Sustainability Spotlight: Zach Bielak '15, Former Head EcoRep

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Rice alum Zach Bielak ‘15 recently completed a Watson Fellowship that enabled him to conduct a global study of the social and environmental dimensions of sustainable design in different cultural settings. While at Rice, he served as the head EcoRep, led an Engineers Without Borders committee to design parts of a water supply system in rural El Salvador, produced an album for the Rice Philharmonics—and still found enough time to devote to his studies, leading to an award as Most Outstanding Junior Engineer at Rice. In our interview with Zach, we discuss his interests in the intersection of design and the environment, his passion for travel, and his words of wisdom for current Rice students.

Where are you from?
Zach Bielak: I’m originally from Madison, WI, but moved to the whiskey sippin’ foothills of Knoxville, TN at age 1. I then stayed there—in the same house even—until I came to Rice.

How did you become interested in environmental issues?
ZB: Compared to most environmentalists, I joined the fray pretty late in the game. I remember the exact day that I first began to see the true crisis we were facing: it was the spring of my 11th grade year, and that day in AP Physics we were calculating how much coal was needed to fuel the nearby power plant. I remember the number I got: 72 kilograms per second (which also happened to be, cough, the right answer). Being a good student of imperial units, I didn’t realize how much that actually meant until that evening, when Google told me it was roughly equivalent to the mass of a human male. To power our little town of Knoxville, we had to burn a man’s weight of coal each second. From that rude awakening, my passion for environmental issues bloomed my last year of high school and into my time at Rice.

With that late start, were you at all active in environmental issues before coming to Rice?
ZB: As my interest grew during 12th grade, I devoted more time to learning about the issues than acting upon them. I read heaps of articles and opinion pieces, and had plenty of conversations with friends, especially in regard to technical sustainability (i.e., researching technology that could lower or eliminate that 72 number). But the only real environmental work I did before matriculating to Rice, if I remember correctly, was picking up refuse from a nearby creek for two hours one Saturday.

Once I got to Rice, that all changed. I continued my academic interest but, with a newfound community of environmental champions, I also began to intensely act on my concern. I dove into projects, activism, and green events almost immediately after walking through the Sallyport.

Once you arrived at Rice, you majored in mechanical engineering. What were some of the ways that you were able to combine your passion for the environment with your major?
ZB: It’s funny you should ask that. A lot of people are pretty confused when I tell them I majored in mechanical engineering given my earnest passion for sustainability. “Why didn’t you study environmental engineering?” they all ask. I see the link quite clearly, though: I have skills and talents in the mechanical engineering field, and I want to use them to better the planet and its people. Simple.

I’ll go on a quick preachy aside and say that, as sustainability is a truly global issue, it should have global involvement—and that means with careers too. Not only should Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Earth Science majors be active in sustainability; doctors, engineers, political scientists, and writers should be too. If it were up to me, a climate change class would be a graduation requirement for every Rice student—but I digress.

At the beginning of my Rice career, I approached sustainability directly from the technical side, as any overzealous engineer-cum-environmentalist would do. My freshman year, I joined the El Salvador team of Engineers Without Borders, working on a system that could distribute fresh spring water to a small town in the countryside. Additionally, I was a board member of the Rice Endowment for Sustainable Energy Technology, while it was still around. Later during my time at Rice, I also helped craft the business proposal for the Rice University Biodiesel Initiative and secure $15,000 in capital for its inception. For a semester, I even tried out working in a material science lab making batteries with organic cathodes (and quickly found out the lab was not for me).

My summer internships also added to the noise. My sophomore and junior summer positions, the first with a sustainability-focused National Lab and the second with the sustainability department of a supply chain company in China, reinforced what I had started at Rice. In all these pursuits I had the chance to directly apply my engineering know-how to my environmental fervor.

But did your environmental interests transform during your time at Rice?
ZB: Definitely! Although most of my early projects are Rice were strictly technical and engineering-esque, I gradually came to see just how inseparable the social side of sustainability was from the pure environmental. And as I noticed the larger social milieu surrounding all the projects I touched, I realized that those factors could not be ignored.

