Sustainability Spotlight: Michael Donatti, Rice Environmental Society President

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We met with Michael Donatti (Duncan ’16), who is completing a degree in mechanical engineering, to talk about his role as co-founder and President of the Rice Environmental Society, his experiences with Engineers Without Borders, and his travels around the world.

Normally we begin interviews with students by asking where they’re from, but for you it’s also important to ask where you’ve been, right?
MD: Yes! I have actually lived in Houston my whole life, never moving homes. My parents are from Argentina, however, which provided a different perspective from Texas. And I have been lucky enough to travel to about 35 countries so far.

Did growing up with so much exposure to the world beyond the United States shape your environmental interests?
MD: Definitely. Different places contribute unequally to environmental degradation and climate change. In noticing these differences, I saw how countries and cities can learn from each other to become more sustainable. Through traveling, I have also seen places and people that stand to suffer from poor resource management and climate change, adding a personal experience to my academic understanding of the environment.

You’ve been active in Rice’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. What kinds of projects have you worked on, and where?
MD: I worked heavily with Engineers Without Borders for my first two and a half years at Rice, experiencing two projects in adjacent communities outside Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Both projects aimed to expand potable water distribution to homes in these relatively new, very impoverished communities.

What were the biggest challenges you faced working in Nicaragua?
MD: Broadly, the biggest challenge was aligning priorities between the municipality, the water company, the community, and us. Communication with everyone was difficult but vital, especially while our team was working from Rice. The municipality and the water company did not particularly prioritize the project, so we had to push them to be accountable and responsive. The community was invested, but of course busy addressing its day-to-day needs. We had to ensure they saw value in the project and in their role, and we checked in to make sure their work was keeping to the timeline. The logistics were always difficult, but the projects were both immensely rewarding.

How can students become more involved in Engineers Without Borders?
MD: Rice’s chapter of EWB is quite good on a national level, and we have plenty of sponsors and projects that keep it running. Cassie Wang is the newest president (through spring 2017), so she would be a great point of contact!

You spent a semester studying abroad in France learning about energy. What are some of the key lessons that you learned?
MD: While I did take a course on sustainable development, I learned the most from my daily experiences living just outside Paris. The lifestyle and infrastructure lend themselves in many ways to a lower carbon footprint, so we in the U.S., especially in Houston, could benefit from taking note. Almost everywhere is walkable, taking advantage of higher density building and significant public transit networks to make having a car unnecessary, even cumbersome. Much more of the food that people buy is local and seasonal, so the farm to fork environmental footprint is less. These are just a few examples.

In keeping with the international theme a bit longer, you just returned from a Spring Break trip to Cuba. What would you like to share about that experience?
MD: Cuba was a unique experience, different in many ways from almost everywhere I’ve been. In a world of connectivity, the country has managed to stay far more isolated than most, and things like housing, healthcare, and cultural institutions operate very differently. As a follow up project to the trip, I will be studying the growth of the “eco-tourism” industry in Cuba; for now, I will share an experience I had surrounding how Cuba manages its waste. Walking through an outdoor market, I noticed that all of the bottles were reused. Fresh juice, vinegar, and soy sauce were packaged in old beer and water bottles. While this reuse results more from lack of resources than environmental consciousness, it did inspire me to think more creatively about the issue of waste in our own society.

You are currently the President of the Rice Environmental Society (RES), an organization that you in fact helped to create. What role does the RES play at Rice, and who is part of the RES?
MD: RES increases communication and coordination between environmental/sustainability groups on campus, bringing representatives together at least once a month and providing them with channels of communication. We also seek funding to provide to student initiatives. This school year alone, we have funded ten projects, ranging from subsidizing the Hoot and Coffeehouse to use more sustainable food ware to switching Sid Rich dorm room light bulbs to more efficient LED ones. All clubs related to sustainability are a part of RES, and anyone interested in being involved is welcome to join.

What are your hopes for the RES in the future?
MD: I hope that RES will solidify the presence of all sustainability groups and their missions, especially by securing stable long-term funding to keep making student sustainability initiatives possible.

So how about your future? You’ll be graduating in just a couple of months. What are your plans after graduation?
MD: I most hope to study for a master’s degree related to environmental policy. I will hear back from Fulbright this month about a scholarship to go to the University of Bristol, so fingers crossed!