Meet Zach Samaras, Technical Assistance Engineer, Sustainability

Zach Samaras, technical assistance engineer, sustainability

by Tiffany Jolley, Prairie Research Institute

Coastal Management Program adds two researchers

ISTC’s Coastal Management Program (CMP) recently added two Coastal Studies Specialists to their team.

Cody Eskew
Cody Eskew

Cody Eskew recently re-joined the CMP team by way of the University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute (PRI). Cody provides project management support for CMP objectives on coastal hazards, community resilience, coastal habitats, sustainable economic development, and coastal recreation.

Learn more about Cody on the Prairie Research Institute’s People of PRI blog.

 

Tara Jagadeesh
Tara Jagadeesh

Tara Jagadeesh brings expertise in communication, data science, and community engagement to support projects for the CMP, including the Shoreline Management Working Group.

Learn more about Tara on the Prairie Research Institute’s People of PRI blog.

ISTC staff honored by Prairie Research Institute

Two ISTC staff members have been honored by the Prairie Research Institute.

Vidya Balasubramanyam
Vidya Balasubramanyam received the Prairie Research Institute’s 2021 Early Career Investigator Award.

Vidya Balasubramanyam, a coastal hazards specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), is the recipient of the Prairie Research Institute’s 2021 Early Career Investigator Award.

Vidya’s work supports the Shoreline Management Initiative with the Coastal Management Program (CMP). The project entails coordination and facilitation of land managers from each coastal community working on regulatory and permitting issues; understanding and translating relevant research; developing and shepherding demonstration projects, and broader education and outreach on the issues.

Read a Q & A with Vidya about her work on the People of PRI blog.

Chad Hankins
Chad Hankins received the Prairie Research Institute’s 2021 Outstanding New Support Staff Award.

IT technical associate Chad Hankins is the recipient of the Prairie Research Institute’s 2021 Outstanding New Support Staff Award.

Chad joined the PRI desktop support team in 2019. This small team of three assists PRI’s hundreds of staff in using a wide range of IT tools. The institute’s already considerable IT support needs grew exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic as most staff shifted to working from home and needed to adapt to new ways of collaborating, communicating, and working. He works extensively with ISTC staff to keep them connected.

Read at Q&A with Chad about his work on the People of PRI blog.

People of PRI: Sarmila Katuwal, Visiting Scientific Specialist-Research Engineer

Sarmila Katuwal wears a cloth face covering and standard lab PPE while checking the phosphorous concentration of a designer biochar.
Sarmila Katuwal wears a cloth face covering and standard lab PPE while checking the phosphorous concentration of a designer biochar.

 

Sarmila Katuwal is involved in two research projects at ISTC. The first, led by B.J. Sharma, focuses on optimization of kraft lignin depolymerization. In the second, led by Wei Zheng, she is working on design of a biochar to capture dissolved phosphorous and ammonia nitrogen from tile drainage water.

Now that the state of Illinois has entered phase 4 of its COVID recovery plan and Katuwal is back in the lab, she talks about what has changed due to COVID-19.

Q. What precautions and safety procedures are you employing to reduce risk? 

The new safety protocols and guidelines by ISTC has made our work lot easier during this crisis. I am strictly using a face mask, practicing social distancing, and avoiding using common spaces in the office, like the lunchroom and conference room. Also, I wear proper PPE (like gloves, lab coat, eye glass) while conducting my research in the lab and do frequent hand cleaning and sanitizing.

The new one-way traffic flow system in the office building and one-person-per-lab rule has helped to reduce the possibility of social contact. In addition, I strictly follow lab cleaning protocols, which involves sanitizing the instruments and work area before and after conducting the experiment.

Q. Are there new challenges that have arisen in the lab?

The new challenges are mostly getting accustomed to new health safety protocols and making sure to follow the procedures strictly to keep myself and others safe. Also, when wearing a face mask and eyeglass together, sometimes, if the face mask is not fitted properly your eyeglass becomes foggy.

I am happy with ISTC’s current protocols, and I hope they will continue, too.

