When he was growing up, Robbie Rioux's ’21 family vacations meant going to state parks. These camping trips nurtured his love for nature and the outdoors, and led him to take an environmental science class in high school. Little did the Syracuse, N.Y., native know that it would later inspire him to continue his education at Yale University, where he’ll pursue a master’s degree in environmental science.
Rioux will be working with Gaboury Benoit, professor of environmental chemistry, during the two-year research program. Benoit deals with issues in water quality and is currently studying problems involving microplastics, urban litter, and infrastructure dealing with stormwater management.
Major: Environmental studies
Hometown: Syracuse, N.Y.
High school: Corcoran High School
In high school when Rioux was thinking about career interests, he considered what he wanted his future to look like. “I didn’t ever want to be in an office,” he said. “I didn’t want to come in and work in a cubicle under fluorescent lights all day. I always had that at the back of my mind.”
During the fall of his first year at Hamilton, he took Environmental Geology with Professor Todd Rayne. They explored issues of pollution and water quality, which helped build his foundation of understanding for his future work. That summer, he got an internship at the Syracuse Water Department.
“I was driving around this lake every day. I was working with my boss, other government agencies, and homeowners,” Rioux said. “I got paid to be outside, walk around to people’s properties, be out on a lake and out on a boat. I’m like, ‘This is amazing.’ That right there, I [thought], ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be outside, in the field, I want to work with people solving issues.’”
Aside from the water department, Rioux has interned with a soil and water conservation district and the Department of Environmental Conservation over the course of his summers at Hamilton. Most recently, over winter break, he worked with a nonprofit that focuses on issues with water in the Onondaga watershed.
“I’ve done a lot of things with water quality and water issues, and they are very interesting problems,” said Rioux. “They are holistic, complex, and really important, especially in Upstate New York. When I worked with the water department, I was working in a watershed where I got my drinking water from, and there are a bunch of water quality issues in the lake that they need to solve, so trying to solve those issues is protecting the water source for maybe 185,000 people.
“Doing things like that, it feels meaningful, and I think it’s also something you can find solutions to. It can be frustrating fighting the good fight, but feeling like there’s no real progress, and I feel like you can make real progress in protecting water quality, especially in fresh water bodies,” he said.
His sophomore fall, Rioux took Climate Change with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong. Over the summer, he had been looking at harmful algal blooms on the lake. In Strong’s course, he was put into a water quality group where they read papers about issues of water quality. One was about harmful algal blooms affecting climate change.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy,’” Rioux said. “It wasn’t something I had really thought about or made a connection to. I really liked the paper, I really liked the issue, and I really liked that I had already had a connection and experience with it, so I’ve run with it ever since.”
An environmental science major, Rioux focused his thesis on harmful algal blooms in Skaneateles Lake. “That’s in part because of the internship I had and mostly because of Aaron and his class and his constant encouragement,” Rioux said. “He was the one who told me to even apply to Yale. Like, who sits around and is like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to apply to Yale?’ Not me. I wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t tell me to.”
After obtaining his master’s degree, Rioux hopes to work as a research scientist at a government agency, either at the state or federal level. He wants a position that is public-facing, public-serving, investigating water issues and resources. He is also interested in obtaining his Ph.D. in order to be able to teach.
“I’m in a very bittersweet moment right now,” Rioux said. “My time at Hamilton is coming to an end, but then I get to go to Yale to continue my education. I’m excited to see what happens and the way things shake out.”