Faculty Spotlight: Christopher Higgins

Everyone knows that Mines has an excellent reputation within the engineering realm. This is partly due to our faculty and the research they do. One faculty member with the most prestigious of backgrounds is Professor Christopher Higgins, whose wall displays degrees from both Harvard and Stanford.

Higgins started his undergraduate degree in chemistry and chemical Biology at Harvard originally thinking he would continue with biochemistry and maybe pursue an MD. But Higgins said, “After my sophomore year I had this kind of, what am I doing moment. I didn’t do so well in some of my classes my second semester sophomore year and I did a lot of traveling that summer and I asked myself. What do I really want to do?” Later Higgins elaborated and said that he spent eleven weeks of his summer touring Europe in an acapella group. They sang at several embassies as well as some large concert venues. At the end of the trip they had covered the trip expenses with gigs along the way. During that same summer, Higgins recalls that he read an “Old book about public health” called The Coming Plague. He recalled thinking, “Oh this sounds really interesting” and realized that “A lot of the people doing public health were chemists and microbiologists.” He also recognized that there were a lot of opportunities to delve into the field of public health while at Harvard due to the plethora of people doing that type of work in the area. Higgins decided then that when he went back to school he would “go see what this public health thing was about.”

Higgins said, “That environmental health is a big component of public health and in fact the early public health work was situated around environmental engineering.” He elaborated saying, “So i got really interested in this environmental, public health linkage even though I was a chemistry student and I took a lot of electives related to public health and the environment and when I graduated I went to go work for a public consulting firm. So I was basically a consultant to the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) doing regulation development work.”

Higgins became further motivated to pursue environmental studies after a friend suggested a class at MIT. He said, “Someone I ran into said, You know what, you’re a chemistry student and you like this environmental chemistry stuff, you should really take this class if you can, called environmental organic chemistry. It was offered at MIT and I was working in the Boston area and my company said Yeah we will pay for you to go take that class because it was somewhat related to what I was doing. So I took it and within two or three lectures I was like, This is what I want to do.”

Higgins said that he loved the environmental aspects of chemistry as well as teaching. So he went on to obtain both a masters and a PHD at Stanford in civil and environmental engineering. From there he went to do a postdoc at Johns Hopkins where he worked in the school of public health.

Finally Dr. Higgins decided to come to Mines. When asked why he decided to teach here he said, “Of all the places I interviewed, Mines was one of the places I clicked. I saw what people were doing, and I felt that the research I did and the teaching I did would be valued, and in terms of reputation mines has really a fantastic reputation, I mean it’s known for engineering, but in the environmental chemistry arena it’s actually really well known.” He went on to praise the students for their intelligence and work ethic.

At Mines, Higgins teaches two graduate classes “Principles of Environmental Chemistry,” an introductory masters level chemistry course that covers both inorganic chemistry and a little organic chemistry, and “Environmental Organic Chemistry,” which Higgins described as “modeled after the class I took at MIT” and as the “class I always wanted to teach.” Additionally, Higgins just started teaching the environmental engineering lab class which is a team taught class (lead by Higgins). This lab class is aimed at “Taking the book of knowledge that students develop and translating that into hands on, practical knowledge.”

Higgins also does research on campus. Some of his current research involves examining bioaccumulation of organic contaminants such as pharmaceuticals. He also looks at personal care products in food crops and reclaimed water, perfluorochemicals in groundwater systems, and organic contaminants in wastewater treatment plants.

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