Nelson Institute affiliate and assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Andrea Hicks will be joining the Office of Sustainability as the interim Director of Sustainability Education and Research in 2021, following the retirement of the previous director and Nelson Institute faculty member Cathy Middlecamp. In this role, Hicks will utilize her background in environmental engineering to enhance sustainability-related research and education efforts across campus. She will work alongside the team at the Office of Sustain
ability, including Director of Sustainability, Missy Nergard.
While Hicks has recently been appointed interim Director of Sustainability Education and Research, she has long been associated with sustainability projects on and off campus. From her part in the Certificate in Engineering for Energy Sustainability and the Nelson Institute undergraduate Sustainability Certificate to her research on the environmental impacts and sustainability implications of emerging technologies, sustainability is a consistent theme across Hicks’s work.
“My background is in environmental engineering and that’s really about caring for the planet,” said Hicks. “It’s thinking about how we manage our waste, how we provide clean air and clean water, and that’s really what started my initial interest in learning and wondering how I could make a difference.”
Hicks brings a wide range of experience to the Office of Sustainability having studied various aspects of sustainability science across the country. Specifically, Hicks has a M.S. in environmental engineering and earth science from Clemson University where she investigated the carbon footprint of small scale waste water treatment plants. Hicks continued studying sustainability while completing her PhD at the University of Illinois- Chicago, where her work focused on energy efficiency and the rebound effect, which is the idea that as something becomes more efficient we use more of it, therefore potentially eroding any gains made. Hicks’s postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois- Chicago Institute for Environmental Science and Policy also focused on sustainability, specifically the environmental impact of engineered nanomaterials.
Today, Hicks explores the environmental impacts and sustainability implications of emerging technologies such as engineered nanomaterials, autonomous vehicles, and aquaponics. She looks at these technologies through the lens of the precautionary principle, which asks, is what we are about to do worse than what we’ve already done, or is it better? And, if it’s worse, how do we reimagine it? If it’s better, how much better is it?
“For me, being an environmental engineer means using your engineering background to solve big societal problems,” said Hicks, who hopes to aid in solving these problems through her new role with the Office of Sustainability.
Hicks is especially excited to have the opportunity to work with students. Hicks highlighted the important role students have already played in the success of sustainability on campus, noting their efforts to spearhead the award-winning reusable dining containers used by housing and the low flow toilets for dorms.
“Students are integral to sustainability on campus and they are the lifeblood of this university,” said Hicks. “I know they are doing really excellent work and it’s about understanding what each person is doing and how to harness their interests and skills.”
As the interim director, Hicks plans to continue the tradition of collaboration and student-centered work spearheaded by Middlecamp, while thinking of new ways to track and share the work that is happening within the office.
“Cathy has done a wonderful job and is leaving huge shoes to fill,” said Hicks. “I think we do a lot of really exciting sustainability work on campus. And I think it would be really great if we did a more comprehensive job of quantifying the benefits of the work we do. For example, the Green Fund does a lot of projects that make a big difference on campus, but now we need the metrics to show just how excellent these projects are. This will help reinforce the difference we’re making.”
As interim director, Hicks also hopes to grow the partnerships between the Office of Sustainability and the rest of campus. Hicks currently teaches 421 Environmental Sustainability Engineering, which is a community-based learning class where students work on community projects that are identified and shared as a part of the UniverCity Alliance, Univercity Year program. Through this program, students have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with sustainability projects, which has inspired Hicks to expand this idea on campus.
“The Office of Sustainability works really well with a sub-set of courses but there are a lot of really interesting sustainability courses and resources on campus that I think we need to connect with,” said Hicks. “For example, the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery has a geothermal system and we have students studying systems like these. What a great learning opportunity it would be for them to go and see this. It would be such a wonderful learning experience to use our campus as a living laboratory and explore that concept.”
To learn more about the Office of Sustainability visit https://sustainability.wisc.edu/
Author: BEKAH MCBRIDE