​Travel Opportunities Provide New Insight for Students

Ohio State’s Office of Energy and Environment offers financial assistance to Ohio State students to attend or participate in conferences or seminars related to energy, the environment or sustainability, as well as to conduct research in sustainability issues.

Students often travel across the country to give presentations, network with professionals in their fields and gain new knowledge in their areas of study.

Gordon Ulmer

Conflicting Industries Fuel Amazon Workforce

Mining is to ecotourism as oil is to water; however, in a region of Peru they intertwine, as local residents shift between the two economies to maintain their livelihoods.

Gordon Ulmer, a doctoral student in anthropology, studies extractive economies such as gold mining and logging in relation to biodiversity conservation in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. After an 18-month ethnographic study, he found that many locals participate in both gold mining and conservation jobs such as ecotourism. The link between these two seemingly opposite industries, he says, is that they both offer short-term earning opportunities to a disenfranchised population.

(Pictured right: Gordon Ulmer riding a water taxi on the Madre de Dios River.)

Since the turn of the century, and especially since the global economic recession of 2008, gold profits soared on Wall Street and gold fever broke out in Amazonia, Ulmer says. Increased market demand influenced nearly 40,000 people to move to the Madre de Dios region to look for work, predominantly in illegal gold mining, according to the University of Maryland School of Public Policy in Peru. These workers earn about the equivalent of $80 per day, while the minimum average salary in Peru is markedly lower at roughly $10 per day.

While the salary is desirous, the work is very dangerous, according to Ulmer.

“Almost every gold miner that I spoke to has witnessed a death or knows somebody who’s died in the gold mines,” Ulmer says.

Due to cultural and economic factors, however, other high-paying jobs in the region are not easily attainable.

One active service sector opportunity in Madre de Dios is ecotourism, which, according to the International Ecotourism Society, is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. Residents of the Madre de Dios region want to work in ecotourism, Ulmer says, because deeply ingrained in their culture is an appreciation for working in the environment.

Residents pilot boats to transport visitors to and from eco-lodges, maintain the eco-lodges, cook meals, lead tours and educate visitors. Many of these are “odd jobs,” or informal short-term earning opportunities for unskilled conservation staff. The higher-paying jobs, providing economic security, are in professional positions (e.g. educated tour guides, administrators) that require higher education, multilingualism and certification. One of the primary ways to earn money for higher education, Ulmer says, is through gold mining and logging, despite the profound environmental cost to the Peruvian Amazon.

“The intensification of mining caused a tripling of the rate of deforestation and a surge in human rights issues and labor abuses in Madre de Dios,” Ulmer says, “such as de facto slavery through debt peonage, human trafficking and child prostitution, and exposure to unhealthy levels of mercury in soils, waterways and aquatic food supplies.”

The path to removing mining and logging from the labor market without further impoverishing a society is a complicated matter, Ulmer says. While extractive economies are damaging to the Amazon, numerous families across Andes-Amazonia Peru rely on this job market for survival. Cultural and social influences also affect their labor choices, Ulmer adds.

(Pictured right: Landscape mining in the Madre de Dios region)

“Working in conservation and extraction are complimentary responses to household insecurities and reflect broader strategies for surviving in a place where the informal economy is not just a means of living,” Ulmer concludes from his research, “but also a way of life.”

He presented his findings Nov. 16-20, 2016, at the American Anthropological Association 115th Annual Conference in Minneapolis. The Office of Energy and Environment helped fund his trip via a student travel scholarship.

Ulmer says the conference had an international reach, and he hopes his presentation had an impact on the anthropological community.

“A conference panel,” Ulmer says, “often pushes the envelope on a new concept or way of thinking about an old idea.”


Tony Satroplus

Engineers Without Borders

Tony Satroplus, a third-year in biomedical engineering, traveled to Njau, The Gambia in Africa on an Engineers Without Borders humanitarian trip during winter break.

“The reason I joined the club is because I really want to do humanitarian work,” says Satroplus. “But also eing with people who have the same goals, I think, is a great thing.”

EWB focuses on essentials such as shelter, food, clean water, education and waste management. In The Gambia, the group has focused on water projects, specifically for agriculture.

“They get rain for about three months out of the year, and the rest is dry,” Satroplus says. “We’re working on an irrigation system so they can grow crops and eat throughout the year.”

(pictured right: Satroplus (middle) and other EWB members on the May 2016 trip to The Gambia.)

Satroplus, International Project Lead of the Ohio State Engineers Without Borders chapter, visited The Gambia for the first time in May 2016. The organization completes five-year projects in each community it visits.

“We’ve been going to Gambia for about a year and a half, and we’re still in the assessment phase,” says Satroplus. “These first few trips are about meeting with the community and establishing their needs.”

The community in Njau is seven hours away from any major city, and there is no electricity, . Satroplus says, so it is important that the local people can become self-sustaining.

He says sustainable humanitarian work is a focus of EWB; the group works with community members rather than making decisions for them.

“We educate with every project; it’s called Maintenance and Learning, so we don’t leave without significant members of the community understanding the structures,” Satroplus says.