For instance, the water distribution project in El Salvador for EWB: I joined the group looking to only make an eco-friendly water system—but was that what the Salvadorans wanted? Was our project in line with their dreams for their community, or was it a bunch of college students dictating from abroad how to improve their town? Were we cooperating or simply controlling? Was the implementation and design itself uniting the community or pulling it apart? Because these social concerns were not fully addressed, I watched as our project slowly disintegrated over my three years with EWB—and I learned the true importance of social sustainability.

I began really exploring these social complexities. I started taking sociology classes, wrote a research publication for the Baker Institute on socially sustainable transportation, and as head EcoRep, led the Green Dorm Initiative in hopes of shaping others’ environmental habits. This evolution of my interest in sustainability is largely what gave way to my Watson Fellowship project (more on that later).

Travel seems to have been an important part of your academic experience. Did you travel a lot before coming to Rice? And in what ways did travel as a student enrich your Rice education?
ZB: Before I came to Rice, I would say that I vacationed a lot—but I had never really “traveled.” Not to sound smug, but I hold a pretty strict definition of the word, one that I only developed my junior year while studying abroad in Australia. It was there that I learned the true enrichment of traveling solo, culturally immersing yourself, and cultivating real friendships in other countries.

After that semester, the travel bug bit hard. The following spring break I joined the Baker Institute on a research trip to Doha, Qatar, and then secured a summer internship in Shenzhen, China. I enjoyed the resulting personal growth so much that, a year later, I threw all my eggs in one basket and went Watson Fellowship or bust.

I can honestly say that my travels were the absolute highlights of my college career. Unfortunately, though, I don’t possess the necessary vocabulary or internal pensiveness to fully convey how it enriched my experience. Plus, I’ve found it hard to talk about the benefits of traveling without sounding like a vapid “20 Ways Traveling Will Change Your Life 4EVER!!!!” travel blog. But here’s three things I can say:

  • After seeing so many different cultures and ways of life in depth, traveling gave me the strength to think for myself and craft my post-Rice path according to my desires, not others’.
  • Traveling showed me entirely new sides of sustainability. For example, working on the factory floors of China, it became quite clear that our views of sustainability were worlds apart. The supply chain company I worked for wanted to save as much energy and water as possible, whereas the workers themselves were concerned with simply ridding their workplace of the beyond-toxic, cancer-causing chemicals they used. Both stances were environmental, just from completely different vantages.
  • Traveling taught me flexibility, confidence, and brainstorming in ways Rice never could. When you just forced your bus to ditch you on the side of a dark road in western Ecuador because your food poisoning symptoms weren’t waiting any longer, and the next bus wasn’t coming until the next morning, you learn those skills real fast.

It seems fitting then that when you graduated, you received the prestigious Watson Fellowship, which basically allowed you to continue to combine education and travel for a year. First of all, what is the Watson?
ZB: Ah, the ever-elusive definition of the Watson Fellowship. The simple analogy I usually draw is that the Watson is like a research Fulbright, but in multiple countries, with no institutional oversight, and with no required deliverable at the end. In the words of Watson Foundation, it is a “one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States, awarded to graduating seniors.”

Of course, that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the Watson now means to me, but this interview is already getting pretty lengthy so I’ll leave it at this. If you’re curious, read more on the official website

Second, what was your research topic for the Watson?
ZB: The title of my project was “Cultivating Community: A Conversation between Design and Social Sustainability.” Like I said, it was a combination of my interests in engineering/design, environmentalism, and social issues. Through the project, I plunged into the societal forces behind and communal effects of designs—from informal settlements and electric busses to livable cities and backpacks sewn from grocery bags. I especially explored how these projects could enrich senses of community and help people to thrive.

And in case you might be confused about what all of that means, here are a few of the questions I pondered on the daily: What are the social effects of environmentally sustainable designs? What designs work in some places, but not others—and why? How can design solve social and environmental problems we previously considered unsolvable? And at the same time, what are the limits of design?

