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Anti-Climate Change Diets: Do We Have to Go Whole Hog?

20 Jul

Americana cuisine culture is undeniably tied to climate change. From the all-American pastime of baseball to the nostalgic county fairs to the backyard barbeques, America has long embraced and embodied a culture of hotdogs, hamburgers, barbeque, bacon, etc, etc. Per capita, Americans eat the second largest amount of meat in the world, and unsurprisingly, the United States is the second greatest global greenhouse gas emitter.

If all Americans went vegan, a diet in which no animal products are consumed, greenhouse gas emissions from the meat and dairy industries would be eliminated, which would likely slow down climate change significantly. However, such a national transformation remains out of the picture thanks to American food culture as well as economic reasons involving accessibility in low-income, low-access areas and political reasons such as government subsidization of meat and dairy industries. Nonetheless, being deliberate about what we eat can make a difference in helping fight climate change; not all meat-containing diets contribute equally to carbon emissions.

In an ideal world, we would just cut animal products from our diet cold-turkey. That is, no more meat, no more eggs, no more dairy products. A study in the journal PNAS calculated that if farmed animals were removed from U.S. agriculture, there’d be a 28% decrease in our agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and a 23% increase in total food production.

Meat production is so resource-intensive and consequently emission-heavy because one must account for all of the resources it took to raise the livestock. For example, to calculate the carbon footprint of one adult cow before being slaughtered, many factors must be included — the energy inputs needed to grow the feed, the nitrous oxide emitted by fertilizer, the feed itself, and the cow’s methane emissions. This doesn’t even include the cost of slaughter, processing and transport to market and then to the dinner table.

While many people choose a vegan lifestyle as an environmental action, just as many choose to eliminate animal products for health and moral reasons. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program, processed meats qualify as a Group 1 carcinogen, i.e. when consumed, they are known to cause cancer in humans.  In addition, many are familiar with the brutal and violent imagery that often defines the treatment of all kinds of animals in the meat and dairy industry. However, morals, ethics, and health concerns aside, even if solely for the environment, it makes sense for everyone to go vegan or at least vegetarian.

Snap back to reality and it’s clear that it’s not reasonable to hope that Americans will be willing to make such a dramatic change to their diets. Meat is deeply embedded in American food culture. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in 2015 that Americans consume 198.5 pounds of meat per person, per year. For comparison, Koreans eat 113.5 lbs per capita, per year and Filipinos eat 63 lbs per capita, per year. One end of the dietary spectrum is a meat-heavy diet and the other end is veganism. Although a national leap from the meat-heavy side to the vegan side isn’t likely to occur all at once, our environment isn’t necessarily doomed.

As Maya Almaraz, a postdoctoral climate and environment researcher at UC Davis, notes, “eliminating 90 percent of your meat intake is more important than eliminating all of your meat intake.” Similar to starting a strict diet or making a well-intentioned New Year’s Resolution, people who abruptly switch to a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle often find the changes challenging and as a result end up giving it up over time. Almaraz points out that a sustained lifestyle which includes small amounts of meat is better than having an all-or-nothing attitude. Making a shift towards the vegan side is better than doing nothing.

With this mindset, there are many diets cropping up that are less restrictive, more forgiving twists on veganism and vegetarianism. U.S. News & World Report ranked the top diets of 2018 in terms of simplicity, good nutrition, safety, weight loss (both long and short term), and protection against heart disease and diabetes. Their scoring was compiled by a panel of 25 nationally recognized health experts, including professionals like Michael Dansinger, Teresa Fung, and Penny Kris-Etherton. Dansinger is the Founding Director of the Diabetes Reversal Program at Tufts Medical Center, Fung is a professor of nutrition at Simmons College and Harvard School of Public Health, and Kris-Etherton, having published over 300 scientific papers, has studied the diet-heart disease link for over 30 years.

Among these rankings, the Mediterranean diet was first, and flexitarianism was third. Perhaps surprisingly, vegetarianism ended as 10th, and veganism finished 19th. Evidently, the diet rankings focus on health factors, so the diets to be discussed must still be evaluated for their environmental impacts.

