Keith Hipel learned to love nature and care deeply about the environment during glorious boyhood summers spent playing outside at his family cottage on Belwood Lake.

Six decades later, that passion was still fueling his life’s work as a systems design engineering professor at the University of Waterloo today as he won a coveted $100,000 national award for scholars.

Hipel, who earned his three degrees at Waterloo before launching his academic career in 1976, was named one of five winners of 2019 Killam Prizes through the Canada Council for the Arts.

It was recognition for globally renowned research, conducted along with his students and colleagues, on the development of modelling tools to break down, analyze and solve complex problems, primarily those involving water resources and the environment.

“A model is really a simplification of reality so you can understand it better,” said Hipel. “If you can understand it better, you can discuss it with others and hopefully make more informed decisions.”

Hipel had no idea, of course, that he would grow up to earn a PhD and become an academic when his main concerns were swimming and running around outside.

But when he looks back now, he sees a direct link between all the fun he had as a child and all the work he went on to do during a long, distinguished career.

"I think anybody who succeeds in life has to have a real desire,” said Hipel, co-ordinator of the Conflict Analysis Group at Waterloo. “Our drive was to help society by solving tough environmental problems and my own motivation goes right back to then."

Killam Prizes are awarded annually to eminent, active scholars in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences and engineering.

One of the other four prize winners, Dr. Stephen Scherer (BSc ’87; DSc ’17) of the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, also has strong ties to Waterloo. Credited with revolutionizing our understanding of the human genome, he earned his undergraduate biology degree in 1987 and received an honorary doctorate in science from the University in 2017.

Hipel is the fifth Waterloo professor — and the first from the Faculty of Engineering — to win one since the awards were launched in 1981. He adds it to a list of accomplishments that includes appointment last year to the Order of Canada.

The author of five books and almost 600 academic papers and conference articles, his unique research covers areas including conflict resolution, multiple criteria decision analysis, time series modelling and other decision-making methodologies.

“It is wonderful that Professor Hipel is being recognized with such a prestigious prize,” said Pearl Sullivan, dean of Waterloo Engineering. “He has been a tireless champion of using a systems approach to address complex problems related to the environment, and the industrial and services sectors.”

Previous nation-wide winners of Killam Prizes, as selected by a peer committee, include Nobel Prize laureates Arthur McDonald and John Polanyi. The last Waterloo winner of a Killam Prize was philosophy professor Paul Thagard in 2013. The first was William Tutte, a professor of combinatorics and optimization, in 1982.

“Professor Keith Hipel continues to add to an outstanding career with this honour of the Killam Prize,” said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of Waterloo. “Professor Hipel is a world-class researcher and educator, and has been an impactful member of our community. The entire University celebrates with him today as he is recognized for his many accomplishments.”

As he looks ahead to the Killam awards ceremony in Ottawa next month and begins making plans to spend the prize money in his abiding area of interest, Hipel hopes the decision-making tools he developed can be used to deal with the crucial, pressing threat posed by climate change.

“Little did I realize that learning how to live in harmony with nature would be the greatest challenge to ever face humanity,” he said. “That’s where we are right now. We must do something about it.”