U of T professor to lead groundbreaking green infrastructure projects

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Jennifer Drake

By Sarah Jean Maher

Special to Ontario Construction News

It has been an exciting couple years for Jennifer Drake. The University of Toronto professor was named a 2019 Engineers Canada honoree last month, received a Young Engineer medal from Professional Engineers Ontario last year, and welcomed her second child in November.

From the sounds of it, the next year is gearing up to be just as exciting.

Drake, 36, is an assistant professor of Civil and Mineral Engineering at U of T, and works closely with the Faculty of Architecture, Landscaping and Design. She currently supervises seven graduate students working on a range of active green infrastructure research projects. One of their projects is something that has never been done before: an extensive literature review and surveying on bioretention sites in Ontario.

“We’re taking approaches that were generally used in the medical sciences for investigating literature and applying it to the civil, where you have a rigorous and repeatable practice so that we can actually look at the biases and the interest into the research globally, specifically on bioretention,” said Drake.

“It’s a really interesting project because we’re using practices from one scientific field and applying them to something quite innovative for civil engineering.”

Drake’s students will be taking a look at Ontario’s existing infrastructure, the first generation of biorention gardens across the province, to evaluate how they are performing. They will be looking at construction issues that have been encountered and whether or not the built conditions are matching up with their original designs.

“I’m very curious to see what the findings are once we start visiting these sites,” said Drake.

Currently on maternity leave, Drake has been holding supervision sessions with her students at her home so that she can provide feedback, brainstorming sessions, and any type of help her students need – all while taking care of the baby.

“My research group doesn’t end while I’m on leave!” said Drake.

Among the students’ other upcoming infrastructure projects is a street-sweeping equipment test. Right now, the group is preparing pavement, ensuring schedules are in place, and taking care of anything that needs to be done prior to the experiment this summer.

Drake will return to work this fall in a brand new lab, allowing for even more new and exciting green infrastructure projects.

“We have a new green roof facility that we’ll be starting work in this fall and it’s going to allow us to look at some really neat things, including using bio char as an amendment to green roof material,” said Drake.

They’ll also be looking at developing a sustainable process for recycling and harvesting green roof water.

“Green roofs in Toronto have to be arrogated and we’re using potable water, so for something that is supposed to be considered green technology, that’s a lot of energy consumption,” explained Drake.

The idea is to be able to use be able to recycle and reuse at least some of the water that is generated more than once.

“If we can use it more than once, we can develop, from a holistic perspective, a more sustainable technology.”

Part of this work is going to be led through a new training group that Drake will be leading this fall. Along with a network of eight other professors from U of T, Ryerson, University of Saskatchewan, and St. Mary’s University, Drake will be helping to establish a Canadian training network on living infrastructure for graduate students.

The program will offer symposiums and specialized courses designed to help students gain the necessary interdisciplinary skills needed to design living and green infrastructure, which include landscaping, horticulture, and engineering knowledge skills.

“The idea is to create graduates that are really leading the way and can be experts in the field wherever they are from, not only in their schools and communities, but nationally.”

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