Jordin Metz is a graduate student working on a Ph.D. in Chemistry. He serves as the head of the Graduate Student Association’s Sustainability Committee, through which he has led or partnered on several environmental initiatives. We met with Jordin to discuss the GSA Sustainability Committee, eating vegan in Texas, salsa dancing, and much more.
Q: How did you first become interested in environmental issues? What topics or issues sparked your engagement in environmentalism?
JM: I’ve been interested in environmental issues for as long as I can remember. My family raised me with a mindset to think about my impacts on the world around me. We value walking and taking public transit over driving; we’ve always recycled and had a compost pile; and we don’t buy much that we don’t need. I was also raised vegetarian, mostly for animal rights reasons, but that developed into environmental and health motivations as time went on. In middle school, I became involved with the Green Council, a school district-wide effort to improve sustainability spearheaded by one of my elementary school teachers. I was one of the only students on the council. My biggest achievement on it was convincing the head of operations of the entire school district to put “These Come From Trees” stickers on every paper towel dispenser in all the schools as a way of educating people to use fewer paper towels. I was the president of my high school’s environmental club for two years, leading many discussions and some small campaigns.
Q: Your undergraduate degree is from Tufts, which as an institution has a long history of environmental leadership. Did Tufts influence your environmental journey? Did you participate in environmental activism and change at Tufts?
JM: I had a wonderful experience at Tufts. I was elected as one of the co-directors of the Tufts Sustainability Collective, an umbrella group of environmental organizations on campus. I organized round tables, semesterly sustainability dinners in a dining hall, discussions, events, and campaigns. I learned to work with everyone from the Provost to graduate students to custodians to local businesses. While I was busy, I didn’t engage in much activism, preferring to work in the system rather than against it, but given the urgency of our environmental problems, I wish I’d participated in more activism and action-based campaigns. Reflecting back on this, I’ve learned a good deal about how to effect lasting change here at Rice.
Q: At Rice you serve as the head of the Graduate Student Association’s Sustainability Committee. What does this role entail, and how does it differ from leading environmental groups as an undergraduate?
JM: I have complete flexibility in my job. I’m the second ever GSA Sustainability Director, after Emm Fulk created the position. I consider my role to make the Rice campus and community more sustainable, with a particular focus on graduate students and GSA events. I’m focusing more on campaigns and changing infrastructure than hosting informational events. This is quite different from my time as an undergraduate, where I hosted many discussions and events but didn’t focus much on institutional and infrastructural change. The GSA is much more action-oriented, and that has inspired me to take on a variety of campaigns to permanently change Rice’s campus for the better.
Q: What has the GSA Sustainability Committee been up to this academic year?
JM: The GSA Sustainability Committee has been doing a lot of work to improve sustainability around campus. One of the key areas is Valhalla. I worked with Rice Facilities Engineering and Planning (FE&P) to get the bins at the Grad Commons moved so that the recycling and trash bins are next to each other, and the recycling bins are protected with a domed cover (which makes them visually distinctive and protects the contents from rain). I placed signs around Valhalla encouraging people to bring their own glass and to reuse and recycle their cups. Also, Valhalla switched from plastic #6 to plastic #5 cups, which are recyclable (this was an idea from the Sustainability Committee and the Valhalla managers made it happen).
One of the biggest projects was working with the Rice Environmental Society (RES) to plan and host the first ever campus Sustainability Month in October. This was spearheaded by Philippa Angelides of the Student Center and me. All the groups involved hosted events, informational tables, and conducted educational campaigns.
Some additional projects include: improving sustainability at graduate student orientation; promoting bring-your-own-tupperware at GSA Cabinet and Council meetings; working to improve the temperature in the BRC for sustainability and a comfortable working environment; promoting bike safety and making bike safety videos with RUCT, the GSA, and the SA; creating a GIS map of where graduate students live to help other grad students find housing that suits their rent, transportation, and sustainability needs.
Q: What do you have planned for this semester?
JM: The main project for this semester is planning and running Sustainability Month. Rice VegFest 2.0 on Sunday, March 24, kicks off this month, and it ends on Tuesday, April 23, with the Rice Farmers Market Earth Day celebration. I am working with the Rice Environmental Society (RES) to plan the month. Our goal is to have a week of events catering to a wide swath of the Rice student body while having a couple of education campaigns running for the duration of the month. If we can get a lot of people at Rice to make one lasting change in their lives that’s better for the environment, this month will be a success.
Additionally, I’m working to get clear labeling on all the major recycling bins in Rice buildings. Many people are confused about Rice recycling policies because these bins were purchased at different times and have different appearances. Simple and standardized labeling should help educate and streamline the recycling process, as well as educating the Rice community on this important life skill.
Q: How does your research and interest in chemistry overlap with your passion for the environment?
