UIC alumni, students forging ahead in clean jobs and sustainable work

By Shruthikarthika Senthilkumar

Three recent UIC alumni and three current UIC graduate students brought inspiring words and shared their experiences with current UIC students enrolled in US 130 Principles of Urban Sustainability through the first-ever webinar for the Symposium on Energy, Environment and Sustainability (SEES) on March 30.

They covered a range of topics and disciplines, from sustainable engineering for clean water, disparities across food-energy-water nexus, solar manufacturing and installation in Chicago and Illinois, the role of retail spaces for expanding energy efficiency and electric vehicles as a pathway to cleaner transportation and a sustainable future.

SEES Spring 2020 originally was planned as an in-person event to help expand current UIC students’ networks and vision for professional trajectories. Instead of postponing or canceling the SEES Spring 2020 event as a result of COVID-19, SEES saw this as an opportunity to host the very first SEES webinar. As a result of being an online event, participation by others outside of the US 130 class was even more possible.

UIC alumni from recent years — Jack Johannesson (BS Finance ‘19), Dhruti Patel (MEE ‘16), and Laura Pritchard (MBA ‘16) shared personal achievements as well as sustainable and clean professional endeavors, with all conveying potential pathways for current students to see themselves in clean jobs across various professional sectors.

A theme of the alumni panel was clean jobs in Illinois. Johannesson noted the current and lasting impact of solar job.

“Illinois is one of the leading states in job growth on the grounds of solar energy…where your job opportunities are going to grow over time,” he said.

The opportunities for clean jobs go beyond any industry.

“You don’t need a specific degree,” Pritchard said. “There are lots of different opportunities available for you — just make sure you have good team skills.”

Patel mentioned the importance of having “different skills, such as project management, consultancy, and finance, along with a strong understanding of sustainability since these skills add to that knowledge base.”

All three alumni imparted sound advice for the next generation of clean job workforce.

Following the alumni, current UIC graduate students presented on their research — Colin Hendrickson (MPH), “Assessment of a Solar Powered Decentralized Water System Using Ozone Disinfection,” Taylor Gendel (MUPP), Making a Case for Solar Manufacturing in Chicago, and Joe Bozeman (Ph.D.), Sustainable Food Behavior in a Densifying World: A U.S. Case Study Across Race and Ethnicity.

So, what advice did the graduate students have for the next generation? Gendel added to the role of the clean jobs sector for Illinois with her research stating that it “can contribute to correcting the long-standing environmental damages in many of the communities that have high unemployment rates.”

When considering adjacent fields, Bozeman noted that “food production, in particular, is one of the largest drivers of global environmental change or climate change, and one of the things we need to think about as years go on, population size increases, and pandemics like COVID-19 become more frequent, is how to develop policies that address human behavioral change so we can reduce our global environmental change.”

Many of the issues that UIC students work on are global ones and ones were basic societal needs, such as clean drinking water, are not accessible or available, and monetary costs for producing systems exceed the community’s ability to pay for them.

Hendrickson worked on a project for implementing decentralized water purification systems in Africa. When asked how much these system costs, he replied that “while the small-scale system I worked on is not yet affordable for many communities in rural low-income areas, it is much more affordable than a large centralized system like what you would find here in the U.S.

“The main purpose of our water system is to help transition rural Kenyan households away from the burden of point-of-use water treatment without having to invest significant amounts of money into a large-scale water system. The fact that it is solar-powered is an added bonus in keeping the long-term upkeep costs lower.”

All three UIC graduate students shared their unique research and academic experience in sustainability and “clean” or “green” disciplines, and their passion for making a difference during their educational endeavors and in their future careers.

For more information on the Symposium on Energy, Environment and Sustainability (SEES), visit the SEES website.  A recording of the webinar is available online.)

SEES emerged in Spring 2018 through a group of sustainability-minded UIC students. Aiming to bring UIC student work together with experts from industry was the vision with objectives to build networks, identify professional mentors, and receive valuable feedback from outside expertise. Dr. Elizabeth A. Kócs, Director of Partnerships and Strategy for the UIC Energy Initiative and adjunct faculty in Urban Planning and Policy, continues to be the faculty advisor to the SEES program, which receives funding from the UIC Sustainability Fee to continue expanding the program and network.

About the author

Shruthikarthika (Shruthi) Senthilkumar (BS Architecture ’22) is the most recent SEES intern. Shruthi is majoring in architecture with a minor in sustainable cities. Her goal is to create and promote sustainable cities through architecture, for which she hopes her university studies will act as a catalyst. 

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