Getting the opportunity to help out and participate in this workshop was such an amazing experience. Not only did I learn how to effectively advocate for the environment, but I also met others who share my same passion for the environment. A highlight of the day was the park ranger who talked with us, and he was such a character. He opened by calling his boss on the phone and having the whole room sing happy birthday to her. I also got the chance to be a “senator” so people could practice their pitches, and everyone did so great! Also, we all got free swag, and who doesn’t love that. I can’t wait for the next one!
Student participants with organizers from the W&M Office of Community Engagement and National Parks Conservation Association
Park ranger from Colonial National Historical Park
Presentations by speakers from the National Parks Conservation Association
Practicing advocacy skills relating to the Chesapeake Bay watershed
This research project involves engineering a sustainable biomaterial with microscopically enhanced thermal and mechanical properties that can be 3D printed. Many of us know that nature creates geometries that give its materials impressive properties. For example, when aluminum is molded into a honeycomb shape it is 20 times stronger and only 1/6 of the weight of standard unshaped aluminum. So, what would happen if we made structures like this on the nanometer scale? Well, luckily, nature has already done that for us too. Many marine organisms, like diatoms have complex microscopic geometries that are too small for human manufacturing techniques. The goal of this project is to incorporate these naturally occurring structures into an environmentally friendly 3D printable material. Applications for such a technique range from environmentally friendly insulation for homes to structural materials created entirely from easily renewable algae.
A large chunk of the work for my project in June was spent collecting data and doing field work. Often times this meant crouching in a literal field given our particular pant of study, but sometimes this involved more conventionally outdoorsy activities like crossing rivers, hiking dirt trails, and general bushwhacking. Studying and working in the disciplines of biology, environmental science, or other “macro-scale” natural sciences, you hear the term “field work” thrown around a lot… but what does this vague umbrella term actually mean? Now I’m sure this very well may vary considerably depending on what line of work you’re in and what questions you’re actually trying to answer, but I will give you my impressions from a general /plant ecology perspective.
First impressions when people think about field work in biology tend to end up favoring one of two possibilities: A) that it’s all sweaty, dirty work where you get eaten by bugs and covered in poison ivy, or B) that it’s like a bunch of tree-huggers out frolicking in the woods. Neither of these are entirely false (poison ivy and frolicking included), but they aren’t really true either. Going on a semi-extended trip to do field science is a pretty immersive affair that combines outdoor activity, academic rigor, and a genuine sense of camaraderie.
A PosTex positioning system for collecting spatial data (fondly known as Dexter)
The filed work I have done so far in the course of this project has involved several back-to-back trips at four sites across Virginia. The first was multi-day trips to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, a protected island in the James River, then week-long trips to Blandy Experimental Farm and Sky Meadows State Park, both near Winchester, and several days of commuting to the local Historic Greenspring run by the NPS. At all the sites, our general purpose and activities were about the same, we were there to collect data (another buzzword for a different post) about just about every aspect of Common Milkweed. We measured these plants in terms of: height, area, diameter, quality, herbivory, reproductive output, position in space, chemical composition, and even genetic information… which all becomes quite a large task when you realize it must be done roughly 800 times. In the process, use two field instruments to collect spectral (chemical) and spatial data. I used a lot of these different measurements in various elements of the statistical population model that is my final project, whether that be incorporating heights to model growth, or using a combination of height and herbivory to predict reproductive output in the form of flowering probability. It was great to be fully involved with the planning and carrying out of several different projects (not just my own) and get to actually do what tends to come out very dry and boring in the Methods section of papers. Other students will be using some of the same data that we all collected (for example, to correlate spatial and genetic information and create a genetic map of the plants), so it really felt like a group effort. Due to the summer heat in VA, we sometimes run on a “siesta schedule,” that brakes up the work to avoid the hottest part of the day. Waking up early to beat the heat, then moving inside to plan and discuss next steps, then going back out in the late afternoon. In my opinion this works out better than a typical nine to five and gave us a continuous stream of activity all day, which carried right through to our communal dinners and evening relaxation and data analysis. I really enjoy these later parts of the day because it allows us to bond and enjoy each other’s company in a way that just doesn’t happen in the lab. Good thing we had such a great team of people this year though, because working and living with the same people could get old very quickly if they don’t mesh well.
I like to think that I had a pretty balanced idea of what to expect going into the field season, but I was still (mostly) pleasantly surprised. I was definitely expecting to work hard and be busy, but I was skeptical about how it might turn out. I learned a ton, got to know some great people and feel more connected and involved with my work than ever. Overall, “field work” is an extremely rewarding experience and I would encourage anyone interested to explore it for themselves.
A hydrogeological map of the aquifer structure around the city of Mecca.
Picture credit to Muhammad Amin M. Sharaf
Recent efforts to incorporate religious imperatives into the realm of sustainability discourse has often been seen as a recent phenomenon manifesting out of fears of climate change and increasing popular awareness, but this narrative fails to understand the long-running interplay that various belief systems have had with the environment. In the case of Islam, this interplay is both significant and yet obscured by an expansive timeline and the methodological difficulties which come from the need to investigate a topic with few texts and even fewer archaeological indicators. To delve into this issue, as was my goal upon working with the Committee on Sustainability, I decided to formulate a unique means by which to enter into debate on the topic which applied aspects of Structural Anthropology, Textualism, and environmental modelling to form cogent historical claims.