Environmentally, the Mediterranean diet gives vegetarianism and veganism a run for their money. Vegetarians don’t worry about killing innocent animals, and vegans have the added benefit of not having the harm of livestock for other products like eggs and milk on their conscience. Yet in terms of environmental cost, the Houlton Lab at UC Davis found that the Mediterranean diet emits slightly higher levels of carbon dioxide equivalent than vegetarianism or veganism.

Results modeled by the Houlton Lab. Vegan, vegetarian, and Mediterranean diet emissions are much lower than emissions by Doctor Recommended and Normal American diets.

In the Mediterranean diet, adherents eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil. Chicken is consumed occasionally, and red meat is eaten rarely. The reduced emissions in this diet support the idea that not all meat contributes equally to greenhouse gas emissions. The Houlton Lab also did calculations of how much carbon is emitted per serving of various foods. Beef creates 330 g. By simply eating chicken instead, that number becomes 52 g, and for perspective, lentils emit 2 g/serving.

The Mediterranean diet might also be an appealing option for the environmentally conscious because of studies like the one in the journal PNAS that modeled the scenario of a meatless America. Although researchers White and Hall found a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in food production, they also concluded that without meat there would be a deficiency of micronutrients like vitamins A and B12. In modeling a diet on a population scale, the apparent challenge is making sure diets meet micronutrient requirements. Interestingly, there was an excess of macronutrients like proteins in both animal and plants-only systems because modelers bumped up the amount of protein in attempt to increase micronutrients. The Mediterranean diet easily meets government nutrition recommendations, and people following this diet would likely not run into such deficiencies. 

A graphic from the study modeling a meatless U.S agricultural system referenced above. In many cases the system without animal food sources had inadequate or reduced micronutrients.

Flexitarianism is another diet growing in popularity. In 2016, 22.8 million Americans self reported as flexitarians- more than three times the 7.3 million who identified as vegetarian. Flexitarians, or “flexible vegetarians”, are vegetarians who allow themselves to eat meat once in a while. This diet focuses on plant proteins, or “new meats” like tofu, beans, nuts, and eggs instead of focusing on animal proteins. Flexitarianism could be the solution for those who are conscious of their health and the harmful effect that meat production has on the environment, but who are not quite willing to commit themselves to giving up entire food categories.

Similar to the Houlton lab findings, a research team at Oxford University quantified the pattern of a reduced carbon footprint with reduction of meat intake. Comparing the emissions of high, medium, and low meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans, they found that the average greenhouse gas emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per day (kgCO2e/day) progressively decreased as meat content decreased. For example, the high meat-eaters emitted 7.19 kgCO2e/day, a low meat-eater emitted 4.67 kgCO2e/day, vegetarians emitted 3.81 kgCO2e/day, and vegans emitted 2.89 kgCO2e/day. A flexitarian would likely qualify as a low meat-eater, and emitting 4.67 kgCO2e/day is certainly more ideal than emitting 7.19 kgCO2e/day.

A visual representation of the results from the Oxford study on greenhouse emissions from various diets. The bars illustrate the age-and-sex-adjusted mean (95 % confidence interval) GHG emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per day per group. (Estrera)

The shared feature of all of the diets mentioned so far is the reduction of meat consumption. As the name suggests, the very recent diet, “reducetarianism”, is no exception. According to The Reducetarian Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 2015 by Brian Kateman,“reducetarianism is the practice of eating less meat – red meat, poultry, and seafood – as well as less dairy and fewer eggs, regardless of the degree or motivation.”  

With each new diet and subsequent new name and following, the distinctions seem to be minor because the goals are so similar. Reducetarianism is different from Flexitarianism in that the goal is to reduce “with respect to [one’s] own diet”. Flexitarianism was popularized as a way to be vegetarian without feeling the guilt and doubt of not being a “real” vegetarian whenever there might’ve been a slip-up in eating. Other consumption patterns that defeat the all-or-nothing mentality of certain diets include Weekday Vegetarianism, the Vegetarian Before 6 (VB6) Diet, and Meatless Monday.

