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Tackling Real-World Issues to Make a Real-World Difference

Ellie Sangree ’24 arrived for her first semester at Hamilton equipped with more than the usual college essentials; she came with a concept for an experiment. It involved eutrophication, which is when excessive nutrients, often from agricultural chemicals, taint a body of water. It’s a major cause of pollution in freshwater and marine ecosystems.

As Sangree navigated her new life on campus, the concept continued to intrigue her. “The idea was to create something that would float on top of a polluted body of water and trap the nutrients, or catch them rather, before they’d be flushed downstream into our bigger water systems,” she says.

Hamilton College reservoir
In pouring rain, Professor Aaron Strong, Ellie Sangree ’24, and a photographer drag a raft carrying the research filter from the Hamilton reservoir. Photo: Alex Leland

Working up her nerve, she approached Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong to see if he had suggestions about how she could explore her idea. To her surprise, he immediately said he’d love to help. Strong considers real world learning to be foundational for students. “It works really well in environmental studies because our questions are about solving problems, and solving problems by hands-on experiences is really helpful,” he says. Experiential learning is a College priority.

By semester’s end, Sangree’s idea had taken shape. Her contraption — a solar-powered, floating treatment wetland system made from recycled materials — was anchored in a College-owned reservoir about two miles from campus. The concept she’d harbored since high school had hatched into continuing research.

“The idea behind the floating bed that I’ve designed and built is that within the bed, I’m creating conditions that encourage the growth of the bacteria associated with turning this fertilizer pollution into a less harmful form,” she explains.

Sangree says her project helped shape her post-Hamilton goals. Early on, as she researched the literature, she contacted the CEO of one of the few companies in the U.S. that manufactures floating wetlands and explained her design to him. “He’s been really excited about it and talked about the possibility of me doing an internship over the summer,” she says. If that happens, Sangree says, she’s hopeful that it may lead to a job after graduation.

The idea behind the floating bed that I’ve designed and built is that within the bed, I’m creating conditions that encourage the growth of the bacteria associated with turning this fertilizer pollution into a less harmful form.

floating wetland

Ellie Sangree’s floating wetland uses a solar-powered water pump and a passive bell siphon system to intermittently flood the bed with nutrient-polluted water. This creates conditions ideal for certain microbes to grow and transform these nutrients into less harmful forms and release “filtered” water back into the pond. The yellow numbers represent the path of water through the bed.

Sangree believes her design is the first bell-siphon aerated system. A bell siphon is a simple technology, which she borrowed from aquaponics (she’s president of Hamilton’s Aquaponics Club) that allows water to be intermittently drained through a bed without requiring a pump on a timer with a consistent source of electricity. She says that her design, made primarily from recycled and common materials, is cheap and easier to build than all-new plastic alternatives.

“My ultimate vision, once I have the science solidified, is a cheap and sustainably built grow bed that, when placed in the polluted ponds of parks or farms, will transform fertilizer pollution into flowers and produce,” she says. 

“But I think my broader intention is to go into academia either as a professor or a teacher of high school,” she says.

Sangree’s work is among a groundswell of Hamilton student research and projects related to sustainability and the environment. Last summer, for instance, in research funded by the College, students took on environmental equity and the cosmetics industry; the livelihood of residents and tourists of Muskoka, Ontario, Canada; and local concerns and opposition on the road to a solar-powered New York State, among many other issues on and off campus.

reservoir research -19
From left, Professor Aaron Strong chats with Pauline Santry '21, Lucille Kline '22, and Emely Chacon '22 as they measure the amount of methane gas released from the Hamilton reservoir. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

“The fact that we have this climate emergency upon us, which is really an existential threat, has driven a lot of interest in these issues,” says Professor of Government Peter Cannavo, former director of the Environmental Studies Program and current Government Department chair.

Students could address such topics through readings and classroom discussions. “But the actual hands-on experience of learning is incredibly important to really see how environmental issues play out in actual communities, how they actually impact people, how decisions are made, how policies are made with regard to environmental problems — and all the obstacles and complications and wrinkles that can come up along the way,” Cannavo says.