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

People of PRI: Kirtika Kohli, Postdoctoral Research Associate

Postdoctoral researcher Kirtika Kohli wears the required cloth face covering and personal protective equipment while working in the lab at ISTC.
Postdoctoral researcher Kirtika Kohli wears the required cloth face covering and personal protective equipment while working in the lab at ISTC.

This post originally appeared on the People of PRI blog.

ISTC postdoctoral researcher Kirtika Kohli is working on a project led by B.K. Sharma to develop novel catalysts for making chemicals from CO2. As the state of Illinois has entered phase 4 of COVID recovery, Kohli has been able to return to work in the lab while observing appropriate precautions, including wearing a face mask and following designated one-way paths while entering, leaving, and moving about the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center facility.

Only a single person works in the lab at a time, but Kohli says “Still I feel I need to be very careful, not for me only but for others, too.”

Q. What precautions and safety procedures are you employing to reduce risk while working in the lab? 

When I enter the lab, I follow the standard lab safety procedures, including putting on a lab coat, a pair of gloves, and eye googles (to protect my eyes). I also disinfect all the lab surfaces, such as benchtops, fume hood, reactor surfaces, etc.

After I am done with my work in the lab, I clean the lab space and eye goggles with disinfectant, discard the gloves in a trash bag, remove my lab coat, and wash my hands with soap at least two times. As I am leaving the facility, I pass multiple disinfecting stations, so I make sure to use hand sanitizer each time.

As a researcher, our minds are often thinking about experiments, so the posted signs that explain the guidelines about room occupancy, restroom use, social distancing, etc. are good to remind us.

Following a single path to enter and a single path to exit the facility sometimes gives you a smile, like you are playing some game in which you need to follow red big signs!

Q. Are there new challenges that arise because of these precautions?

Wearing a mask all the time—sometimes it feels OK and sometimes it is irritating. The major challenge is to speak loudly while wearing a mask when you are in a conference call.

People of PRI: Angela DiAscro, field chemist

Field chemist Angie DiAscro wears a mask while performing titrations with her travel kit during a site visit.
Field chemist Angie DiAscro wears a mask while performing titrations with her travel kit during a site visit.

This post originally appeared on the People of PRI blog.

Angela DiAscro is a field chemist with the Institutional Water Treatment program, which provides water treatment advice to facilities with institutional water systems including cooling towers, chillers, boilers, etc. Like many people, she spent a large part of the spring working from home but has recently been able to resume field activities, while observing proper COVID-19 precautions.

Q. What is your role with the Institutional Water Treatment program? 

I am a field chemist who travels throughout Illinois to sites, where I test boiler, cooling, softener water, etc. to make sure the systems have appropriate treatment levels. This helps the systems run more efficiently and have a longer lifespan. I often go to state police sites, correctional centers, veterans homes, some universities, and historical sites.

Q. Now that the state of Illinois has entered phase 4 of its COVID recovery plan and you’re back in the field, what precautions and safety procedures are you employing to reduce risk? 

There are three of us who travel and each of us are, of course, wearing masks when we are at a site. We often interact with engineers at least part of the time we are on site and it is nice to see that many of the engineers are wearing masks, too.

Each of us have our own rental vehicles to travel and instead of renting them daily or weekly as we did previously, we rent them for a whole month to cut back on the number of different cars we interact with. We are currently training our newest field chemist, so instead of riding in the same car to sites, now he has to arrive in his own rental car and we do our best to stay 6 feet apart while we are at the site together.

We were not encouraged to stay in hotels when we started travelling again, either. Before the pandemic I would stay in one to two hotels a week for work, but now we are mostly doing day trips. Currently we have received the okay to stay in large chain hotels as long as we take disinfectant wipes/ sprays with us.

I keep hand sanitizer in the rental car and use it whenever I stop for food or gas. Before I leave a site, I wash my hands with soap and water for 20 seconds if it is available. I also try to use my own pen whenever I need to sign in or out at certain sites.

The bottom line though, is that we don’t need to do anything that we are not comfortable with (e.g. stay in a hotel, go to sites in high COVID areas), which I really appreciate.

