ISTC/University of Birmingham exchange fosters collaboration

l-r: Perry Akrie (ISTC), Jim Best (UIUC Dept. of Geology), John Scott (ISTC), Stefan Krause (UB Ecohydrology and Biogeochemistry), and Rafael Omar Tinoco Lopez (UIUC Civil Engineering), with University of Birmingham students.

ISTC researchers recently visited the University of Plymouth and the University of Birmingham to learn more about their contaminants research. Perry Akrie, a visiting scientific specialist at ISTC, shares his impressions of the trip.

Our journey began with a trip to Plymouth to visit with Dr. Andrew Turner, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Plymouth, and a group of his students. John Scott gave a short talk about his research on microplastics at ISTC over the past several years and the students from Dr. Turner’s lab group presented their current research. Topics included polymer identification, additives and contaminants, adsorption of pollutants, fate and transport, weathering and degradation, and occurrence of microplastics.

John Scott (top) addresses Andrew Turner (bottom) and his students (not pictured). Photo credit: Perry Akrie

We also met with Rob Arnold, a colleague of Dr. Turner’s. Rob is an artist and activist on the topic of ocean pollution. He brought some of his collection of plastics that he has found washed up on the shore. This included a collection of vintage toothbrushes, assorted toys, and food wrappers, as well as a collection he affectionately refers to as “wedgies,” bits of plastic which have had other bits of plastic wedged into them in their travels through the ocean. Some of his most well-known art includes a 5.5-foot sculpture in the shape of the Moai statues of Easter Island that is made entirely of plastic waste. You see more of his art on Instagram (

Rob Turner displays his collection of microplastics found on beaches around England. Photo credit: Perry Akrie

We then traveled to the University of Birmingham to meet with members of the BRIDGE Birmingham-Illinois Partnership. This partnership has been in place since 2014. It allows both universities to exchange knowledge across disciplines through face-to-face meetings between faculty, staff, and students. As part of this program, Kate Rowley and Sophie Comer-Warner, students from the University of Birmingham, will be visiting ISTC to further their research.

The group from the University of Illinois included ISTC chemist John Scott, geology professor Jim Best, assistant professor of civil engineering Rafael Omar Tinoco Lopez, and and myself. We met with ecohydrology and biogeochemistry professor Stefan Krause and hydrology professor David Hannah from the University of Birmingham. We gave feedback on short presentations made by the students from Birmingham on topics that included transport of tire wear particles, biodegradation of microplastics in soils, and microplastics response to rainfall events.

BRIDGE meeting with researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Birmingham. Photo credit: Perry Akrie
BRIDGE meeting with researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Birmingham. Photo credit: Perry Akrie

The next day, we were taken on a tour of the preparation and analysis labs. Some of the most impressive facilities there were EcoLab and the National Buried Infrastructure Facility (NBIF).

EcoLab is a versatile open-air facility that hosts an array of experiments from many disciplines. Researchers in our host lab group have used it to study how microplastics are transported through water.

EcoLab includes a series of flumes that facilitate studies on the interaction between water, soils, plants, and other contaminants.
EcoLab includes a series of flumes that facilitate studies on the interaction between water, soils, plants, and other contaminants. Photo credit: Perry Akrie

The NBIF’s main feature is a 25m x 10m x 5m pit that can be split into smaller sections and filled with various structures, soils, and sensors related to several potential research questions. The sky is the limit for this one-of-a-kind facility.

The blocks at the far end of the NBIF pit are for building partitions
The blocks at the far end of the NBIF pit are for building partitions. Photo credit: Perry Akrie

FirstFollowers Go Make A Difference program tours ISTC

The First Followers group with ISTC staff

First Followers is a Champaign-Urbana-based re-entry program that provides guidance for those impacted by the criminal justice system. GoMAD (Go Make A Difference) is a program within the First Followers that specifically targets people around the ages of 18-24. GoMAD teaches practical employment skills and prepares participants for apprenticeship programs in areas including construction.

Grace Wilken, a researcher at ISTC, organized this partnership to educate the young people in the program about some of the available career paths at the university level in facilities management, earth science, biology, chemistry, and engineering. The current cohort recently toured ISTC to learn about career possibilities in sustainability.

First, the group attended short presentations by Wilkin and Perry Akrie. Wilkin focused on her research with different types of algae and their applications. She talked about sustainability, what it means, and why it is so important for society. Akrie discussed earth science disciplines and possible career paths for people who earn those degrees. Earth science is underrepresented in many high school curriculums and minorities have been historically been underrepresented these fields.

