Jan. 12, 2022

These grad students want to make the world more sustainable

Students in Sustainable Energy Development program focus on interdisciplinary solutions to energy and environmental challenges
Irene Herremans, Adam Leece, Susana Moncada
From left: Irene Herremans, Adam Leece, and Susana Moncada. Herremans photo by Don Molyneaux, for the University of Calgary

Many of the graduate students in the University of Calgary’s Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV) program are looking for a new career while others want to broaden their knowledge. But they all share a common desire: to make the world a better place.

“These are the people who sit at the table that are trying to work together to solve our sustainability problems and concerns,” says Dr. Irene Herremans, PhD, professor in the Haskayne School of Business, and who teaches the SEDV’s capstone research course and supervises students in the program.

“I think students see the SEDV program as the place they want to be because they’re not only looking for job opportunities, they also see it being consistent with their value system,” she says.

The interdisciplinary course-based MSc degree in Sustainable Energy Development encompasses four disciplines: business, engineering, environmental design, and law. The program is a collaborative offering by the School of Public Policy, Haskayne School of Business, Schulich School of Engineering, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, and the Faculty of Law.

The SEDV program, linked to the world’s Sustainable Development Goals, provides a cross-disciplinary, holistic approach to finding solutions to multi-dimensional energy and environment problems.

Students bring a diverse mix of academic backgrounds and professional experiences to the program. The 26 students in the SEDV graduating class of 2020-2021 reflect a range of disciplines, including: biochemistry, engineering (chemical, civil, electrical, petroleum, textile), environmental science, geology, human geography, commerce-finance, business administration, and political science.

Adam Leece, who has a degree in civil engineering and worked in the oil and gas industry and the commercial-industrial sector, says the multidisciplinary approach is what attracted him to the SEDV program.

“For a mid-career professional, the multidisciplinary aspect had value because you can see how policy affects this, and how economics affects that, and how engineering affects all of it,” he says.

Even though the SEDV program had to go online due to COVID-19, Leece says he still learned a lot from his classmates’ different perspectives.

Susana Moncada, who’s originally from Mexico, has a degree in chemical engineering, and worked for several years in the oil and gas industry, says the diversity of nationalities in her class is what she enjoyed the most.

“Everybody was bringing their experiences to the table,” she says. “We not only learned about sustainability in Canada, we learned about it in Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela.”

Research projects tackle real-world issues

As part of the SEDV curriculum, students complete a research “capstone project,” to integrate and apply the concepts they’ve learned to a practical industry situation and real-world problems.

The SEDV program’s industry partners each year propose capstone projects, although students are also able to pick their own topic. Students working with a company get industry networking opportunities, which enhances their classroom learning and potential job prospects.

The SEDV class of 2020-2021’s capstone projects encompassed a wide range of topics, but all focused on aspects of sustainability and energy.

An independent panel of judges recognized Leece’s and Moncada’s projects as the two best in the graduating cohort, among many high-quality projects.

Leece’s project assessed the techno-economic feasibility of extracting lithium from produced waters during shale oil and gas-drilling operations in Western Canada. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are critical for the widespread adoption of electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems.

Leece says his study concluded that lithium extraction is economically feasible today, but more work is needed on technical aspects. He is now doing contract work related to his capstone project. He also landed a job, in the renewable energy industry, directly through the SEDV program.

Moncada’s capstone project focused on developing a strategy for the Varsity Courts family housing complex on campus to become a zero-waste community.

To inform and change residents’ views about waste, she created a user guide, implemented workshops and co-produced an educational video for others to carry on the work she started.

The University of Calgary, which aims to divert 70 per cent of its waste from landfills by 2025, is implementing many of her recommendations.

“I developed a passion for waste though the SEDV program,” says Moncada, who plans to pursue a career in waste management.

Changing the world, one person at a time

The majority of SEDV alumni have gone on to work in some aspect of sustainability, with many now in successful careers involving sustainability and the environment, Herremans notes.

The range of jobs is broad with SEDV alumni working in most major Canadian energy companies as well as in professional firms such as KPMG and Deloitte.

Others are putting their knowledge to use in public service at the Alberta Energy Regulator, or directly at the Cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and the Town of Banff. One alumnus is now the manager of waste facilities at the University of Calgary, while another was hired by UCalgary to help make campus buildings more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Another SEDV graduate, a former teacher, is working with Ten Peaks Innovation Alliance, a not-for-profit organization educating and inspiring Alberta’s youth about energy and the environment.

 And some SEDV alumni have started their own companies. Just a few examples are:

SolarSteam (providing low-cost renewable heat in extreme climates), Budfunding (offering sustainability expos and projects) and Ciclomanias (upcyling waste into art and doing workshops for elementary schools and adults).

“I see things coming out of the SEDV program that make me feel a lot better about the direction we’re going in,” Herremans says. “We need to see that each person can make a change, that our change in behaviour will make a change in the world.”