Angie and her colleague Cameron observe appropriate precautions by using separate vehicles to travel to a site visit at Dickson Mounds State Museum.
Angie and her colleague Cameron observe appropriate precautions by using separate vehicles to travel to a site visit at Dickson Mounds State Museum.

Q. What new challenges do these unusual times and new precautions create? 

Since we drive individual cars now and aren’t staying in hotels as often, I have had several 12+ hour days. My farthest site is ~3.5 hours away, in southern Illinois, so to do that in one day is already seven hours of travel. Without someone else in the car with you, it gets very tiring.

Many of the places we go do not have air conditioning and there is extra heat given off by the boiler or other systems present in the same room, so it can get above 95 degrees F. Now that I wear a mask while performing the site visit, I make sure I have water, a decent lunch, and hopefully a place to sit to take extra breaks while enduring the heat. Besides the heat, wearing a mask can be challenging because people can’t hear me, so I need to speak up.

Also, people can’t tell when I am smiling but hopefully they can see it from my eyes because I usually am!

Q. Is there anything else you’d like the institutions and people you work with to know? 

I miss seeing a lot of people and it is harder to get simple questions answered or papers signed since I can’t just walk to someone’s office, but I’m glad people are taking this seriously and doing what we can to keep ourselves and others safe.

Meet Lisa Krause

Lisa Krause recently joined ISTC as a coastal management specialist working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Coastal Management Program. Lisa is happily returning home to Illinois after spending the last decade operating an ecological design/build company in Baltimore, Maryland. In this role, she worked with homeowners to develop landscapes that cycle nutrients, build habitats, and stormwater water interception. She also taught community workshops on these topics at urban farms, garden clubs, and community spaces throughout the state.

Lisa’s passion for resilience planning in communities led her to pursue an M.S. in Ecological Design and Planning at the Conway School of Landscape Design in Massachusetts, which she completed this year. She has authored several master planning projects, including working with the historic coastal village of Mystic, Connecticut on a climate resiliency plan for managing stormwater using green infrastructure, funded through The Nature Conservancy. She created site-specific intervention designs appropriate to the historic village that would mitigate flooding, accommodate increased frequency and severity of storms, and have the greatest impacts on protecting the watershed while creating habitat for wildlife in urban space.

Lisa will be involved in several coastal management projects and programs. She looks forward to providing support to the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative Green Infrastructure Training and Maintenance Workgroup, the Calumet Collaborative Brownfields Working Group, the Sand Management Working Group Regional Demo/Best Management Practices team, and working on the Coastal Water Quality Trends Analysis project. Lisa is enjoying her new role and is looking forward to working collaboratively and helping support sustainable solutions for coastal resilience in our communities all along Lake Michigan.

Meet April Janssen

April Janssen is a Sustainability Specialist at ISTC’S Oak Brook Office, where she works with businesses and communities improve their waste management practices.

How old were you when you first became interested in sustainability? What sparked your interest?
Growing up in Wisconsin on a river, I’ve always had a connection to nature and sustainability. I recall saving my modest childhood allowance to adopt an acre of rainforest through the Nature Conservancy so I could somehow be part of this wonderous ecosystem. Living in Chicago that has manifested to personal actions, studying and professionally pursing sustainability.

Who or what drew you to study sustainability?
While initiating and growing the Chicago Marathon’s Sustainability Program, I began applying my personal practices professionally and acknowledged my passion for topic, as well as the need for a more formal foundation.

What is your background prior to working at ISTC?
I worked on the Chicago Marathon (Chicago Event Management) for 7 years, managing the Volunteer Program and developing the Sustainability Program. As an event invested in health and fitness, the community hosting the 26.2 mile course and the dozens of charities who use the event to raise millions of dollars, an environmental aspect was the next natural step. We utilized the Council for Responsible Sport’s certification as a framework to guide the program and our initiatives, as well as earn certification. I left to pursue a Master’s in Sustainable Urban Development and began working at Bright Beat, a sustainability consultancy, where I was able to gain more experience in sustainable operations, facilities, communication and engagement through a variety of projects.