What resulted from this mode of investigation are some interesting conclusions. Broadly, when one comes to the understanding that most supposed areas from which Islam could have originated, it becomes evident that the formation of conservationist sentiments regarding natural resources came not from immediate directives founded in primary sources, but rather from legal extrapolations made sometimes centuries later. In a continued attempt at testing the outer limits of the methodology that informed my claim as to the origin of Islamic environmental thought, I then continued the study by providing a perspective on the continued advancement of the concept through its interaction with texts. It is here that I advance the claim that the three major dimensions by which a modern understanding of environmental-religious praxis (Biocentrism, Anthropocentrism, and Theocentrism) is had is clearly reflected in Islam through the works of Al-Jahiz, Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Hanbal.
Overall, I aim to pursue the popularization of a new mode of thought that transcends the boundaries of Islam or environmental history. In recent times, I feel that the extremes of Orientalist literary scholarship and historical skepticism have provided little framework for a continued study into pertinent religious topics. I find my project with the Committee on Sustainability to be my first step in contributing to the reduction of this divide, and the provision of another way forward.
Sharaf, Muhammad M. “Hydrogeology and Hydrochemistry of the Aquifer System of Wadi An Numan, Makkah Al Mukarramah, Saudi Arabia.” AQUA Mundi, 2011.
After countless hours spent coordinating logistics, educating myself on solar energy and environmental justice, and fundraising, my big opportunity finally came! For a week in May, I flew to Sacramento, California, where I joined some other college students from across the country for “Solar Spring Break”. This is a program run through GRID Alternatives, an organization dedicated to making “renewable energy technology and job training accessible to underserved communities”. In this specific program, students spend a week around one of GRID’s offices going to low-income households and installing solar arrays rooftops.
Traditionally, colleges and universities form teams to participate in Solar Spring Break. However, because I was rather late finding out about this incredible opportunity and didn’t have enough time to organize a William & Mary team, I decided to join their inaugural Intercollegiate Team. There were only five of us, but we were a strong team, with presence from William & Mary, Texas Christian University, University of Nevada Reno, and a technical school in Colorado.
The solar-related portions of our week involved climbing up onto rooftops and starting from scratch to install solar arrays. There were professionals who guided us along through every step – from putting up flashings to connecting wires to prying up shingles to bending conduits. It was a great workout, and I did not need any prior experience to do a great job (which I did not have).
The technical and scientific components were complemented by further education on social and environmental justice. Before our program began, we all met through Skype a few times to discuss equality vs. equity; racial and ethnic diversity; and career paths in solar, among other things. During the program, the time that we were not on rooftops was spent learning about campaigning; putting together promotional materials to mail out; and touring ArchNexus, one of the world’s few LEED double platinum certified buildings.
Beyond all of this, there was ample time for us to bond as the inaugural Intercollegiate Team and make some awesome memories. While in Sacramento, we all lived together at a campsite and cooked all our meals collaboratively. We thoroughly enjoyed nightly campfires, cooking projects, a petting zoo, and some natural beauty at our housing site. We also enjoyed having Wednesday afternoon free to explore an art museum, the capitol building, and other attractions in Downtown Sacramento. Furthermore, we all kept miniature notebooks that we used to write notes to each other during daily reflections.
Should I participate in Solar Spring Break again, I would love to organize a William & Mary team to go to GRID’s office in DC and perform some more installations. Or, if not enough people from William & Mary are interested in / available to participate, I have also considered combining forces with other Virginia institutions to form a team. Alternatively, if I find myself too busy or unavailable to organize a team, then I will hopefully join an already existing team. Whatever ends up happening, I would love to be part of another Solar Spring Break to relive these experiences and have new ones.
In the highlands of Fiji, away from all the tourism, the village of Bukuya is powered by a micro-hydropower generator (SDG 7). This small project may have been funded by an international organization, but its majority of stakeholders are the residents of the village and 40% of them are women (SDG 4).
These are the stories from the developing world. These are the results of NGO’s, non-profits, consulting agencies, and governments all adhering to the sustainable development goals (SDGs) as released by the United Nations. The goal to end poverty, to improve well-being, for gender equality, etc all of these goals were made for a more sustainable world. This is the ambition of the United Nations, of 193 countries that pledged billions and billions of dollars to achieve their vision of a sustainable world by 2030.
Hosted in Columbia University, in the heart of New York City, the International Conference on Sustainable Development brings students, innovators, professionals, businesses, activists, world leaders together to assemble and share their ideas about making the world a more sustainable place.
I’ve had the amazing opportunity hearing educators share about making their university campus’ a living sustainable laboratory in Madrid, where environmental and cultural education follows them every step of the way. I learned the story about Julio, who linked a direct issue of sick children in one household. He showed us how to connect the community to university to the government. I saw how important international investment is to these small remote villages, but as well as the ethics involved with maintaining the area’s culture rather than being too influenced by foreigners. I heard Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, give her keynote address about the importance of maintaining our aquatic industries and ecosystems as good stewards of the Earth. All these are just small examples of the great works and projects that are helping millions of people in the developing world. There were too much knowledge and experiences, but not enough time, to take the entire conference in.
Nevertheless, my best experience isn’t meeting all these amazing professionals doing impactful work, nor is it listening to renowned world leaders giving speeches. The most important takeaway is meeting fellow undergraduate as passionate into sustainable development as I am. Whenever I find a student as young as me and I ask them their story about why they want to help people in countries where the bare essentials of water and electricity are a constant struggle in their daily lives, my heart grows. I find the greatest euphoria in meeting all these accomplished and passionate young people. As I put down their numbers and emails in my ledger, I smile knowing that eventually, it would be me — it would be him — it would be her, but more importantly be us that would be out there making the world a more sustainable place.