Allie Gruber (’13) knew she had a vague interest in sustainability when she boarded a plane bound for Peru in early June, following her sophomore year at Wake Forest University. She had no idea, however, that upon her return she would dedicate the remainder of her undergraduate career to learning about and advocating for the natural world. Her impressive list of sustainability credentials includes undergraduate research, two internships, and, perhaps most impressively, a tireless, personal peer outreach campaign.
Allie made her pivotal trip to the Amazon through the Wake Forest Tropical Diversity Program, a month-long study abroad opportunity offered by the biology department. The field program offers an in-depth exploration of biodiversity, which introduces students to the complex ecosystems of the tropics through hands-on learning. Allie remembers her study abroad experience in vivid detail, from her flight into Lima where the class studied the coast’s unique desert ecosystem to her second flight across the mountain range into Cuzco where she and her peers fought altitude sickness before taking a nine hour hike into the amazon basin. She recalls the hundreds of native hummingbird species her professors asked her to look out for on bird watching expeditions and well recalls the Manu research station, where she and her research partners, Chris Bobbitt (’12) and Brad Shugoll (’13) conducted original research.
This program, which highlights both the beauty and the vulnerability of some of the world’s last undeveloped landscapes “really turned me towards sustainability,” explains Allie. However, she emphasizes that her transformation wasn’t merely about the setting. Being in Peru helped, she explains, but “it was really the professors.” In particular, Dr. Miles Silman, Director of the Center for Energy, Environment, Sustainability, inspired Allie’s budding environmental interests. She says “he is so charismatic, it is contagious. He really got me excited about the environment.”
Dr. Silman mentored Allie as she continued to explore sustainability through the lens of the life sciences. Under his direction, she and fellow students conducted a feasibility analysis for conch farming as a means of economic development and collected relevant research on coral reefs for one of his courses. Allie finished her studies a semester early, and upon graduating last fall, she spent what would have been the spring semester of her senior year assisting Dr. Silman with the early phases of a biochar research project. Biochar is an organic fertilizer that increases the productivity of the soil while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. The material, essentially charcoal, forms through pyrolysis, a high-heat anaerobic conversion process. As Allie explains, biochar offers the dual advantage of being both “an organic alternative [to conventional fertilizer] and helping with the fight against global climate change.”
Allie has used what she learned from Dr. Silman in the classroom and the laboratory to explain relevant issues to her friends and to convince them to adopt sustainable behaviors. Though she modestly deems herself “the token tree-hugger of the group,” she has seen results from her consistent, positive persuasion. “I get texts all the time, like ‘I refilled my reusable water bottle at the water bottle-refilling station, it’s so cool!’ I tell them, yeah it is cool! Do it every day.”
Allie’s informal peer outreach was usually one-on-one, but last fall Allie used her position as the membership development chair for her sorority Delta Delta Delta to arrange for her entire chapter to attend a screening of 11th Hour hosted by Greeks Go Green. Throughout the film she got texts from her sorority sisters, asking if the films messages about ecosystem collapse were true. One friend sent a text demanding that Allie switch seats mid-film so she could explain the Coriolis Effect (a phenomenon caused by the Earth’s rotation). Allie complied, whispering quietly to her friend and scribbling diagrams of the Earth on the back of scratch paper.
Allie also gained two professional experiences relating to sustainability, serving as an intern for both Environment America’s Research and Policy Center in Washington, DC and Wake Forest’s Office of Energy Management. Allie’s internship at Environment America, through the Wake Washington program, gave her valuable experience in communicating research results and in understanding how non-profit organizations operate. As the intern for the Office of Energy Management, Allie and her co-intern Joey Matt (’13) planned Energy Bowl 2012.
Through her work with the Office of Energy Management, Allie met Dedee DeLongpre-Johnston, a second figure who impacted her aspirations for the future. DeLongpre-Johnston, the Director of the Office of Sustainability, pointed out to Allie that every environmental problem is also a social problem. Allie reports that this insight is leading her to pursue an explicitly humanitarian path. In addition to helping Allie make the connection between the social and environmental, she says DeLongpre-Johnston also taught her the importance of professionalism and organization. Allie says “Dedee taught me that it is one thing to be passionate and excited, but without a plan you really don’t get much done.”
Allie’s plan is to pursue further education, but her next step won’t be a linear extension of her undergraduate academic career. With a strong foundation in the science behind sustainability already, Allie is planning to incorporate other influences into her education by pursuing an MA in Management at Wake Forest this fall. She says “being fluent in other areas, such as business, will help me bring the environmental aspect into those fields.” Wherever she goes, Allie knows she will carry the benefits of a balanced and engaged Wake Forest experience. She reaped the benefits of mentoring relationships with faculty and staff who invested in her development and, in turn, she is focusing on paying those benefits forward by serving as a positive influence for her peers.
Written by Annabel Lang, Wake Forest Fellow for the Office of Sustainability