What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at ISTC?
I am looking forward to supporting and learning more about the many diverse sustainability applications ISTC’s project partners are seeking – from waste characterization studies aimed at achieving zero waste, to renewable energy generation recommendations in support of net zero commitments, and everything in between. I am excited to be here!

What are common misconceptions about your career? OR What question do you get asked most frequently about your career?
The most common misconception is that sustainability is ‘too difficult’ or ‘too costly’, when often small changes make big impacts, at little to no cost, or there’s a cost savings. The most common question I am asked is, ‘Can I recycle this?’

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
People who don’t care. I take the carrot rather than the stick approach, ultimately educating, inspiring, and enticing people to care.

What advice would you give to future sustainability professionals?
Stick with it! There are many approaches to sustainability and paths to where you want to be.

If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be?
I would love to work on the sustainability program of an Olympic Games. Years in the making, the world stage, excellence in sport, a time of peace and camaraderie – the Olympics exemplify the best humanity has to offer.

 

 

Meet Savannah Feher

Savannah Feher is a Sustainability Technician with ISTC’s TAP group. Savannah supports research and sustainability reporting for a variety of clients. She also assists with waste assessments and implementation planning for the Zero Waste program.  She is based in ISTC’s Oak Brook office.

Savannah will be speaking at the Illinois Recycling Association’s event Recycling in Transition on Wednesday, September 11 at IEPA headquarters in Springfield.

How old were you when you first became interested in sustainability? What sparked your interest?

As long as I can remember my family has been composting, growing their own organic produce and hanging clothes out to dry on a clothes line outside. Growing up, it was just a way of life that, as I got older I began to want to know more and more about.

Who or what drew you to study sustainability?

Again, my upbringing played an instrumental role. Growing up with so many facets of sustainability woven into my everyday life, it took a while for me to realize that everyone does not know what composting means. Understanding that there is, above and beyond a need for education and implementation has driven my path to assist with that.

What is your background before coming to work at ISTC?

As a fairly recent graduate, I have interned with the Missouri Botanical Gardens Earthways Center as a Sustainability Education Intern, along with being an Assistant Canvassing Director of a campaign office for the Fund for the Public Interest. Right before this position I worked at Allbirds, a sustainable shoe brand that opened it’s first location in Chicago this year.

What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at ISTC?

I look forward to the variety of clients, partners and community members that I will be working with. Getting to know and understand the challenges and opportunities that different people and industries are facing will allow me to approach future projects with an increasingly broadened view on how to solve the problems that we face.

What question do you get asked most frequently about your career or the subject you study?

Most questions stem from a general misunderstanding of what it means to work in sustainability. In my position there is not only one right answer to the question of what I do. That seems to be something inherently coupled with sustainability though, the involvement in many different facets of life, which keeps things interesting for me.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?

Discovering where my true passion lies within sustainability has been the most notable journey for me.

What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?

It can take many forms. Sometimes it requires sorting through wet trash during a waste audit, or collecting data through meetings, phone calls or interviews. It is both hands off and hands on, and there is not simply one way or avenue to finding answers.

What advice would you give to future sustainability professionals?

Ask questions. There are so many technologies, industries, issues and potential solutions out there that it can be intimidating at times. Never be afraid to ask, to learn, to inquire about anything and everything new.

If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be? (Doesn’t have to be a co-worker)

I am not sure of a specific individual who does this, but I have recently taken up soapmaking, and would not mind getting to let my creativity go wild in that department.

Meet Dan Marsch

Portrait of Dan MarschDan Marsch, an environmental engineer with ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program, provides pollution prevention technical assistance to industrial facilities in Central Illinois with particular focus upon source reduction, raw material conservation, and waste minimization.

He is the Principal Investigator of ISTC’s long-running Illinois Conservation of Resources – Economy, Energy and Environment (ICORE3) project, through which currently focuses on Illinois’ food and beverage manufacturers.

He has been with ISTC since 2002.

How old were you when you first became interested in sustainability? What sparked your interest?