On a global scale, in 2012, it was reported that food production makes up one-third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases.  In 2008, livestock production was associated with 18% of global greenhouse gases, including 37% of methane and 9% of carbon dioxide. Any decrease in these gases could mean getting closer to stopping the widespread destruction humans are bringing to Earth by climate change.

Like Peter Singer, the moral philosopher, says, “reduce now, and next month, reduce more. Maybe you’ll get to zero, and anyway, you’ll be doing less harm.” Similarly, in the Three R’s, it’s helpful to remember that “reduce” is the first but also the most important.

Doing something is better than doing nothing, and with every meal, there’s the opportunity to do something. Of course, diet is not the end-all of action against climate change, not in the slightest. As of 2014, globally, the transportation sector emitted 14% of global greenhouse gases, and the agriculture, forestry, and other land use sector emitted 24% of the total emissions. It’s incredible that agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than those from all cars, trains, planes, and boats. The argument goes that if we eliminated the meat and dairy industries from agriculture, we’d be in the clear. But in the grander scheme of things, even if both agriculture and transportation were made completely emission free, the world would still be generating well over half of its current emissions.

However, while conscious consumerism might trick the consumer into assuming more blame than they may deserve, people eat so often that it only makes sense to be deliberate in the act. As said by Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth, “it’s hard to imagine what the argument could be against taking this step, given all that we know about the way our planet works, our bodies work, and our industrial food system works.”

-Rachel Estrera (‘21) intends to major in neuroscience major. She is an Aries who enjoys reading memoirs, eating ice cream, and watching Studio Ghibli movies. She lives in Lamont House.

Additional reading:

This Interactive Chart Explains World’s Top 10 Emitters, and How They’ve Changed– World Resources Institute

The diet that helps fight climate change– Vox

Is a No-Meat World Really Better?-NPR

Video: https://youtu.be/TSzQ-lznLiw

 

Controlled Rot: Growing Mushrooms at MacLeish

27 Apr

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” goes the proverbial phrase used to encourage making the best of what one has. At the MacLeish Field Station we have lots of forest that provides much shade. So why not grow food that does not require full sun—such as mushrooms? In April, eight students spent an afternoon inoculating logs with both blue oyster and shitake mushroom spawn. Their work was part of an agroforestry demonstration project being established this year at the Field Station.

Alexandra Davis ’18 and Lilly Williams ’18 drill logs in preparation for inoculation.

Inoculating logs is relatively simple. Holes drilled into recently cut logs are filled with mushroom spawn and then sealed with cheese wax.

Tracy Rompich ’21 inoculates logs with shitake spawn.

Tess Abbot ’20 and Molly Peek ’18 seal the spawn in the logs with cheese wax.

After being labeled, the logs are all stacked in the shadiest part of the forest. Over the 12 months the fungi will grow and spread throughout the logs, becoming well established, and hopefully begin fruiting mushrooms that we can harvest next summer!

 
Preparing hot chocolate for all the volunteers on the beautiful spring day are,
from left, Lily Williams, Molly Peek, Alexandra Davis, and Diana Umana ’19.

Smith Sugaring

27 Mar

Spring is well and finally here! We’ve been celebrating its arrival with students in New England fashion- by taking a bunch of them to a local sugar shack for a tasty breakfast with the locals- and by taking others out to the MacLeish Field Station to learn how to first identify and then tap maple trees so we can gather their sweet sap. As the days slowly get longer and the daily temperature swings signal that it is time for the trees to send food to their flower and leaf buds, the slow and steady drip of sap has gotten faster and faster, filling the buckets easily each day.

Check out the video about this that our intern Ellen Sulser ’18 made and posted on FaceBook.

On Sunday we capped off the season by hosting our inaugural Smith Sugaring event. We brought to campus all of the sap we had been gathering and set up near Chapin House.

It was a perfect day to hang out and watch the water boil off and share with passers by the wonders of making maple syrup.


Some seniors (environmental concentrators, all) stopped by to check out the parklet that we had set up nearby.

And lots of other people (200 or so by our count) stopped in throughout the day to visit, check out our set-up, learn about the process, and taste some fresh maple sap or syrup. We made our very first MacLeish maple syrup here on campus, and a good time was had by all. Sweet success!