The EWB will return to The Gambia in July to continue work on the projects.

Satroplus says he enjoys revisiting communities. Many of the EWB members make personal ties, Satroplus says, which make going back even more rewarding.

“Being there and talking to these people,” Satroplus says, “you get even closer the second time.”


Adam Cupito

Adam Cupito’s weeklong study abroad experience in the Caribbean taught him firsthand that regardless of a country’s culture or economy, the environment is an important component to everyone’s daily lives.

Cupito, a junior studying forestry, fisheries and wildlife, spent part of his winter 2016 break away from the Columbus cold in the Dominican Republic. The Office of Energy and Environment helped fund Cupito’s one-week trip to the Caribbean to learn about environmental sustainability and natural resource management. Prior to departure, students were required to take an eight-week course and additionally conduct a research project on any topic relating to the course theme in the Dominican Republic. The trip focused on how companies and organizations promote the environment and apply more sustainable practices to ecotourism in a Caribbean setting, specifically in a developing country.

Cupito called it an eye-opening trip that allowed him to see the country in a light different from the sandy beaches shown in travel brochures for the Dominican Republic. Cupito and his peers ventured through an agriculture and development forestry center, where they learned about hilltop farming that leads to soil erosion and the contamination of water, both major issues in the Dominican Republic. The students planted mahogany trees, which combat these types of processes while supporting wildlife habitats. Additionally, they toured coffee plantations and learned how such large facilities operate and impact the environment.

One of Cupito’s greatest takeaways from the culturally immersive trip was the significance of shared research. “It is imperative that we learn to communicate the importance of our resources to people,” he says. Cupito emphasized that sustainability needs to be applied on a more global scale to make lasting changes for the future.

“Everyone has different views about the environment that are culturally based,” he says. “The idea is that we are all living in the same environment; it’s just one planet that we have.”

Cupito says that the knowledge gained from this program is invaluable, and he will continue to apply a sustainable mindset in all future endeavors, including a graduate education sometime in the future.


Varsha Gopalakrishnan

Varsha Gopalakrishnan, a graduate student in chemical and bimolecular engineering, flew to San Francisco in November 2017 for the annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers conference, one of the biggest of its kind for chemical engineers, to give a presentation on two of her sustainable engineering research papers.

Her research entails establishing mutually beneficial synergies between chemical processes and ecological systems. Gopalakrishnan seeks to account for the role of nature in sustaining industrial activities by identifying innovative chemical process designs that are beneficial for the economy without harming the environment.

Gopalakrishnan also presented two papers at last year’s event.

“Only when you talk to others and exchange ideas do you learn about where you can improve,” she says. The conference served as a great way for Gopalakrishnan to talk to people from companies looking to recruit as well as to hear from distinguished professionals in her field.

Over the past several years, Gopalakrishnan says conferences like this have allowed more chemical engineers to educate industrial leaders about the ecological impacts of current processes, resulting in greater implementation of this sustainable design.

Gopalakrishnan plans to start her dissertation, publish her work to larger audiences and look for a company to work for to use her chemical process design ideas.


Julia Deitz and Pran Krishna Paul

Julia Deitz, currently pursuing a doctorate in materials science and engineering, attended the 43rd IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference in Portland, Ore., June 5-10, 2016 along with Pran Krishna Paul, graduate research associate in the Electronic Materials and Devices Laboratory.

The conference, where scientists and researchers came from around the globe, shared research related to photovoltaics (solar cells). At the five-day event, Krishna Paul gave a talk about his research along with presenting his poster. Krishna Paul’s research entails CIGS solar cells, which are thin-film solar cells used to convert sunlight into electric power, and focuses on the characterization of trap levels within these photovoltaic devices.

Krishna Paul presented his poster at the 43rd IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference.

In addition to learning from other peers and experts in the field, Deitz presented her research and findings on using electron microscopy to study photovoltaic materials at the atomic scale. She also had several interactions for potential collaborations with leading experts in her field. Deitz says, “This was definitely the biggest benefit to attending the conference.”


Shaun Fontanella

Shaun Fontanella, a graduate research assistant and doctoral candidate in geography, attended the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science 2016 Symposium in Scottsdale, Ariz., this past May.

The intent of the conference was to network, collaborate and engage with professors and researchers about Fontanella’s own ongoing projects, which include a 3-D Campus Viewer and the mapping of urban rural poverty. Among the people Fontanella spoke with were professors at Arizona State University, in hopes of taking his system and reproducing it in other academic places.


Minghui Chen

Mingui Chen, doctoral student in nuclear engineering, attended the Advances in Thermal Hydraulics 2016 conference in New Orleans June 12-16. Chen presented a paper on design and dynamic modeling of a high-temperature printed circuit heat exchanger for next-generation nuclear plants. Many scholars in attendance showed significant interest in the dynamic modeling of Chen’s research, and he continues to work on development of next-generation nuclear plants.

Learn more about funding support available for student research, scholarship, travel and projects related to energy, environment and sustainability.