Sustainability Spotlight: Nicole Moes

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We met with Nicole Moes (Martel '17), a mechanical engineering major, to discuss the importance of sustainable design, her inspiration as an engineer, and her passion for swing dancing.

You are graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, a minor in energy and water sustainability, a certificate in engineering leadership, and it seems that you have been involved in engineering in a very holistic way at Rice. When and how did you know that engineering was the right career path for you?

When I was five years old, my dad, a chemical engineer, bought me a clever AIChE shirt sporting Dalmatians with the caption “Can you spot the future chemical engineer?” It became a running joke in my family, especially since a large number of my extended family members are also engineers. Like any contrary child, I stubbornly denied that I would ever be an engineer. However, I attended the National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC) for engineering the summer after my sophomore year of high school — summer 2011 — and I realized very quickly at the conference that I was meant to be an engineer. This was the first time that I had hands-on interaction with engineering, as we were challenged to build a remote-controlled robot that would collect tennis balls in a swimming pool. At the camp, I realized that engineering is fundamentally the process of solving problems within constraints, and I connected this with my love of solving puzzles of all varieties. I also realized that engineering has an unparalleled ability to tangibly impact our society, and that I wanted to leverage that ability to create lasting change. Ultimately, it was my experience at NSLC that convinced me I wanted to be an engineer. Learning about environmental and energy issues in high school further convinced me that I wanted to be an engineer. Honestly, studying engineering is the best decision I’ve made.

Your engineering experience at Rice includes a wide variety of projects. Are there particular projects that you look back on as being pivotal in your education as an engineer, and if so, why?

ENGI 120 project: I actually matriculated at Rice as a chemical engineer but switched to mechanical engineering after my freshman year. Essentially, my ENGI 120/200 project — designing a floor ladder to help children learn to walk correctly — convinced me that I really wanted to build things instead of design processes, which I see as the main difference between mechanical and chemical engineering, and this was a key factor in deciding to change my major. Needless to say, that decision was extremely pivotal to my engineering career, since it entirely changed my career options.

Research with Dr. Cohan: During junior year, I researched impacts of changing food consumption patterns in the United States on our carbon footprint with Dr. Cohan. This project was pivotal because it was my first in-depth exposure to life cycle analysis, carbon-footprinting, etc., which has since become almost a specialty in my sustainability skillset.

Solar Decathlon: Also during junior year, I co-led the engineering team for Solar Decathlon, an undergraduate competition to design and build a net-zero energy, solar powered house. This was the first time I applied engineering in a large scale, technical project, and it was very helpful.

If you could change the Rice engineering experience in any way — whether it be curricular, extra-curricular, or any other aspect — what would it be, and why?

I would change the curriculum to allow more flexibility and specialization within an engineering degree. I was lucky and able to fit extra sustainability-related classes into my schedule, but it was difficult to do this on top of mechanical engineering. Even if more classes were counted as distribution classes so you could tailor a degree by taking relevant classes outside the school of engineering, it would be very helpful.

Environmental issues seem to touch every aspect of your work. How did you become interested in the environment? Did that interest pre-date your time at Rice? Did it come from your family?

I’ve had at least a vague interest in the environment since I did the Girl Scout Eco-Action badge at some point in grade school, but it more or less amounted only to pushing for more recycling and turning off lights in my house. I grew more attached to STEM fields in high school, and I began to become more aware of energy issues in particular. A desire to help solve these issues actually drew me into engineering, as I wrote the following in a college application essay:

From the first time it reached my ears, the energy puzzle captured me, and the day in biology class when I first heard of oil-producing algae and energy-storing bacterial window films, I knew I was lost for good. Soon after, I actually had an answer to the previously dreaded question “What do you want to be?” — for I wanted to be an engineer.

Even though I had an interest in energy issues before coming to Rice, I didn’t really understand the breadth of what environmental issues we actually face. My experiences at Rice very much strengthened my interest and knowledge to what it is today, starting with ENST 202: Culture, Energy, and the Environment with Dr. Matthew Schneider Mayerson. This was the first class I took at Rice that focused specifically on the environment. An introduction to energy humanities, the course examined the roles of technology, economics, culture, beliefs, traditions, and psychologies in the development of energy systems, ultimately showing me that the energy crisis stems from a complex web of interactions spanning every facet of society. It was the most complex problem I had ever seen. As an engineer and problem-solver, I found it incredibly intriguing.

I happened to take this class concurrently with ENGI 140: Introduction to Engineering Leadership, which asked me to thoroughly define my principles, career goals, role models. I honestly believe that articulating my beliefs and career aspirations while learning in-depth about environmental issues is a large reason why I am now so invested in and dedicated to environmental issues.

Were there particular classes or experiences at Rice that shaped your thinking about the environment?

One experience at Rice that has really shaped my thinking about the environment and approach to sustainability was learning about circular models for material flow and economic activity during the fall of my junior year. The key was that I didn’t just learn about these ideas; I totally immersed myself in the ideas and applied them in my work.

