To most people, when something is thrown away, it’s gone, it’s useless. But not to Bethann Parmelee. For her, garbage has a second life once it’s discarded – as biodiesel.
The environmental engineering major is working with Profs. Susan Powers and Michael Twiss and a lot of garbage at a local solid waste management facility while performing her Honors research. For her project, she’s focusing on turning leachate (the liquid accumulated in landfills from rainwater that flows through garbage) into biodiesel to help decrease the facility’s dependence on petroleum.
“My research looked into the sustainable production of biodiesel from the algae that grow on a landfill’s leachate. I thought that if the facility could use a product that was otherwise destined for disposal, they could save money and help the environment at the same time,” she explains.
Her research could have positive results for solid waste management facilities across the nation and beyond. She believes that any number of facilities could utilize their waste products to increase their sustainability and decrease their negative impacts on the environment. “My study will hopefully confirm our suspicions that leachate to biodiesel is a viable solution,” she adds.
From her research experiences, Bethann explains that she’s been able to explore different interdisciplinary fields of study and get a better understanding of what she could do after graduation. “I like that doing research here means more than doing endless lab work without seeing an end product,” she says. “It can be applied beyond campus to current advances in any number of fields. That’s not something an undergraduate can do anywhere.”
Bethann’s research fits in perfectly with her academic curriculum in environmental engineering, a discipline which, after growing up in an energy and environmentally conscious home, she says just came to her one day.
“Environmental engineering just seemed perfect,” she says. “Everything in the program ties in together, where class materials intertwine from course to course. It isn’t just learning for learning’s sake.”
But she’s also quick to explain that academics and research aren’t the only things that interest her at Clarkson. She’s active outside the labs and classrooms too, on the Division III cross-country team and as a member of the Golden Knotes a cappella group.
“Running and music have always been passions of mine. I’ve also always been pretty outdoorsy. It’s nice to have a venue for all of these things at such a technically oriented school,” she says.
After graduation, Bethann wants to use her skills and knowledge to give back to others. For starters, she’s determined to serve in the Peace Corps. “I always wanted to give back to a great cause, and I can definitely do that in the Peace Corps,” she says. “It seems silly not to use my degree where there is a shortage of knowledge in environmental engineering, like South America or Africa.”
After the Peace Corps, Bethann plans to enter graduate school and work in sustainability or industrial ecology. “I’ve always wanted to save the world. I know I have the tools. Now I hope that no matter what I choose to do, I have that opportunity.”