JM: My research in chemistry is on metal nanostructures that can interact with certain frequencies of light in a way that causes the nanostructures to heat up. The ultimate goal of this project is to use the heat to generate freshwater. I enjoy the basic science and chemistry that I’m exploring, but what really drives me forward in this research is the big picture: water purification and using light as an energy source rather than fossil fuels.
Q: What’s your dream job after you graduate?
JM: I honestly have no idea! I’m in the second year of my Ph.D. program, which is an average of five years. I’d love to have a job that allows me to combine my passions both in my job and providing flexibility for a life outside of work: chemistry, teaching, cooking, dancing, sustainability, outreach.
Q: Rumor has it that you are an amazing salsa dancer. Do tell!
JM: I absolutely love salsa dancing! I did ballroom dancing at Tufts University, where I learned how to move my body and dance with a partner. After graduating, I moved with my twin sister to Santiago, Chile, where I got certified to teach English. I taught English to make some money, and I love teaching, but my main goal was to immerse myself in Spanish. I had taken Spanish courses at Tufts, but I really needed immersion to feel comfortable with the language so all of my friends were Spanish-speakers. A couple of months into my time in Chile, I discovered a group doing Cuban Salsa in rueda in a public plaza. Cuban salsa is a different style that the main type of salsa danced in Houston, called salsa on 1. These differences allow for it to be a group dance as well, danced in a big circle with a leader shouting out the moves and the leaders and followers moving around each other in a rueda (“wheel” in Spanish). I started attending these classes every week and going out dancing to “salsotecas”, and I fell in love with the dance. When I moved to Houston, I immediately looked for places to go dancing! I joined Rice Salseros and became president of the club at the end of my first year. I teach salsa lessons each Monday night at 7pm on Rice’s campus and I absolutely love it. I also go out social dancing most weekends, dancing salsa and bachata and meeting people from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, all united by their love of dancing.
Q: As a vegan, were you worried about coming to Rice and to Texas, a state known for its BBQ and cattle ranchers? How are you faring?
JM: Yes, I was worried about coming to Texas a vegan. So, before I moved to Rice, I made sure I wanted to stay vegan. I read books, watched documentaries, and had discussions with my family and friends. At the end of that, I was 100 percent committed to being vegan for life, mostly for a combination of the three main reasons that people reduce their animal intake: animal rights, health, and the environment. As a scientist and environmentalist, I feel confident that a whole-food, plant-based diet is both one of the healthiest and best diets I can have. That said, I was still nervous about moving to Texas. I compiled a series of recipes into weekly menus so I could plan out all my meals and do batch cooking each weekend. While I continue to cook the vast majority of my food (it’s tasty, fun, healthy, and cheaper than eating out), I’ve discovered a vibrant vegan scene in Houston. There are a wide array of restaurants with delicious vegan options, and many restaurants that are vegetarian and vegan. My favorite is Maharaja Bhog, an Indian Thali restaurant that’s all vegetarian and mostly vegan. I go to monthly vegan potlucks with the Vegan Society of P.E.A.C.E., where I eat an amazing assortment of food and meet people from a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds. I absolutely love the diversity of people, food, and opportunities in Houston.
Q: Finally, what advice would you offer to fellow graduate students and to undergraduate students who are concerned about the environment and want to make a difference but do not know where or how to begin?
JM: There are a few simple things you can do that are really easy to implement and a great jumping off point.
Go plant-based at least once a week, for example, Monday dinner. No matter what’s on the menu or where you are, commit to eating vegan for that meal. Having a designated time/day will help you stick to the goal, and it’s both not very hard and has a real impact. Meat, dairy, and animal agriculture are second only to fossil fuels in their enormous negative environmental impact. By shifting toward plant-based meals (ex: Meatless Mondays, only eating meat on weekends, only eating meat out but cooking plant-based at home), you’re doing very little work with a substantial impact. Your taste buds don’t have to suffer! There is amazing plant-based food in the college serveries, the RMC, Rice Farmers Market, in Rice Village, in Houston, and millions of recipes online. This is by far one of the most important things you can do to help the environment, all from the comfort of your own home and using your own fork. Learn more through documentaries, books, blogs, and conversations.
Carpool, bike, take public transit, and do what you can to not ride in a single-occupancy car. If you’re looking for a place to live off campus, find a place with an easy bike route to Rice and grocery stores and convenient public transit (check out the GIS map).
Check out the graphic on what can and cannot be recycled at Rice so you make sure you’re recycling correctly.
Bring your own glass to Willy’s and Valhalla
If you’re planning an event, think about sustainability. Are you going to have lots of disposable cups/plates/utensils? Can you ask people to bring their own water bottles or tupperware? Can you ask the restaurant to minimize their waste? (For example, if you only need forks, don’t have them send the packages of fork/knife/spoon, where ⅔ will be thrown away; ask for paper plates, not styrofoam)