The Future of Sustainable Livestock Farming

17 Jan

We are students from Professor Washington-Ottombre’s ENV 101 class. For our final project in December, we made a short video about the future of sustainable livestock farming, which explores the current state or “regime” of the U.S. livestock system, and possible improvements the industry could make to move to a more sustainable regime. Our video is a mixture of animation, footage from one of our farms, and system models we learned to make in class. The models show where the livestock industry is now and where it could go from here based on a few variables.

Take a look at our video here!

The main idea in our video is a hypothetical non-profit organization we created called F.A.R.M. which stands for Farm Assessment Re-envisioning and Maintenance. The organization helps already sustainable farms stay sustainable and gives them a grade based on their level of sustainability, similar to LEED certification, but at no cost. In addition, the organization helps farms that don’t meet the requirements of sustainability transition to being more sustainable at no cost.

We hope you enjoy our video and that it sparks ideas and interests surrounding today’s agriculture system, perhaps even on the way toward re-envisioning a more sustainable future.

photo-4Emelyn Chiang ’20, Kimby Davis ’17, Tori Greco Hiranaka ’19, Elsbeth Pendleton-Wheeler ’19 and Claire Rand ’20

A Look Inside Hopkins House

7 Dec

Eliana Gevelber ’19 and Ariana Banks ’18, students in ENV 311 Interpreting and Communicating Environmental Information, write about Hopkins House.

eliana-blog

The Hopkins House cooperative is a Smith house where students cook and do chores together. Because Hopkins residents are not on the meal plan, they have to make their own meals. Food is typically bought in bulk.

Hopkins co-op residents, also known as “Hopkids,” try to be conscious of where their food comes from. One way the co-op does this is by having people fill out a food survey just before each semester. Questions on the survey not only ask about people’s dietary restrictions, but also from where they want to buy vegetables, meat and other animal products. Hopkins gets produce from Hampshire College’s farm CSA in the fall and from various farms at the local farmers’ market in the winter. Also, the carnivores in the house weighed in about whether they wanted to only buy local, organic and humane meat or whether factory farmed would be okay. The survey results from the beginning of the semester showed people prioritized having local meat over having meat often; since local meat is more expensive, we only rarely consume meat. In fact, we’ve only had meat once or twice so far this semester. Hopkins gets bulk dried goods ordered and delivered by the Florence-based cooperative called Pedal People. Ordering large quantities of food reduces the packaging and emissions from shipping associated with food.

bread-eliana

Hopkins residents minimize food waste by utilizing excess and leftover goods. The extra food is stored in a pantry and refrigerated bins and cabinets. Excess produce is even chopped and canned into mason jars for later use. As shown in the picture at the top, Eliana, a resident of Hopkins, made chutney from the abundant green tomatoes that were rescued at the end of the growing season from the Smith Community Garden. There were two grocery bags full of green tomatoes that were not being used, so Eliana made them into a flavorful sauce. The house also relies on composting to ensure food scraps and other compostable items are not going to waste. Compost bins are emptied twice a week into a larger compost bin behind Chapin House.

compost eliana.jpg

Exploring Intersections between the Environment and Human Health

13 Sep
Hello! I’m Athena Sofides, a sophomore majoring in environmental science and policy. I also hope to complete the environmental concentration in sustainable food. I’m interested in exploring and studying the intersections of the environment, nutrition and public health, something I was able to do as an intern at the Path Family Center, GPM Pediatrics, and the Healthy Path Foundation this summer.
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 The Path Family Center is an interventional, holistic health clinic for pediatric patients with chronic conditions like autism spectrum disorders and autoimmune diseases. The Center has a particular focus on the environment and nutrition in its diagnosis and treatment of its patients, many (most) of whom experience drastic developmental improvements after detoxing, removing traces of heavy metals and bad bacteria in their systems through natural, herbal, holistic measures, all the while replacing them with good bacteria and supplemented vitamins and minerals. GPM Pediatrics, the “regular” pediatrics practice off of which the Path Center is based, incorporates what is done at the Path Center into each patient’s visit, considering heavily food and environmental factors in each child’s development. I’ve also been volunteering with the Healthy Path Foundation, a nonprofit designed to establish a new standard of care in the medical field by financially supporting education, research, and expenses for families seeking alternative, interventional healthcare.
As an intern, I decided to help augment the Foundation’s mission to educate by creating the Healthy Path Blog (https://thehealthypathblog.wordpress.com/) as a potential resource of empowerment and education by and for young adults in the context of environmental/holistic health in the 21st Century. The Healthy Path Blog hopes to serve as a resource for young adults in understanding what health looks like in our modern world, why contemporary health is as it is and what we can do to improve it. HPF Blog aims to do this by sharing educational resources, improvement steps and tips, and opportunities for community engagement and empowerment with our readers. This includes everything from op-eds about new research, nutritious recipes, or reflections on specific experiences. I’ve gotten so much out of this experience so far and am excited for the HPF Blog community to grow. I hope you will take a moment and take a look at some of our posts, and even consider writing a guest post of your own!
A bit more about me:
I am excited to be living in Hopkins House this year!  In my free time, I like to crochet, listen to Queen, and continue my unending quest to find the best ice cream in NYC.