My father passed down to me respect and reverence of nature. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been an outdoorsman and have enjoyed nature’s offerings, primarily fishing, as a youngster with my father, continuing into adulthood, as a father with my children, and hopefully one day with my grandchildren.

As a child, I was an avid reader of The Missouri Conservationist, a monthly publication of the MO Dept. of Conservation, as well as a variety of hunting and fishing magazines.

Who or what drew you to study sustainability?

For me, it was later in life. I may have been naïve, but to be an environmentalist, I thought I had to be a field biologist, researcher, park ranger or such. Back then, the options were limited, unlike today. So I went a different career path.

But after a 20 year career in sales, distribution and manufacturing, I felt a void. I lacked passion for what I was doing and contributing to society. I was asking myself some tough, life-changing questions. What was I going to leave behind to the next generation? What would I like to do vs. have to do? How and where would I make my mark in life. It was time for me to make a career and life change.

Building upon my prior education and work experience in industry, I came to work at WMRC’s (now ISTC) Technical Assistance Program in 2002 and finally found my passion and my lot in life. I’m still an environmentalist but my office has changed. I usually say that I work upstream of the environment. I work with industry to prevent pollution and its impact.

What is the best part of your job at ISTC and what work are you most proud of?

The best part [of my job] is helping others [by] being a change-agent and helping my clients save money, reduce their environmental footprint and being more socially responsible. Making a difference in their lives, their business and their community.

The most interesting part of my job is the vast variety of products that I see being manufactured in Illinois. Everything from hammers to hair dryers, cookies to car parts, and how things are made, the processes and skill levels of our Illinois workforce.

I’m most proud of the impact of my Illinois Conservation of Resources and Energy (ICORE) project within Illinois businesses, from 2008 to present.

Some ICORE statistics:

  • 168 participants
  • $40M saved
  • 24 M gallons water saved
  • 343,000 MTCO2e reduced

Mike Springman and I received the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable’s 2013 MVP2 Award for ICORE.

What’s your favorite work-related memory?

I was at a slaughterhouse and meat processor who had an anaerobic covered lagoon that generated methane gas, captured by a large multi-ply black rubber membrane and piped to a scrubber for use as fuel in its gas boilers.

The membrane was inflated and bulging from the methane gas.

They invited me to jump on the membrane, which I did (are you kidding, why not? It looked fun). There I was bouncing up and down like a kid in a bouncy room.

Then it occurred to me, and I asked the question: “How deep is this lagoon of sh#@?”

What are common misconceptions about your career? OR What question do you get asked most frequently about your career or the subject you study?

The most frequent questions are, “Are you EPA?,” “What are you selling?,” “Are there state or federal monies available?”, “How am I going to pay for it?”

My replies: We are not EPA, OSHA, ICE or the police. I sell change. I help companies save money, reduce their environmental footprint and be more socially responsible. And, yes there are external incentives available.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?

Keeping the passion and drive alive.

You have to love what you do, because so much of who we are comes from what we do. We spend a significant portion of our lives working, so why not find a career that you enjoy doing.

Aside from the strength that I get from my faith and my family, I find meaning and purpose in my work and from the lives that I touch.

What do you wish more people understood about sustainability or being a sustainability professional?

Sustainability is more than a feel-good thing, more than a marketing venture or item for your sustainability report. It’s a commitment and a lifestyle.

I try to show my clients that sustainability makes sense and it’s the right thing to do. There’s a business-case for sustainability: the triple-bottom line (people, planet, profit).

What advice would you give to future sustainability professionals?

Find your niche, something that you love and do it. Be persistent and don’t give up or give in. Be yourself and be genuine.  Understand that people don’t care how much you know. They want to know how much you care.

Don’t take it personally or get discouraged when your client doesn’t take your advice or implement the “no-brainer” that you recommended. Remember the old adage, “you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink.”

If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be?

A western actor. The only problem is that I can’t ride a horse, remember lines or smoke a hand-rolled cigarette. And I’m not a quick-draw. I’m a huge western movie buff, circa 1940’s – 1960’s including, Wayne, Eastwood, Fonda, Stewart, Ford (John and Glenn), Scott, and the list goes on.