Meet Molly, Environmental Engineering Student at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.
Molly is a senior studying to earn her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman, MT.
Can you tell us a little about what Environmental Engineering is and what studying Environmental Engineering is like?
Environmental Engineers do a lot of different jobs with the goal of protecting or cleaning up the environment. In school, I study topics like chemistry, biology, physics, writing, and ecology. I combine the knowledge I gain in these classes to tackle big projects.
What inspired you to study Environmental Engineering?
I always liked both STEM classes like science and math, and humanities classes like English and history. Environmental engineering uses all of those skills (and more!), and I was interested in finding a way to blend so many different disciplines.
What did you know about Environmental Engineering when you were a kid?
When I was 8 years old, MSU students who were part of a club called Engineers Without Borders (EWB, for short) came to my 4th grade class to talk about their work in Khwisero, Kenya. They worked with local organizations to build wells and latrines for primary schools that didn’t have access to water. I was so excited and wondered if I could join them someday.
Now, as an MSU student, I’ve been the leader of the EWB sanitation committee for 3 years and traveled to Kenya in summer of 2019. I hope to return there in summer 2022!
What are some really cool things that Environmental Engineers work on?
There are so many cool projects happening in Environmental Engineering! Some of the coolest ones I’ve been a part of or learned about include rebuilding a river that was redirected by mine tailings. We were working to survey all of the streams in a watershed to predict drinking water for a city and using wetlands to treat wastewater.
Can you tell us about any challenges you have encountered as a woman studying Environmental Engineering? How have you overcome them?
Engineering is a difficult field for anyone, but it can be especially challenging when there’s no one in the room or in the class who looks or thinks like you.
I found it helped to practice answering questions in class–even if I was nervous or wasn’t sure I had the answer–and making friends with my classmates so I didn’t feel like I was alone.
Overall, I’ve been lucky to have very supportive peers and professors – many of whom are women!
Tell us about a time you failed. What did you learn and how did you move on from that?
I work in a research lab on campus that studies algae growth for future use in biofuel. To make the algae grow better we took a natural source of algae, removed all the microbes that live with it in nature, then added them back in one at a time to see which ones benefitted the algae the most.
The first year of the study, we tested dozens of different bacteria, and couldn’t find a significant impact from any of them, positive or negative. It was so frustrating. Finally, we tried more bacteria from another algae source and grew the algae in more “stressful” conditions where it didn’t have as much food, nutrients, or light, and found a few that made it grow better!
Because we thought outside the box and tried the experiment in different ways, we were able to move on from the frustrating beginning.
Can you share the importance of diversity in your field and how women and people from diverse backgrounds can bring positive contributions to the Environmental Engineering community?
No matter what field you’re in, having diverse perspectives makes your work stronger and more well-rounded. Engineering is no different, except that it affects everyone and has been limited to only men for so long. A majority of my Environmental Engineering professors at MSU are women, and I feel inspired and supported by them every day.
Can you describe a “day in your life” studying Environmental Engineering?
On a typical school day, I’ll wake up around 7:00, eat breakfast and pack my lunch, then walk to campus. I start by making pottery in my Ceramics class, which fulfills my art requirement. The rest of the day I’ll learn about wastewater treatment, how to use computer software to model rivers and floodplains, and stormwater management.
If I have a break during the day, I’ll either work on homework or climb at the climbing wall in the gym. After class I’ll walk home, catch up with my roommates, and do some homework before going to a club meeting for Engineers Without Borders, Backcountry Squatters, or Trail Junkies.
Then I make dinner with my roommates, wash the dishes, and finish any last homework. Finally, I read, meditate, and journal before going to bed.
What do you love most about Montana State University and its Environmental Engineering program?
What I love most about the Environmental Engineering program at MSU is the sense of community with my professors and my fellow students. I spend time with my classmates to do homework and work on group projects. Sometimes, we might also go skiing, fishing, and cooking together.
I know that I can reach out to any of my professors if I have questions about an assignment or what I should do after college. We’re a small enough group that we all support each other.
Do you have one piece of advice for our readers who are considering going to school for Environmental Engineering?
I would say to start by looking for Environmental Engineering projects in your community. This could be anything from water and wastewater treatment for your city, a stream restoration in a local park, or a hazardous waste cleanup. Find one that interests you, then reach out to one of the engineers to see if they would be willing to talk with you or show you the project.
A big part of Environmental Engineering is sharing projects with the community. Many people will be happy to share what they’ve learned.