Summer Student Update: Sarina Vega ’19

15 Jul

sarina farm.JPGEco-Rep Sarina Vega ’19 is having an incredible summer. She writes: I’m currently in Portugal volunteering my time at an organic, sustainable, no-till farm in a tiny village close to Tomar called Vila do Paço. I’ve been using WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Vermont for about 6 months now and decided to take the experience abroad. It’s been a humbling experience not knowing Portuguese. I’ve had to find other ways to connect with people, whether through caring for the plants and soil or through shared laughter at the dinner table as we convene over the meal our farm host prepared. Music is everywhere, conversation is abuzz, chicken and goat poop are under my shoes, and I’ve been wearing the same shirt for five days now–but who is counting?! When I left my hometown of San Diego, I left behind an internship at a community garden for the local high school, and when I return home I have another internship at a space called Art Produce, which is a community garden, art gallery, and tostada shop. I’m extremely intrigued with space and how we use it to bridge people, places, and time, and how community comes together. So far, the summer has been the most inspiring and eye-opening yet and I can’t wait to share my experiences with my friends back at Smith!

What are you doing this summer Smithies? We want to hear from you!

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Closing the loop: Recology’s composting facility

1 Apr

Matt Richtel’s NY Times article (25 March 2016, “San Francisco, the Silicon Valley of Recycling”) concludes with the spokesman for Recology’s recycling facility in San Francisco wishing that his visitors would also have the chance to tour the composting facility.  Last Monday, I had the chance to do just that.

At 9 am on a cool, sunny day, I met Greg Pryor at Recology’s composting facility in Vacaville, CA.  Greg, whose title is Organics Branch Manager, generously spent a good part of his morning with me, answering my questions and showing me around the impressive facility.  He is a wealth of knowledge and has a deep understanding of all aspects of the business, having overseen the facility for twenty years after starting his career in construction management.  We spent the morning discussing everything from business models to odor control, microbial decomposition to government regulations, and high-speed grinders versus low-speed shredders.

What is compost?  Essentially, it is the soil organic matter that is left behind after an organic waste has been decomposed.  When added to soil, compost increases aeration, water retention, and creates a healthy microbial community (think of a rich, black, earthy-smelling soil versus a beach sand).

The Vacaville site accepts yard and food waste from San Francisco, Vallejo, Dixon, Vacaville, and other communities and processes it into compost that is sold to farmers and landscapers.  Food wastes are processed first thing in the morning (and, here, first thing means 4 am).  The organic waste is loaded into a low-speed shredder which tears apart large pieces and rips open the plastic bags into which many consumers put their food scraps before tossing in their green curbside bucket.  The waste then moves through a rotating drum with four-inch openings.  Bits that are smaller pass through, while the over-sized pieces (or, “overs”, in composting parlance) continue on.  The overs travel to a sorting tent where employees pick through the waste to remove contaminants: plastics, glass, metal – usually items that should have been tossed in the recycling bin rather than the compost bin.  The sorted overs are ground up and mixed back with the waste that originally passed through the four-inch screen.