Vanessa DeShambo explains her ongoing algae research

Next, the group toured the ISTC lab space to show the researcher’s day-to-day work. The tour concluded with a walkthrough of the greenhouse space by Vanessa DeShambo, who showcased her work with sustainable algae systems. Her projects seek to address the food-water-energy nexus and integrate wastewater treatment improvements, food production, and energy savings.

The young men in the cohort were excited to learn more about the various uses of algae and in the idea of earth science as a possible career path.

Veronica Fall, climate specialist

Veronica Fall is a climate specialist for ISTC, where she provides science-based communication to stakeholders and communities on issues related to climate and climate change. Fall works with other climate service entities that focus on topics like extreme weather and climate change and develops publications and tools explaining complex issues in plain language to help people understand that climate information is useful and necessary. She is also a climate specialist for the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program (IISG) and the U of I Extension.

She recently answered a few questions about her work.

Tell me a little bit about your role at ISTC.
I am a climate specialist. I primarily work with the Illinois Coastal Management program, which focuses on communicating climate science and the coastal impacts it has along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

How does your work at ISTC impact Illinois and the world?
At ISTC, we’re really focused on addressing some of today’s biggest challenges and concerns about how climate change is influencing society. In my role, I’m focused on helping to build resilient Lake Michigan communities and the greater Chicago area, helping various communities and stakeholders get access to information that will allow them to reduce their vulnerabilities and help them better understand the next steps that can be taken to become resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Do you work more with citizens or local governments?
Between those two options, typically more with local governments, but also federal or state stakeholders within the region. For instance, through ISTC, I primarily work with the Illinois Coastal Management Program, which is part of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) so, we’ll partner with FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers. I also work with regional organizations across the Great Lakes, so less with citizens and more with other stakeholders and experts.

What is your educational background?
I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Meteorology and also a professional science Master’s degree in climate change and society, which is based more on the interdisciplinary nature of climate science, not just on understanding the physics at play, but also learning about risk communication and climate literacy, but most of my educational background is in meteorology.

What is the best part of your job at ISTC?
The best part is definitely the people. There is a sense of teamwork that we are all working towards a bigger goal to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change and the on-the-ground work and hardships seen within the region.

Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention?
I think there’s a greater need to better translate and communicate science by not just speaking science jargon but being able to bring a better understanding to a wider audience. I think that’s a skill that a lot of us with a science background are working on – addressing some of those barriers to entry, like jargon and numbers which can seem very intimidating at first glance.

What work/project/outcome are you most proud of in your career?
During last summer’s IISG summer internship program, I worked with a student to help develop a few products addressing the needs surrounding variable lake levels in the Chicago area. Getting to work with a student and stepping up to that role was scary at first, but also extremely rewarding.

What are common misconceptions about your field?
I have two answers: one is more specific to my meteorology background, and people will ask, “So you want to be on TV?” because that’s what most people’s interaction is with their local meteorologist that they see on the nightly news. The second is a lot of people are still focused on the future impacts of climate change, and I try to phrase it as “The impacts we are seeing today and will continue to see in the future,” but I think a lot of people are still hesitant to say that the impacts are already happening right now. People are hesitant to realize how big a problem it is currently.

Yeah, the climate patterns are amazing, like how the ocean temperatures can change its circulation patterns which can in turn affect El Niño/La Niña climate patterns. People just don’t realize the bigger picture, but that’s also a hard concept to communicate the interconnectedness of it all.
It’s really interesting to observe how certain words enter the public sphere. I remember learning about the polar vortex and thinking that it was sort of a niche meteorology term, and now with some of the winters that we’ve had, people are already saying “oh there’s going to be another polar vortex winter,” so that’s a more common phrase these days, but it’s interesting to see how that sort of moves through the public space.

The polar vortex was thought to be such an extreme weather event, and now people have already learned to expect it.
Yeah, because that polar vortex is being destabilized because of climate change so rather than staying farther north that polar vortex is going to dip down a bit more frequently and we’ll have those really cold crazy blasts during the winter.

I think meteorologists have it tough because of how public-facing their science is. Not a lot of sciences are directly forecasting events and variables that can be measured on such a short timescale, so it’s unique in that way.
Right, like people’s understanding of probability. A 60% chance of rain is still a 40% chance that it won’t rain, but a lot of people round up that 60% chance to mean it is definitely going to rain. Numerical literacy is a skill that many people struggle with and in my role, I try to make those numbers approachable and understandable for non-technical audiences.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Moving more into climate change and its impacts space, I’ve had to learn a lot. While my educational background lends more towards the physics and dynamics behind climate change, I now focus more on understanding the impacts. I’ve had to learn from a lot of different fields such as – understanding how climate change will affect different ecosystems, public health, infrastructure, transportation, etc. I really like that this field lends itself to being a lifelong learner, but there are definitely things that I’ve had to try and pick up and get a better grasp of.

