Q&A with Diogo Bolster: Symposium at Vatican offers new potential for collaboration

Author: Tom Springer

Q&A with Diogo Bolster: Symposium at Vatican offers new potential for collaboration

Diogo Bolster, associate professor of engineering at Notre Dame and associate director of ND-ECI, recently visited Rome to attend the Symposium on Global Sustainability. He spoke about his experience and insights during a Q&A session: 

Q: Can you explain how an associate engineering professor from Notre Dame found himself presenting to a conference in Rome, directed at the Vatican?

A: It started with Peter Kilpatrick (dean of the ND College of Engineering). Peter is good friends with Fr. Anselm Szuromi, rector of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University (PPCU) in Budapest, Hungary. Peter was invited to attend the Global Symposium on Sustainability, organized by PPCU, but he couldn't go and asked that I represent him and ND there. This was PPCU’s first international symposium on global sustainability, and it was held at the Hungarian Academy. Hungary it seems has a historical and long-standing special relationship with the Vatican, and the Academy itself dates to the pre-Communist era.

Q: Why did you find this invitation so appealing?

A: There were two reasons: the Symposium was environmentally themed and mission-driven, both of which are dear to my heart. I wanted to attend on behalf of the College of Engineering and in my role as associate director of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative (ND-ECI). I wanted to show what Engineering and ND-ECI can bring to the table.

Q: From what you heard at the Symposium, how could Engineering and ND-ECI be instrumental to that process?

A: Cardinal Peter Turkson from the Vatican, who as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace with his team wrote the first draft the Laudato Si’ encyclical, sent his first secretary to read a letter at the Symposium. Many of the topics he mentioned are exactly those we’re working on actively here at ND. And what people are increasingly excited about is bringing a diversity of thought to these problems. In my presentation on ND-ECI, the slide of our leadership team showed how interdisciplinary we are. There was Jennifer Tank, a biologist, as director; Pat Regan, a political scientist, as an associate director; and me an engineer as associate director. What’s also different is ND-ECI’s Science Serving Society mission. It’s very positive. We don’t just say that we identify environmental problems and that everything is falling apart. We aim to offer solutions and not just doomsday predictions, which aligns perfectly with Cardinal’s Turkson’s message and the theme of the workshop.  

Q: You’re a hydrologist who specializes in mathematical models to help determine human impact on water. How did your work tie into the technical aspects of the symposium?

A: Since 2005, the PPCU and other collaborators have been developing a mathematical framework to identify some key parameters to help determine how the earth’s various systems will perform in the future. This includes an ecosystem representation that incorporates human population, industry, energy generation, economics and so on. The model helps us see what ‘knobs we need to turn’ to adjust the system and prevent the world from environmental collapse. One key ingredient that’s not sufficiently well and explicitly factored into the model is water, and that is right up my alley. I would like to get involved, and bring more expertise from across campus to work on that issue.

Q: What does the PPCU model say now about the earth’s future?

A: It says that we will see systems collapse in about 100 years if we keep going in our current direction. But the message I took away is that it’s not impossible to change. It may be daunting, but we can adjust our economic and environmental policies and use technology to our advantage.

Q: Much of the Symposium was developed around the themes of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.” How does the encyclical’s perspective inform your view about scientific progress and technology?  

A: Well, the question isn’t whether or not we should stop developing technology. The Pope is not a Luddite and that’s not what he’s asking. But he does want us to think about the pace of technology and if it’s developing faster than humans can keep up with.  At the end of day, he believes our technology should be good for the earth and good for humanity. As one of our engineering college council members recently said to me: it’s not typically technology, but rather the application of technology that requires proper discernment. As scientists, this means we have to push the boundaries but also see where the limits are.

Q: In popular culture, there are some who regard faith and science as incompatible. As a Catholic scientist at Notre Dame, how do you reconcile those two viewpoints?

A: I believe it was Cardinal John Henry Newman, the founder of the very university where I got my undergraduate degree back home in Ireland, who said, “Truth cannot contradict truth.” If you have faith, there’s no reason to be afraid of scientific questions. The idea of a university is that you never stop asking questions; there’s nothing worse for us than to suppress that.