In detail, I learned about the concept of circular economy in CEVE 302: Sustainable Design. I applied the knowledge with a team in a proposal for the WEGE competition, in which we developed a concept and business plan to connect greywater purification systems and urban agriculture to reinforce a circular economy. At the same time, I read “Cradle to Cradle” and “The Upcycle”, books in which William McDonough and Michael Braungart detail their ideas about circular material flows. Finally, I was exploring the concept of “design for deconstruction” — essentially designing buildings and products so the materials can easily be separated and reused at product end-of-life — for Solar Decathlon.

All of these experiences focusing on circular economic and material flows were simultaneously occurring, and this in-depth immersion has shaped my approach to sustainable analysis and design, if only by showing me that it’s very important to consider sustainability at a system-wide level with a life-cycle approach.

CEVE 323: Advanced Sustainable Design with Professor Jim Blackburn really helped me internalize the importance of perspective in sustainable engineering. In the class, we studied environmental justice and fence line communities near Houston refineries. After discussions with advocacy groups, corporations, and regulatory bodies, the professor asked us to examine the issue from one of these perspectives. I soon hit a roadblock: each party had valid arguments, and scientific evidence could feasibly support each position. With equal justification, the decision became a moral struggle, picking one belief system or economic philosophy over another. Any solution would affect change larger than a rule, regulation, or process — it would challenge core beliefs, thus generating opposition and rendering the solution ineffective. So, no solution derived from an isolated perspective would be effective.

A sustainable solution would integrate perspectives from different stakeholders, its development requiring civil discussion and cooperation from traditionally — almost habitually — opposing parties. I eventually proposed strategies to facilitate effective cross-party communication, intending to spark honest conversations that would in turn generate solutions.

Overall, this class taught me that sustainability requires uniting multiple perspectives, with more focus on social factors than my mechanical engineering education has emphasized. At Rice, I have sought diversity in technical perspective but have missed exploring different cultures and social perspectives, which are even more important in the context of sustainability, given its inherently global nature.

This year you have somehow found the time to start a fascinating series of blog posts about your environmental footprint. Tell us about that project. Why did you start doing it? What have you learned?

I started the project essentially as a New Year’s resolution. I wanted a sustainability-focused personal project that would help me make more sustainable choices, not only to make my lifestyle more sustainable but also to allow me to continue exploring and learning about sustainability after graduation. I came up with the idea of tracking and calculating my environmental footprint for 2017, and it has evolved into the blog series from there.

The first thing I learned is that online carbon and water footprint calculators are less than consistent, to say the least. To start the project, I tried out seven carbon footprint calculators and three water footprint calculators, in an attempt to get a baseline estimate for environmental footprint that I could use to check the accuracy of my calculations. I used consistent inputs with each calculator and got outputs ranging from 10,500 lb CO2eq/year to 56,800 lb CO2eq/year, and 280 gallons water/day to 1,400 gallons water/day.

The second thing I learned is that college and living in the dorms is less than conducive to calculating an accurate footprint. For example, most methods use energy and water bills to estimate consumption, but college students living on campus do not get individually metered bills. This has further fueled my desire to finish the project so I can understand the major components on a college student’s footprint, in particular, and come up with more appropriate ways to measure it.

I fully intend to continue the series after graduation. One of my goals for this project is to compare my carbon footprint as a student and a working professional. I also would like to design a way to make this information more accessible to average consumers.

What are your plans after graduation? And more broadly, what do you hope to do in the future?

After graduation, I’m starting full time in the Buildings group at Arup in Houston, TX as a mechanical engineer. I will also be volunteering with CleanTech Open as a sustainability mentor to help clean technology startups develop more sustainable practices.

My long-term goal is to use my technical engineering foundation and experience in sustainability to move into a sustainability consulting position for infrastructure and built environment projects.

Let’s continue our focus on the future for a moment. As someone with a deep knowledge of environmental challenges but also the training to develop solutions to environmental problems, do you think we’ll succeed in avoiding the worst of the great environmental challenges, like climate change, water scarcity, species loss, and so forth? What will the state of the planet be when you come back for your 25-year reunion?

I am optimistic by nature, and I have hope that we’ll be in a better position 25 years from now. I think the technology is available and we’re headed in the right direction, but honestly I’m not qualified to answer in any more depth than that.

If I have learned anything over the last four years, it’s that these issues are very complex, integrating environmental, economic, social, and political perspectives in a global context. I may have some training in developing solutions to environmental problems, but I’m still at the very beginning of my career. I’m not sure I am yet qualified to hypothesize what the state of the environment will be in 25 years — there are people and agencies whose full time jobs are to conduct these analyses. For now, I’ll focus on doing what I can to contribute solutions, and hopefully we’ll see the results in 25 years!

We cannot resist the opportunity to ask you about another one of your great passions: swing dancing. How did you get involved in swing dancing, and what does it mean to you?

I first tried west coast swing through the ballroom team during my second semester at Rice. I became increasingly involved as I got to know the west coast swing community in Texas and started competing.

West coast swing is a really fun hobby and great exercise, but there’s also a fantastic west coast swing community in Texas that is very important to me. This wonderful, diverse group of people with lots of different backgrounds and perspectives has really helped me feel at home in Texas.

Finally, as you look back at your time at Rice, what advice would you give to incoming students?

Definitely take some time to sit down and figure out who you are. Write out a list of principles, articulate goals, — anything to get a handle on who you are and what you want to accomplish. The sooner you do this the better, because then you have more time to make those goals a reality.