When you aren’t doing science, what else do you love to do?
 In my free time, I like to walk my dog, cook, exercise, read, pretty low-key stuff.

How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I always naturally leaned more toward math and science as my favorite subjects, but probably the first event that sparked my interest was that I really couldn’t pull myself away from the T.V. when Hurricane Katrina happened. Seeing all the devastation of the aftermath was really the first event that made me think that meteorology was a field that I’d like to pursue, so that was in middle school for me.

What advice would you give to people just starting out in your field?
It’s okay to not have everything figured out. Many people I’ve talked to have had very circuitous routes to get where they are. But if someone is interested in climate or climate science, it is really helpful to try and dabble in some of the social sciences to try and get an understanding of things like climate or science literacy, risk communication, and the importance of knowing your audience. I think supplementing any of the physical science with social science is key.

Kealie Vogel, senior sustainability specialist

Kealie Vogel is a member of ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program team, where she works to collaborate with businesses, manufacturing, and industrial entities, municipalities, colleges, and universities throughout Illinois to provide technical assistance to find and implement sustainable and energy-efficient opportunities. Before joining ISTC, Kealie worked as a policy advisor at the Illinois Commerce Commission, where she aided in the research, analysis, and development of issues and opinions relating to the energy, water, telecommunication, and transportation industries regulated by the Commission. Kealie earned her bachelor’s degree in natural resources and environmental sciences and a Master’s degree in natural resources and environmental sciences with a concentration in environmental policy from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

She recently answered some questions about her work.

Tell me a little bit about your role at ISTC.
I’m a senior scientific specialist focusing on sustainability within the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP). Day to day, I work on a fairly broad variety of projects centered on energy efficiency, waste reduction, and renewable energy. These projects involve engaging with a wide range of stakeholders throughout the state, from local farmers to municipal water treatment operators to corporate environmental services managers. On any given day, I might be “out in the field” conducting an energy efficiency assessment for a publicly-owned water treatment plant or privately-owned manufacturing facility, interviewing farmers interested in donating excess produce to state food banks, or conducting research on best practices for renewable energy equipment recycling as it reaches the end of its usable life. I learn something new every single day!

What is your educational background/area(s) of expertise?
Prior to joining ISTC, I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in natural resources and environmental sciences from our very own University of Illinois and worked as a policy advisor at the Illinois Commerce Commission. While in grad school, I had the awesome opportunity to serve on the University of Illinois Student Sustainability Committee, a student-funded campus organization that distributes over $1 million annually to support sustainability projects that involve students and help make the University of Illinois campus a great place to be.

How does your work at ISTC impact Illinois and the world?
All of our work focuses on empowering Illinois citizens, companies, and municipalities to curb emissions and waste while also conserving existing resources for the health of our towns, state, and world. When we conduct energy efficiency or waste reduction assessments, we provide specific recommendations to our client companies, public agencies, and municipalities that are aimed at helping them take concrete steps to operate more sustainably. Similarly, our work on other projects like renewable energy equipment recycling and the farm-to-foodbank donation process is aimed at identifying concrete, actionable steps that help make increased sustainability a reality throughout the state.

What is the best part of your job at ISTC?
Working to reduce global greenhouse gas pollution and fight climate change from the comfort of my couch!

What question do you get asked most frequently about your career or the subject you study?
“Don’t you have to be really outdoorsy to work in the environmental sciences?” is one that I’ve often been asked by friends and prospective students interested in the field. I’m personally not much of an outdoorsy person at all (I don’t like bugs and am terrified of snakes), often surprising those asking this question. There are so many career paths in the environmental sciences that are great for those of us who care about the environment without wanting to necessarily spend our time knee-deep in a bog or prairie. I personally chose to pursue a career path oriented on the human dimensions of environmental science and primarily work with people and companies day-to-day, but there are also a wide variety of career opportunities in environmental policy, environmental law, sustainability consulting, corporate social responsibility, and more.

How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I have a distinct childhood memory of playing in the backyard one summer evening while my dad listened to NPR and tinkered on projects in the garage. The host of the NPR program was discussing how global temperatures had increased by ~1°F over the past century and would likely continue to increase by a few degrees over the next century. I remember asking my dad what the concern was, since the temperatures in our hometown changed by more than that every day and that was nothing to be concerned about. He explained the difference between weather and climate, how averages work and why a small increase can be so concerning on a large scale, and really helped me understand the root of the issue in a kid-friendly way. That conversation stuck in the back of my head until I had the opportunity to take the A.P. environmental science class in high school which kick-started my interest in doing something to try to address the root causes of our warming planet – the rest is history!