What were some of the key insights that you developed based on your Watson Fellowship experience—both related to your subject of study, as well as to the broader process of traveling the world and observing many different cultures?
ZB: Well, I’d like to direct you to my forthcoming 2,000 page novel that addresses this question exactly…

Just kidding, no book (at least not yet). But it is quite difficult to summarize 365 days full of thinking and learning into a couple bullet points. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go:

  • Things are complex—especially when it comes to sustainability. And anyone pretending to know the solutions is full of bunk. After nearly 200 interviews this past year, I’ve come to truly believe there are no bona fide experts when it comes to answering the most crucial issues of today. The best we can do is guess, try, and hope.
  • The best projects come from within. This applies to all levels: within a country, within a city, within a community. It’s hard enough to make a tangible, lasting impact in the place you’re from, and even harder—dare I say impossible?—to do so as an outsider. (Caveat: it is possible, over time, to become an insider though.)
  • There are always two sides of every story. Find them. Never accept a narrative without seeking out its counter.
  • Everyone desires dignity. Keep this in mind if you’re ever designing for or helping somebody with different circumstances or ways.
  • Technology can help, but it cannot solve.
  • Everyone is running their own race. This includes you. Don’t try to run someone else’s.

I could seriously go on and on and on with this, but I’ll spare you and instead provide a shameless plug: I did keep a decently updated blog throughout my year, so if you’re willing to put up with an engineer’s poor attempt at introspection and prose, you can see more insights here.

And how many countries have you traveled to now, including from the Watson Fellowship?
ZB: During the Watson alone, I had the chance to visit 14 different countries. In total, that puts me around 36—although, full disclosure, a lot of them were visited for only a day or two, so per my own definition I’m reluctant to say I’ve really “traveled” there.

For those of our readers who also enjoy travel, where would you recommend that they visit, and why?
ZB: Everywhere.

Okay, cheap answer, but at least in regard to my Watson, it’s been difficult to really distill which countries I enjoyed the most or would recommend to others. After all, no two experiences in a country are the same. But for those really interested in travel and share my definition of it, I would say visit a country that challenges you. For me, those countries were India and Ghana—they challenged personal truths I held for myself, challenged stereotypes that I had, challenged (and largely affirmed) the faith that I have in fellow humans.

For you, those challenging places might be those that seem so far out of reach, that are not on your bucket list, that none of your friends have been to before. A place you don’t know you’ll fully enjoy. Go to Kazakhstan, Moldova, Timor-Leste, or that city two hours away that you’ve only heard of once. Traveling isn’t about distance, it’s about growth. And although it might be hard to face those challenges (shocker!), I can guarantee I ain’t ever met a person that wish they had traveled or grown less.

Now that you’ve concluded your Watson Fellowship, what do you want to do next? Will it be some combination of sustainability, design, and travel?
ZB: How’d you guess! That’s exactly what I’m planning to do. I’m currently deep into the job hunt for positions in China, Myanmar, or India working in the design/sustainability space, perhaps in an architecture firm that deals with social housing or a product design company that manufactures affordable and functional devices for those that need it (I’m going to try to become one of those “insiders” I was talking about). I hope to be back out of the country by the time our next president takes office—fingers crossed!

And until then, I’ll be working as a server in a Brazilian Steakhouse in Knoxville. Come visit! I need tips.

Finally, if you were mentoring a first year undergraduate at Rice with environmental interests, what advice or words of wisdom would you give him/her based on your experiences and observations?
ZB: Well, now that I’m a creaky 24-year-old man, I have nothing but sage wisdom that I’m all too willing to bestow on anyone who asks. But I’ll try to limit myself.

  • Do something—and finish it. First of all, don’t sit, wallow, and endlessly wonder if something is your true life’s passion. Just try it. Apply the concept of design iteration to your life: try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. But, at the same time, don’t try to do everything. After iterating your interests a bit (say, for your first three semesters), pick a couple and pursue them to completion. Break the perennial habit of Rice students: finish what you start!
  • Collaborate. One person can’t change the world, but many can. Work with peers with different interests, with Housing & Dining, with faculty (adults can be cool too!), with people outside of the hedges—and take your projects to new heights. Fighting the good fight is a lot easier with an army by your side. Plus, you might get to know the real life adults behind the Rice sustainability department, possibly the coolest people on the planet (shout out to Richard Johnson and Susann Glenn!).
  • Travel. You’ll seriously never have so much freedom or support to travel again in your life. Study abroad, get an internship in another country, go on an ASB—either international or domestic. It not only develops you as a person, but it will also reveal to you so many new dimensions of environmentalism. For example, environmentalism means something completely different to an island that is destined to disappear in the next century. Travel there and learn for yourself. And if you need help with money, there are so many resources at Rice just for that. A smattering: 1, 2, and 3.
  • Lastly, apply for the Watson. You learn a lot.