Grace Rodriguez has gone down a few different paths, but she’s always been focused on environmental science and sustainability. She graduated from Michigan State University (MSU) with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Animal Biology, focusing on ecology and environmental science.
After graduating, she worked in East Lansing, Michigan, as a biodata curator. She was responsible for collecting and managing microbial and genetic data.
“It was a start-up company that was trying to collect and organize basically all microbial information ever published that’s out there to make it more accessible,” says Rodriguez. “There’s just so much information it can be kind of overwhelming and hard to find what you need.”
Two years after graduating from MSU, she started thinking about environmental engineering as a possible career path.
"So that’s when I applied to the University of Michigan for their dual degree masters, which is environmental engineering and sustainable systems,” explains Rodriguez. “So it felt like I could still use my biology background.”
She’s enjoyed the applicability of environmental engineering, and during her time at the University of Michigan (U-M), Rodriguez has found projects that let her use both her environmental science background and the technical skills of engineering.
“Doing the environmental engineering degree with the sustainable systems degree gives me a little of the theory and people side of it, and the hard science side of it,” she says.
During her second semester at U-M, Rodriguez worked on a project examining water access and safety in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has naturally occurring arsenic in the groundwater, particularly in the rural areas. This creates a major public health problem in the country.
“Groundwater is the most used form of water [in Bangladesh, but] there are high rates of arsenic poisoning there. So we went there and did some field work,” she says. Rodriguez focused on doing water testing, a skill related to both of her degrees. She took samples of possibly toxic water and tested them for arsenic with mobile field kits to assess the water’s quality.
Rodriguez has since focused her attention on domestic water accessibility and affordability. As a Dow Sustainability Fellow, she’s examined water affordability in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and partnered with the Michigan Environmental Council, a nonprofit based in Lansing.
“The Michigan Environmental Council is trying to create a drinking water toolkit for Michigan, which anyone in Michigan can access to find out about their water.”
For her part in the project, Rodriguez reached out to consumers and surveyed them about their water accessibility and their everyday interactions with water. She and her team followed the surveys with consumer focus groups, and are now writing a report for the Michigan Environmental Council and the Graham Sustainability Institute.
“Hopefully, they can take all the information and tailor the toolkit to respond to people’s concerns. I really liked that project because, as all Dow projects are, it’s an interdisciplinary project,” says Rodriguez. “We have another environmental engineer, a med student, a public health student, and a law student. It’s super diverse, but with one goal.”
Besides her project work, Rodriguez has also had good experiences with her U-M classes. Some of her favorites have been the classes she’s taken through the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), which she sees as being very different from her more technical environmental engineering classes.
“One of my favorite classes was Systems Thinking For Sustainable Development,” says Rodriguez. “It opened up my mind to this idea that you can’t just look at one problem and one solution. It makes you take a step back and see things for the larger picture and not just the small thing that you’re focused on.”
From her engineering classes, she’s gained a lot of technical skills. For instance, she’s learned about treating water, which involves removing disease-causing agents and providing safe public drinking water. The treatment of water is of the main skills she used in her Bangladesh water quality project. She also took a class called Water Supply, Hygiene and Sanitation.
“It was the first year [the class] was taught and there were only seven people in the class. It was about water in developing countries and the problems that arise when you’re trying to treat water in developing countries.”
Water has been a common thread flowing through Rodriguez’s professional and academic life. Through her coursework and research, she’s realized that water is often ignored; she is determined to fix that problem.
“Water is the thing that’s essential to life,” says Rodriguez. “I always like the underdog. Water is the underdog in this situation. I also grew up in Michigan and the Great Lakes have been a huge part of my life.”
Rodriguez graduated in December and intends to keep working on water access and quality issues.
“I don’t think I want to be the person who designs treatment trains. I’m more interested in hearing what people need and acting as the go-between the people providing the water and the consumers of the water.”