When you aren’t doing science, what else do you love to do?
Thrifting! I really enjoy both fashion and frugality, so thrift store shopping is the perfect way for me to balance both of those interests while also embracing the circular economy and sustainability.

What advice would you give to people just starting out in your field?
I think the importance of becoming involved in opportunities and activities relevant to your areas of interest cannot be overstated. If the idea of becoming involved with a given opportunity makes you simultaneously a little nervous but also excited, go for it! Getting involved in undergraduate research, relevant campus registered student organizations (RSOs), and participating in summer internships from the beginning of my time at the University of Illinois helped me narrow down my specific interests (I realized how much I didn’t like actual field work!) and build up my resume in such a way that I felt quite prepared to pursue graduate school and enter the job market.

Lee Green, chemist

Lee Green is a chemist in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s Applied Research on Industrial and Environmental Systems (ARIES) group. She studies persistent contaminants, specializing in microplastics and PFAS. Scientists are just beginning to discover the impacts that these contaminants have on the human body and the environment.

Lee recently answered some questions about her work.

In one sentence what do you do?
I research persistent contaminants in the environment, specifically microplastics and PFAS.

What is your educational background/areas of expertise?
I have a degree in biology, worked for Abbott labs for five years, then moved, and have been doing different analytical jobs since moving here to Champaign. It’s kind of funny how it worked out because I always thought I’d be doing medical or cancer research, but life takes you in a different direction sometimes, especially if you’re open-minded.

How does your work at ISTC impact Illinois and the world?
The microplastics research is eye-opening for people in general as far as how widespread they are. They’re in our foods and water and our waterways, and people don’t realize how prevalent they are. I hope somewhere down the road we can figure out how to start cleaning up the microplastics or taking control of the issue and bringing light to recycling. There’s still so much research that needs to be done. It’s literally everywhere in things that we use on a daily basis. There’s still not a lot of data out there on the potential health risks as well.

What is the best part of your job at the ISTC?
I love the fact that we’re constantly looking at new projects. Right now we’re looking at microplastics and next, depending on who we collaborate with, we might be working on PFAS. I’m working on a project funded by ISTC’s Hazardous Waste Research Fund (HWRF) that looks at wastewater and how microplastics are transported through the system. I like how you get a different flair of research projects, so it’s never the same thing over and over again. I like the diversity. And the people, I like the people I work with, they make it fun. There’s a lot of great ideas floating around. Not just the projects I work on, but the other projects and seeing how they all collaborate and come together.

What work/project/outcome are you most proud of?
Probably the microplastics projects we’re working on now, even though we’re in the middle of some of these projects. It’s such a hot topic and I think the more work we do the more we see how broad of a problem it is and how it affects people on so many levels. We haven’t published any major papers yet, but I can see that coming in the future. We know a lot about PFAS, how they act, and where they’re found, but microplastics is a whole new world of where to go next. They’re even starting to look at human effects like in the lungs and the tissue and how it is transported in the body. Does our body get rid of that or does it bioaccumulate over time? No one really knows.

What are common misconceptions about your field?
People are always like “Wow you must be really smart then, right?” It’s fun, I really enjoy running the instruments and finding something that you didn’t know was going to be there so it’s funny because people’s reactions are always different.

How old were you when you first became interested in science and what sparked your interest?
It was definitely my junior year in high school. I think I was in anatomy and physiology or biology and I think it was my biology teacher back then, Mr. Kurt Kreiter, who made it so fun. That was a huge spark for me. He made science really interesting and ever since then I’ve been interested in biology and the human body.

When you aren’t doing science what else do you like to do?
I love to golf. I like to bike and cook, go for walks, cruise around in my convertible, and do fun things in nature. Yardwork, taking care of the garden, we just put up a birdfeeder, so nature in general.

What is your favorite tool to use in your everyday work?
Sample prep and analytical analysis. I like to work with my hands and figure out how to process the samples and then run them on the instruments and figure out all the concentrations. I really like the hands-on and analytical aspects of my job.

Is there a particular analytical tool that you like to use?
I’m just learning how to run our new LC-MS (Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometer), so that’s exciting, but I’ve always been a fan of the ICP-MS (Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer). There’s just something about seeing the concentrations and figuring out if it’s a good or bad number or “well we really shouldn’t be seeing that in this piece of plastic”. It’s interesting to digest the plastic and see some of the chemicals that used to be used in plastics.

What is your work uniform?
I typically wear jeans, tennis shoes and a t-shirt. But obviously, in the lab we wear lab coats and glasses depending on the chemicals we’re using but we’re pretty casual, which is awesome.

This story originally appeared on the People of PRI blog. Read the original story.