Celebrating Student and Alumni Stories

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, we asked students and alumni to share stories about how their involvement in the program made an impact on their education and careers. Each month we will be highlighting a student and an alumnus who are connected by a shared experience while studying at UNC. Share Your Story.

Stephanie Cleland

Stephanie Cleland

Stephanie Cleland (MSPH student)
I decided to come to UNC because the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering provides the unique combination of environmental science and public health education, with a wealth of resources, incredible faculty, courses and research focused on solving complex environmental health issues. I wanted to pursue my degree at a school that would train me to use my engineering skills to understand and solve public health challenges and become an effective environmental health researcher, and ESE does just that. Read more/less.

What I like most about my UNC experience is being able to conduct relevant, impactful environmental health research while still taking courses in public health and environmental science to expand and deepen my expertise. I also appreciate the close relationships I have been able to build with faculty. The professors I work closely with are invested in the work I do and have ensured that I am getting the most out of my graduate degree. I have learned an incredible amount during my two years at UNC – more than I thought possible – and believe my time in ESE will prepare me for an effective career in environmental health.


Chris Werner

Chris Werner

Chris Werner (’12 MSEE)
I’d say what brought me to UNC was a positive experience at the UNC School of Law a few years prior. I attended law school prior to enrolling in Environmental Sciences and Engineering, so I have a lot of good memories of Chapel Hill. But I can say without hesitation that my memories from ESE stand out for the connections I made with the faculty and my fellow students. Read more/less.

The most important thing I got out of my UNC experience was definitely all of the talented people I met and that I continue to keep in touch with as my career progresses. My experience at UNC prepared me immensely for my current employment at U.S. EPA. My time spent as a student on air quality modeling really helped my current understanding of air pollution chemistry and physics, which feed directly into the air quality policy work I currently do. And it taught me how much work there is still to do in improving public health both at home and abroad.


Alma Beciragic

Alma Beciragic

Alma Beciragic (Doctoral student)
I wanted to find a place where I could explore my passions for analytical chemistry, water quality and public health; a place where I could get hands-on training and experience in the laboratory, developing analytical methods and refining my skillsets as a scientist. A place where I would be immersed into a world of my interests—one that I could not have imagined to be as captivating as it is. A place where science does not end with only results, but instead with impact—on the community and the world. Looking back on my time in this program, I can now confidently say that UNC and the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering have offered an unparalleled opportunity to check every single one of those criteria. Read more/less.

In the words of Leonardo da Vinci, ‘[w]ater is the driving force of all nature.’ Amongst many other research areas, the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC works to develop methods to better understand and protect our water sources. In light of climate change and projected population increases, such critical research efforts will only become more necessary. The knowledge gained from these endeavors will help safeguard communities around the world.


Dr. Leonard Smock

Dr. Leonard Smock

Leonard Smock (’79 PhD)
While completing my MS degree at the University of Illinois around the time of the first Earth Day, I became deeply interested in water resource issues. My adviser, who headed the university’s environmental science program, pointed me to UNC’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, saying that it had one of the best water resource programs in the country and offered a wide range of directions that my PhD research could take me. That was some of the best advice I have ever received. Read more/less.

The Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering gave me a wide-ranging foundation on which to build my career and, in some respects, my life. I continually built on the science I learned, especially from my water chemistry class. The department as a whole showed me the importance of translating the basic research I conducted into solutions for the environmental problems facing the broader community. Water quantity and quality issues will only become more and more important with time, defining the world’s social, political and economic well-being. UNC’s environmental sciences and engineering department must continue to be at the head of resolving the issues that will surely arise.


Nikhil Kothegal

Nikhil Kothegal

Nikhil Kothegal (Doctoral student)
When I applied to the Environmental Sciences and Engineering doctoral program at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, I was seeking a program with a strong research focus on water and environmental health. Gillings appealed to me for its numerous faculty who are leading experts in this area, as well as the renowned Water Institute. I was also excited by the potential to focus on North Carolina-related environmental justice issues around industrial agriculture, which was a shift from the global HIV surveillance work I had been conducting at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Read more/less.

I am particularly fond of the collaborative environment at UNC. Faculty and students from different fields join together to conduct novel research projects on real health issues confronted by the population of this state. Many students have provided me crucial mentorship and encouragement, from training me in the lab, taking me to do fieldwork and explaining the inner workings of the University.

I am excited to be surrounded by students who are curious, intelligent and willing to challenge systemic inequality and health disparities to improve population health. I know that my hard work and dedication, as well as the knowledge and skills I develop during the PhD program at UNC, will position me to make valuable contributions to the field of public health in the future.


Stephen Morse

Dr. Stephen Morse

Stephen Morse (’66 MSPH, ‘69 PhD)
After graduating college in February of 1964, I was hoping to start medical school that September. I took a protozoology course taught by Dr. Robert Mah, who later hired me as his teaching assistant. At the end of the spring semester, he told me that he had accepted a position at the School of Public Health at UNC and asked if I would like to go there as his graduate student. I accepted and have never regretted the decision. Read more/less.

