My journey into the environmental sciences may, at first read, seem rather circuitous and disconnected. I may have taken an unorthodox route to finding myself in a PhD program in Environmental Science, but, every step of my journey has led me to where I am today.
Bachelor’s Degree: Physics, Grinnell College
At Grinnell College I studied Physics and Classics (Latin, Ancient Greek, and classical culture, history, and art).
I chose physics because I was fascinated with how the universe worked. I found it amazing that with a simple string of numbers you could determine the exact location a thrown object would fall or the exact trajectory of a satellite. With physics one can explain the motion of the planets, or a bird in flight. I found a deep sense of calm from knowing that even the most complicated orbital dynamics or wave phenomena could be simplified and understood with numbers.
But, at the same time, physics felt too disconnected from the immediate ‘real’ world. It was fascinating, and I truly loved every second of it, but I had a strong desire to change the world and the current state of physics research seemed too far away, too deep into the science, to have an impact on today.
As an example of what I was feeling, take Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Einstein first published his theory in 1905, and while his work rocked the world of physics research, special (and later general) relativity had little to do with the ‘real’ world for decades. But today! The modern world as we know it would not exist without Einstein’s theory of special relatively. Because GPS would not exist with special relativity. GPS technology, with it’s accuracy down to the millimeter, would not be possible without relativistic corrections. Einstein truly changed the world. But it took nearly 100 years before his work made a ‘noticeable’ impact.
I have no doubt that the physics research being done today will change the face of the reality as we know it. It just may not be in our lifetimes. And I needed to help the world now. So, cue…Engineering!
(Oh yeah, and in case you were wondering about the Classics? Latin? Ancient Greek!? There’s no environmental/change the world connection there, I just really enjoyed it 🙂 )
Master’s Degree: Mechanical Engineering, Iowa State University
I completed my Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Iowa State University in 2015. I chose Mechanical Engineering because it was the broadest, and in my mind, the most applicable engineering discipline. As an engineer, I would be able to apply all the amazing laws and theories of the physical world that I love so much, to real world applications. I would be able to solve problems and build solutions. I would be able to have an immediate impact on the world.
I studied multiphase fluids and my thesis focused on granular mixing in double-screw pyrolyzers. Put simply, I worked to improve the viability of bio-oil as an alternative to fossil fuels. The point of connection to my current environmental aspirations? I was focusing on green technology, making the world a better place, creating clean energy, and reducing pollution! I enjoyed that what I was doing was important right now. My research could have a tangible affect on the way the world uses energy. This decade. Not 100 years from now. Of course, my research was small, and research into bio-oil and bio-fuels has years and years to go before it can really compete with fossil fuels. But I was helping, in a tangible, and present way.
My thesis, titled “The effects of scale on granular mixing in a double
screw pyrolyzer” can be found here: Marmur Thesis 2015
That all being said, one thing about engineering really challenged me and ultimately led to my leaving the field. Everything was all about humans. Problems that needed to be solved were human problems. The solutions were human solutions. Built solutions. Engineered solutions. Alternatives touted as ‘cleaner’ or ‘greener’ weren’t always the best ecologically.
Here’s one big example that really sent me in motion to change fields. My research mainly focused on red oak trees as our biomass source, but we also looked into corn stover (the stuff left over in a farm field after the actual corn kernels are removed at harvest, i.e, the stalks and leaves and such). Corn stover was touted as being such a good idea because stover was just wasted material anyways! Look at us engineers being so environmentally conscious and using left-over, worthless material.
But then I learned more. I learned about corn stover from the planet’s perspective, not the human perspective. It turns out that leaving that stover on the field is actually REALLY important to maintaining the health of the soil and the purity of local streams. Because leaving those leaves and stalks on the ground acts as a protective barrier for the soil, preventing erosion when it rains. That keeps the soil in the field for next year, and prevents pollution from the fields getting washed into streams.
This ‘green’ engineering solution, to use corn stover because it’s ‘just waste material anyways’, was only looking at the human side of the equation. Sure, there’s not much use for it for people, but in terms of the environment? Leave that stover where it is.
Doctoral Degree: Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Environmental Science, Iowa State University
That is how I ended up where I am today, in a doctoral program studying the environment and natural resource management.
I want to make the world a better place.
I want to help people.
I want to protect the environment.
Because you can’t work to save humans without also working to save the planet. This is our only planet, and we need to protect it and use our natural resources in ways that both helps people prosper AND sustains the environment.
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”-Native American Proverb