Also fueling the increase in student sustainability work is Hamilton’s recent investment in the interdisciplinary Environmental Study Program — including creating its first two dedicated tenure-track faculty positions. Strong has one of the positions; Assistant Professor Heather Kropp, a data scientist, has the other. The program also has a dedicated position for a visiting professor of environmental justice.

Professors in the program are committed to supporting experiential learning, says Program Director Andrea Townsend, associate professor of biology. With the new faculty positions, she says, that commitment is gaining momentum. In the last couple of summers, she’s worked with students on campus reforestation projects that are part of Hamilton’s collegewide effort to reach carbon neutrality.

From left, Avery Morgan ’22, Lilia Harlan ’22, Margaret Phipps ’23, Environmental Assessment Specialist Sara Soika, and Natural Resource Program Manager Don Croft take a break from their work extending the campus trail system last summer. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

Students come at their research from all directions:

A few years ago, art major Chad Varney ’22 and sociology major Sammy Johnson ’20 created Upcurl, a company that sells “upcycled” clothing made from items found in thrift stores. The venture traces back to an independent study course, with Strong, that looked at sustainable clothing production and the negative impact of fast fashion. Upcurl is still in business.

Creating (or recreating) garments requires washing, bleaching, cutting, sewing, and embroidering. And because Varney and Johnson started the venture as the pandemic hit, they relied on help from the Hamilton community. Strong and Julia Perdue, costume designer in the Theatre Department, lent their support, and after thrift shops closed, help came from students and staff who sent clothing donations and were responsible for most of the initial purchases.

“The real-world experience has been beyond valuable in terms of learning by making mistakes and growing through them. I, personally, went into this experience with no design or marketing experience,” Varney says.

In a patch of forest on campus, Fatima Oliva ’23 used a chainsaw and data to take on buckthorn, an invasive species of trees that hinders the vitality of College forestland. Through a Hamilton Summer Science Research Fellowship, Oliva worked with data scientist Kropp on a project with potential benefit to Hamilton’s carbon neutrality initiative. Oliva, an environmental studies major, was eager to work with Kropp to learn about land management and the use of drones and remote sensing techniques to measure soil moisture and sap flow.

Oliva loved the independence of summer research. “Professor Kropp was really supportive of that as well,” she recalls. “She would let us dive into our own interests and choose what parts of our research we wanted to focus on more, especially when it came to our abstracts and our posters that we presented on afterward. And so I definitely feel like this experience really helped me figure out what I want to do after Hamilton.” A Las Vegas resident, Oliva plans to attend graduate school, possibly to focus on water security in the Southwest.

Owen Routhier ’23 spent a summer examining the feasibility and potential value of blue carbon local sequestration on Cape Cod. Blue carbon refers to carbon that is stored in ocean and coastal ecosystems. Funded through an Emerson grant from Hamilton, Routhier conducted the study — his advisor was Strong — for the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

Looking specifically at marshlands, Routhier learned to use geographical information system mapping software and applied an existing blue carbon modeling tool to determine the viability of sequestration. He estimated how much carbon could be sequestered and its financial value, and he envisioned what a climate fund for Cape Cod, paid for by sequestering, could look like.

“I definitely want to continue expanding my knowledge on these mapping systems and coastal blue carbon. Even looking forward to next summer, I’m considering continuing my research, maybe going for another Emerson grant,” he says.

In a project inspired by her own creativity, Charlotte “Charlie” Guterman ’22 fashioned a top and jacket from dryer lint. “I’m a double major in art and environmental studies, so it’s a fun combination of the sustainability aspect, but also trying to come at it from a creative angle,” she says. “I think a lot of sustainability can be very densely science-based, which is important and urgent, but also less accessible.”

After she graduates in May, Guterman plans to continue her path in the fine arts by pursuing an M.F.A. in the next five years and, in the meantime, creating visuals and graphics for environmental nonprofits — work that combines scientific communication and education.

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