty in Bio and Ag Engineering. I spent my career pushing the edges of what can be done with reclaimed wastewater and biosolids—the fancy word for the stuff that is left over at the sewage treatment plant. I developed technologies designed to reclaim and reuse the carbon as an energy source, the nutrients in wastewater and biosolids to grow plants and water in sewage for beneficial reuse in irrigation operations and as cooling water. I trained students, wastewater system operators, regulators, and government officials about how to better care for our nutrient, energy and water (NEW) resources.

What do you like about your job today?
I retired in 2004 but I’m as busy now as I ever was. I was recently appointed to assist with a commission dealing with environmental management issues in NC. I am working on several projects at the moment: with Brooks Contracting and CompostNow, I help them turn garbage into soil; with a forest products manufacturer, I help them cleanse industrial stormwater with constructed wetlands; with Fort Bragg, I am helping them use animal waste compost as a soil conditioner. Most importantly, I am working with the National Science Foundation developing criteria for beneficial resource recovery and sustainability. These efforts must address the nutrient, energy and water value in waste. I work with scientists at NCSU, UNC and UNCC to protect public health and improve environmental quality. I love to work with bright young professors and their bright young students, with eager regulatory agency personnel and publics who understand the importance of sustainable development; I am forever indebted to the teachers and mentors who guided me in my years as a student and educator.

- By Lucy Laffitte

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