Sustainability Spotlight: Chynna Foucek, Head Eco-Rep

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Chynna Foucek of Duncan College is a senior double-majoring in Biochemistry and Cell Biology and Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations. We sat down with Chynna to talk about her role as an avid road cyclist, a food blogger, and as the head of Rice’s EcoRep program for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Where are you from?
Chynna Foucek: I’m from a town just outside of Poughkeepsie, New York. It’s about an hour and a half north of New York city.

So you live in the Hudson River Valley?
CF: Yes, it’s very beautiful there.

Do you do a lot of outdoor activities there?
CF: Yes, we go apple picking and pumpkin picking a lot. It’s really cool when the leaves along the Hudson River turn red, orange, and yellow in the fall. They recently built a walkway over the Hudson River to promote an appreciation of the beauty.

How did you first become interested in environmental issues?
CF: It actually wasn’t until very recently. I was applying for Alternative Spring Breaks last year, and the one that struck me the most was one that dealt with coral reef restoration and awareness. I had taken “Coral Reef Systems” the year prior so I knew how intricate the coral reef ecosystem is, and how it promotes not only biodiversity in the ocean itself, but also how it helps protect our land, regulates temperatures, and has many other positive effects on our planet. Going on the ASB showed me that there are a lot of things you can do to help the environment that you don’t necessarily see the benefit of right away, but that over time you are contributing to help rebuild the ecosystem. Things like not using plastic water bottles, because we saw where the water bottles go and how they end up hurting the reefs. So yeah, it was very recently. The more I got into learning about the coral reefs, the more I started looking at other environmental issues.

Are there particular environmental issues that you’d say you are most passionate about?
CF: Coral reef ecosystems, definitely. I learned on my ASB that with the opening up of Cuba, big cruise liners are putting pressure on the government to try and open up that strip for them, which has a lot of coral reefs that are really important. Unfortunately, it looks like this is going to be approved since there is a lot of money involved. Ultimately, these big cruise ships are going to end up hurting the coral reef ecosystem. So that is one of my main focuses. I’m also passionate about sustainable transportation since I like to bike so much.

How did you become an avid cyclist? And what is it like using a bicycle as your only mode of transportation in car-crazy Houston.
CF: (laughs) Fun fact, I don’t actually have my driver’s licenses. I have a learner's permit, which means I can drive with someone who is 21 or older in the car. The process of taking your road test and getting your license in New York is very complicated. I failed the test the first time I took it, and I haven’t been home long enough since to take it again. I should probably look into options of doing it down here. As a result, I got a bike. I did Beer Bike. I would say sophomore year and the beginning junior year, I started seeing what exists outside of campus. So for me, getting on a bike and going off campus has been a good way of fostering my independence.

You have built a real life for yourself in Houston using a bike. You are a bike courier, correct?
CF: Yes, I do bike courier delivery in the Heights on the weekends. There's a big cycling community in Houston. There are a lot of people working to get laws changed and make the city more bike friendly.

How has viewing the road from two-wheels rather that four changed your view of the city?
CF: I think it let me see and appreciate more areas of the city that I wouldn’t normally ever go to. I bike one strip that goes through Hermann Park to the University of Houston along the bayou. There are also a lot of trails between the Heights and Downtown with beautiful landscape that you wouldn’t normally get to appreciate in a car. Bicycling has also made me see how bad the roads are too. I think there needs to be a lot of work done on infrastructure in Houston.

Do you think you’ll get a driver’s license? Or are you glad you didn’t?
CF: I’m glad I didn’t! But my mom has been pushing me to get one. So I think as a backup precautionary measure, I will. For now, no.

In addition to being an avid cyclist, you are also an active food blogger. Tell us about your experience becoming a recognized food writer.
CF: I have Celiac Disease, which is an autoimmune disease where your body rejects gluten, which is a protein in wheat. Basically, anytime I eat wheat, my body attacks that and then attacks myself in the process. I was diagnosed when I was 12 so I stopped eating gluten then. I always had a lot of support from my mom, my sister, and my family. They’re not diagnosed with the disease, but they eat gluten free anyway just as a sign of support at home. When I got to college, halfway across the country, I realized that the support systems I had weren’t there directly. I realized there were a lot of people that were in the same situation - that they don’t have family members or friends to support them. I just started the blog as a way to allow people to have some sort of comfort and someone to relate to. One summer, I put in a ton of effort into it and people picked up on it.

How has that changed your Rice experience?
CF: It let me get involved with a wider range of people. I’m definitely more involved with Housing and Dining at Rice. I’ve gone out of my way to meet the chefs and talk to them about it, and see how they can accomodate me. One chef will bake me gluten-free cupcakes every once in a while. It’s awesome!

Speaking of involvement, you’re the new Head EcoRep. What are your plans and goals?
CF: Every college has either one or two EcoReps, and every EcoRep seems to have a different niche that they fill in the Rice community. For example, Mason Daumas, the Wiess EcoRep, is the Coffeehouse General Manager. Kira Clingen and Ryan Saathoff, the Duncan and Jones EcoReps, are both heads of the Student Association’s Environmental Committee. Everyone comes from a different array of majors! So, I’d really like to see each EcoRep come up with a detailed plan of what they want to accomplish for their individual college and really be able to execute that plan to the fullest extent that they can. The program has a lot of strengths, but there is a lot of untapped potential. My main goal is for each EcoRep to tap into the potential that they have.

Do you have any prior experience managing students?
CF: Yes. I was the General Manager of Willy’s Pub for a year.

So you are going into your last year at Rice, what do you hope to do after you graduate?
CF: I am currently in the process of applying to dental schools. I’d like to be a dentist, and maybe even see how I can implement sustainable practices in the dental office. A lot of the time there’s a lot of waste, for sanitary reasons and things like that. I’m wondering if there are processes one can develop to allow for more sustainable dental offices.

Non-career related, but are there other things you would like to do after you graduate? Any places you would like to travel?
CF: I’ve thought about just going to Europe and biking. I don’t know where, maybe around ancient historical sites.

The bike is going to be a key part of your life going forward?
CF: Oh yes! Definitely.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself?
CF: I’m really excited being a part of the EcoRep program. I really want to do a good job of raising awareness about the program around campus, and plugging people in as soon as possible. If there are freshmen or new students at the colleges that want to get involved with it, I want to give the EcoReps the tools to include them.