After completing my doctoral degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC, I accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Georgia in microbial genetics. From there it was a career in academia with stops at Harvard and Oregon Health Sciences University.

I was always interested in medicine and infectious diseases. My research interests were in the area of sexually transmitted diseases. I was recruited by CDC to be the director of the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Research Program, and during my 32-year career there, I held a number of positions including Chief of the Hepatitis Laboratory, Deputy Director of the Division of AIDS, STDs and Tuberculosis Laboratory Research, Deputy Director of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program and Associate Director for Environmental Microbiology.

One of the most important things I received from my UNC experience was a broad background in public health, which was essential for my future career at the CDC.


Rosa Cuppari (’20 MS and current doctoral student)

Rosa Cuppari

Rosa Cuppari

While the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) at UNC was not initially on my radar when exploring graduate programs, I discovered that it offered me access to rigorous engineering-related coursework while still giving me the flexibility of other policy-oriented programs I was exploring. I came to ESE with a very limited quantitative background, and in the past two years, I have been happily whipped into statistical and scientific shape. In particular, I have learned how to translate the environmental systems that interest me into computational models and how to evaluate decision making quantitatively. These are applied, practical skills which I hope to use on a regular basis in my career. Most importantly, they provide me with a framework from which to approach assignments and duties in future positions. Read more/less.

My goal is to use the skills and knowledge I’ve developed to work on water-food-energy nexus issues in some international capacity. Ideally, I’d like to be part of the U.S. Department of State, helping manage transboundary water resources around the world.

It is a rare thing to find a department that can strike a balance between flexibility, rigor and academic diversity. At ESE, we have air quality modelers, membrane-technology experts, microbiologists, power system modelers and more. I don’t think I have ever seen a department of this size with such a variety of research. It caters to interdisciplinary research and stimulates graduate students to think of ways their work connects to the work of others. ESE has a special niche. It deserves 100 more years!


Don Lauria (’70 PhD and professor emeritus)

Don Lauria

Dr. Don Lauria

UNC and ESE are central to my career, my life, who I am and what I do. Dan Okun, former ESE department chair, called me in 1964 when I was working with a firm of consulting engineers in Syracuse, N.Y. to ask if I was interested in a teaching position in ESE. The students were mid-career engineers from developing countries wanting to learn about community water supply-sanitation planning and design. I said yes. Read more/less.

Once I started teaching these engineers, it opened a whole new world of opportunities to work on the water and sanitation problems in developing countries. The technical background, skills, contacts and opportunities to work with and assist very poor people across the globe – these were some of the most important things that came from my UNC experience.

The purpose of life, as I see it, is self-transcendence: being more today than who we were yesterday. We transcend ourselves by what we do, not by our thinking or understanding or decisions or intelligence. Understanding underpins our decisions, and decisions, in turn, underpin our doing. This understanding, the “knowledge” business of universities, is a lower rung on the ladder of self-transcendence. Belief is a type of understanding that accepts as true existing knowledge that was developed by someone else. ESE’s strength is in the emphasis it puts on students becoming inner-directed to develop their own knowledge so they can best serve society, as opposed to the secondhand belief-knowledge of others that often characterizes academic departments.


David Gorelick

David Gorelick

David Gorelick (doctoral student)

I came to UNC as an undergraduate in 2011. Truthfully, I was dead set on leaving North Carolina after high school, but after visiting Chapel Hill and meeting with Greg Gangi in the Environment and Ecology Program, I felt that this would be a good place for me! Almost nine years and nearly three UNC degrees later, it was obviously the right choice. Read more/less.

What I appreciate most about UNC is the breadth of topics courses available to us, especially as graduate students. Being exposed to that range of subjects has already had a beneficial impact on my research and pushed me to explore different career options than I thought I would when I enrolled.

In the future, I hope to be doing work in natural resources that influences policy, either directly through legislation, applied research or teaching.


Joe Brown

Dr. Joe Brown

Joe Brown (’07 PhD and current faculty)

The friendly, collaborative, positive atmosphere set UNC apart from other programs I considered at Cornell, Yale, Columbia, UT Austin, and UC Berkeley. I wanted to do great work in a positive environment of collaborative excellence. Drs. Mark Sobsey and Greg Characklis were two faculty influences, and the student services office representatives – including Jack Whaley and CL Lassiter – both played important roles in presenting a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. Other graduate students also helped me feel welcome. Read more/less.

I never deviated from the trajectory in academia that I established at UNC. I learned what academic collaboration looks like and the importance of having a rich scholarly community to support the development of great scientists. Now I am on the faculty in ESE and conducting research at the intersection of engineering and public health.

The training I received at UNC was absolutely essential to all of the work I do now in my research, teaching and service. It exposed me to an atmosphere of excellence and a deep commitment for improving human well-being. The program is unique in its scope and is globally recognized for sustaining excellent research and training opportunities for environmental scientists and engineers who are working on some of the most critical problems in public health.


We Want to Hear from You

Please send us your stories and more by completing our Centennial Survey.
Submit your ESE photos here.

Questions? Email ESE_Centennial@unc.edu.