Four-inch screen at the Recology composting facility. (Photo credit: Andrew Guswa)

Four-inch screen at the Recology composting facility. (Photo credit: Andrew Guswa)

Then the process really begins.  To ensure an appropriate carbon-to-nitrogren ratio for the microbes and a bulk density that allows sufficient air to pass through the waste, one bucket of food waste is mixed with two to three buckets of yard waste (think grass clippings and brush cuttings).  The combined organic wastes are then placed on top of four perforated pipes that draw air down through the pile to ensure that the microbial decomposition remains aerobic and at the right temperature.  After thirty days “on air”, the waste is moved into rows, where it cures for another thirty days.  The finished compost is then sieved through a quarter-inch screen to remove any stray bits of plastic and glass before being sold.

Organic waste “on air” – note the pipes along the bottom that pull air down through the pile. (Photo credit: Andrew Guswa)

Organic waste “on air” – note the pipes along the bottom that pull air down through the pile. (Photo credit: Andrew Guswa)

As Greg points out, more and more farmers and landscapers are recognizing the value of organic matter as a contributor to healthy soils, and the composting business is transitioning from a focus on waste-management to a focus on creating a valuable product.  When I asked Greg to identify his biggest challenge, he indicated the contamination of their feedstocks, e.g., that stray plastic bottle that ends up in the compost bin rather than the recycling bucket.  As you might imagine, farmers and landscapers do not want compost riddled with shards of plastic and glass.  With better quality control on their inputs, i.e. with all of us doing a better job of sorting our wastes, this circular economy has the potential to really take off.

– Andrew Guswa, Professor of Engineering, is currently on sabbatical in California.

Where is She Now? Update on a Recent Grad

15 Mar
image (1)

Jackie at work.

Jacqueline Maasch (’16J) is now a diagnostic technician at the Laboratory for Molecular Medicine in Cambridge, MA. Jacqueline graduated this winter with a major in anthropology and a minor in environmental science and policy. Her participation in the sustainable food concentration taught her the importance of molecular genetics to agriculture and conservation, and ultimately lead her to pursue work in clinical genetics after graduating from Smith.

Jacqueline’s new job is through Partners HealthCare Personalized Medicine and the Human Genetics Unit of Massachusetts General Hospital. As a technician, she is responsible for extracting, quantifying, and sequencing DNA, as well as analyzing sequences for the presence of variants. 

Jacqueline has not abandoned her interest in the environment and hopes to use her skills in molecular genetics to improve human and environmental health.

Student Spotlight: Julia Graham ’16

14 Dec

Julia Graham ’16 has a lot going on. She is an environmental science and policy (ES&P) major, a sustainable food concentrator, and potentially a Latin American studies minor. Graham is interested in how indigenous cultures and the environment in Latin America have been impacted by colonialism.

When JGraham.jpgshe transferred to Smith from Warren Wilson College her sophomore year, she decided to change directions, and instead of continuing to focus on Latin American studies, she jumped with two feet into ES&P. This jump was guided by Graham’s experiences during her year off, when she worked on two farms, including one associated with the Heifer International Program.

Julia Graham has undertaken a range of environmental work during her time at Smith. Her sustainable food capstone course has her scoping out the potential for a biogas reactor at Smith. Her special studies with professor Bob Newton (geosciences) involves exploring the relationship between vegetation, environmental history, and geochemistry. Graham even used to coordinate the House Eco Reps. She currently works as a MacLeish intern at CEEDS and as an intern for ES&P.

As part of fulfilling her sustainable food concentration requirements Graham went to Ecuador to work in a permaculture biosphere with Third Millennium Alliance. Since then she has earned a permaculture design certificate and even designed a permaculture garden in her parent’s backyard.

After Smith, Graham would like to work with a trail crew. She built trails in Alaska and the Colorado Rockies during her junior and senior years of high school, and she would love to continue the work after college. Ultimately, she would like to wind up in environmental education.

The one piece of wisdom Graham would like to pass on is how important it is while you are a student at Smith to realize that there is life beyond the Smith campus. Take a step back from academics, get off campus, see what is happening in the rest of the world.

– Brittany Bennett is a senior Engineering Science major and hails from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She hopes to educate engineers on how to best create a more sustainable world.