By. Holly M. Mayton, PhD candidate in Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Riverside
I still remember hearing my eighth grade science teacher launch into an off-topic lecture about how nuclear fission could make it possible to fuel automobiles of the future with pure water. I was captivated by the idea that science could provide such seemingly simple solutions to the pressing global challenge of natural resource depletion. This inspired me to ultimately pursue a career in engineering to contribute to making food, water, and energy accessible, reliable, and sustainable for people all over the world. Flash forward one decade, and I am in the middle of my PhD program in chemical and environmental engineering where I am lucky to be able to study and contribute to a more sustainable world. However, I now know how naïve I was to think that science alone could provide the solutions to complex problems associated with climate change, population growth, or renewable energy. Fortunately, I had access to guidance and experiences in high school and college that prepared me well to become an interdisciplinary student and scholar, which I believe is an integral part of building a successful career in sustainability.
At a young age, students tend to silo themselves based on the school subjects that they are interested and successful in. For example, I opted to attend Ocean Lakes High School (OLHS) in order to enroll in the Mathematics and Science Academy. This is just one of Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ (VBCPS) advanced academic programs that allows local students to take higher level classes in chosen subject areas, such as math and science, fine arts, health sciences, or legal studies. I thought this just meant I would spend an extra hour on the bus every day in exchange for the opportunity to take multivariable calculus and organic chemistry courses in high school—what a deal!
In addition to advanced coursework, students in the Mathematics and Science Academy also participate in a capstone project. Rising seniors have the chance to spend their summer shadowing a practicing scientist, engineer, or other relevant professional to experience how the lessons we are taught in the classroom are applied in the real world. I did my mentorship with the Sustainability Officer for VBCPS, Tim Cole, who is an architect by training. I learned during this capstone project that there is a lot more than just math and science involved in creating an eco-friendly world.
First, there is economics. Even if we can physically engineer a system to geothermally heat all of the water for a new school building, it is useless if it is made of prohibitively costly materials. Next, implementing environmental practices requires consideration of politics. For example, extra bike racks and on-campus showers are most effective at encouraging sustainable transportation when accompanied by policies that accommodate, reward, and provide safety for bicycling to and from school. Social sciences are also an important piece of sustainability. Installing see-through rainwater collection tubes in the cafeteria, a walkway on the green roof, and interactive energy use displays in the lobby ensure that people are able to touch, see, and feel the environmental design elements of the school building, as well as develop an awareness of what living sustainably means and looks like. By attending design meetings, touring new facilities, and reviewing planning documents, I got to see the successful integration of these subjects in action.
I also noticed that as Sustainability Officer, Tim Cole was responsible for communicating between stakeholders within these different areas of expertise: engineers, buy zolt ambien online interior designers, policymakers, and teachers. I had to apply this skill for myself at the end of my mentorship experience, when I gave a presentation on sustainable schools. From participating in a debate on the merits of wind turbines to teaching students a local elementary school about sustainable food through gardening, I found many opportunities to practice communicating math and science to a diversity of audiences throughout high school.
The skill to synthesize and discuss environmental science and engineering across disciplines has been invaluable to my success as a student in higher education, and I continue to learn and practice this every day. I have been involved in implementing sustainability projects like adding compost bins to our dining halls, expanding the campus community garden, and making laboratories more energy efficient, which have all required effectively communicating technical benefits to both students and administrators. Most recently, I was part of a team that proposed and established a Sustainability Liaison position whose purpose is to “translate” information from the Office of Sustainability to graduate students, and vice versa. The California Higher Education Sustainability Conference recognized the importance of this initiative with a statewide 2016 Best Practice Award for student sustainability leadership.
In my own professional development, I have found maintaining an interdisciplinary perspective has led me to the most rewarding and enjoyable work. For example, I was part of an Engineering Students Without Borders team that conducted a three-week study of the existing water filtration and distribution system for a rural community in Siuna, Nicaragua. Part of planning a truly sustainable system involved hosting teaching sessions and discussion groups with the community to explain and get feedback on how the water system worked. Without consideration of the local community culture and values, any new water treatment or distribution technology in the developing world has a minimal chance of success after the engineers leave.
I went on to lead a second team of engineering students that traveled to Nicaragua to study potential areas for improvement of a small chocolate business in the rural community. In that case, economics and marketing were an integral piece of our technical recommendations for expanding production capacity, meeting federal health standards, and establishing branding online. Especially in an international context, environmental engineering projects can greatly benefit from considering the context of our work and incorporating ideas from other academic disciplines.
As the next generation of students begin their careers addressing the grand environmental challenges of our time, it is more necessary than ever that we look outside of our own expertise for pieces that inform the solutions. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to witness environmental professionals in practice and to hone my technical communication skills in high school so that I can ultimately help influence sustainable change in my own green career.
About the Author
Holly Mayton is a third year PhD candidate in Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Riverside. Her dissertation research focuses on the transport of bacteria in agricultural waters, and their attachment and removal from spinach leaf surfaces. She received her Bachelors of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia (UVA) in 2014, where she was a student employee for the Office for Sustainability, manager of the UVA Community Garden, and chair of the Student Council Sustainability Committee. She hopes to pursue a career in science policy at the intersection of global water and food systems. In her free time, she enjoys growing heirloom tomatoes, eating Mexican food, and visiting national parks.