Advisory Board Spotlight - Andrea Schokker

A woman sits at a home office desk with two screens holding large dog in lap.
February 25, 2021

Q & A with Andrea Schokker, UMD Head of Civil Engineering & Professor

Money to support NRRI research and sustainable markets for Minnesota’s natural resources can turn into a multifold payback to our economy.

NRRI: In your opinion, what challenges face Minnesota’s natural resource-based economies and how does NRRI play a role in addressing those challenges?

As is true of many things in our country right now, the opinions around using natural resources have moved increasingly to strong unyielding positions in opposite directions. As a center for research, NRRI is in a unique position to provide science-based practical solutions to problems that can’t be simplified into a one-size fits all answer. The interaction of humans and our needs with the environment is complex and the solution often lies in balance rather than extremes. NRRI can lead us into a future for Minnesota that balances economics and the environment through solutions to problems while also generating new markets for existing resources.

NRRI: What opportunities have caught your attention as bringing value to Minnesota and the region?

I’m particularly impressed with work focused on taking a fresh look at some of the traditional resources from our region and finding new markets for today and the future. For example, value-added products from the forestry industry such as thermally modified wood can open up new revenue sources with a sustainable and highly durable product. Likewise, research and pilot activities to support implementation of Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) technologies is important in transitioning Minnesota’s taconite industry to product higher grade metallic iron pellets.

One of the most important benefits of NRRI is the ability to go from research to application, even when that application requires significant scale-up. This is the work that means that dollars spent to support research at NRRI result in high returns on the investment and great strides forward for Minnesota. As a hub of experts in multiple areas tied to natural resources, product development and commercialization, NRRI is unique in being able to take a challenge, find the right team, and implement a solution. As an applied engineering researcher, myself, I appreciate seeing research at NRRI reach the intended application efficiently with practicality and economics at the forefront through the process.

NRRI: What role could the Minnesota Legislature play in NRRI’s success in 2021?

Clearly, Minnesota has plenty to deal with right now, but we need to continue to think about both the short- and long-term needs for economic recovery. As our economy ramps back up, we want to ensure that we sustain that growth by looking to the next innovations while supporting our existing natural resource industries in developing new markets for the future. That work on the future has to start now to be fruitful in time to keep the growth going as we pull out of the decline and beyond our pre-pandemic levels. As I mentioned previously, NRRI has shown to be a great investment in our economy over the years. Money spent to support NRRI research and implementation of resilient and sustainable markets for Minnesota’s natural resources can turn into a multifold payback to our economy. Not many bets are as good as that one.

NRRI: What might NRRI achieve in 2021 that you’ll be especially proud to promote?

I’d be proud to promote and support NRRI in the work of interweaving industrial and economic progress with a true protection of our environment. It can’t be an all or nothing proposition, and I think NRRI is making strides toward the innovations needed to show how that can realistically work.

NRRI: You have been on NRRI’s Advisory Board for more than six years. How has your participation helped you grow professionally or personally? Has your advice to NRRI evolved?

The NRRI Advisory Board has been a great education for me on Minnesota’s natural resources and the evolution of industries like mining and forestry. I am an engineering professor specializing in concrete bridges, so while the technology and process were familiar, the dive into new industries has been fascinating for me. I’d been involved with research institutes at a previous University before coming to UMD and was pleasantly surprised to find that NRRI is truly unique in their mission and purpose. This is a place where research goes not only to the point of the rubber hitting the road, but beyond that to the plan for the whole trip.

My advice on the board has evolved with my knowledge of the value of NRRI and its unique role for Minnesota and as an important part of the University of Minnesota, particularly UMD. The partnerships and integration of NRRI with UMD researchers, students and as well as the Advanced Materials Center at UMD are all instrumental in the success of the Minnesota economy while protecting our natural resources.

PHOTO: Dr. Schokker at her home office with office mate, Prada, a Pharaoh Hound.