Environmental Sciences and Engineering Alumni

2017 ESE Distinguished Alumna

Marla smith-Nilson headshot

Marla Smith-Nilson, MSEE

Marla Smith-Nilson (MSEE 1994), founder and Executive Director of Water1st International, is the 2017 Environmental Sciences and Engineering Distinguished Alumna.

Water1st International, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle, Washington, helps poor communities around the world build and independently maintain water supply and sanitation systems. Read more

Over her 25-year career, Marla Smith-Nilson has helped to bring clean water and sanitation to 250,000 people in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Marla earned a BS in civil engineering from the University of Arizona in 1991 and a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering at UNC Chapel Hill in 1994. She was encouraged to attend UNC by ESE alum Dr. Robert Arnold, her mentor at the University of Arizona. Her research at UNC, conducted under the direction of Dr. Phillip Singer, involved the study of disinfection by-products.

While a student, Marla co-founded WaterPartners International (now water.org) with a fellow ESE student. She founded Water1st in 2005. WaterPartner’s first advisory board included UNC faculty members respected worldwide for their expertise: Drs. Donald Lauria, Daniel Okun, Francis DiGiano, Dale Whittington, Philip Singer and David Moreau. These professors challenged Marla to think about what users valued about their water and sanitation systems and how to create projects that would endure.

Marla still applies the lessons she learned at UNC to advocate for and support effective international development—supporting local, long-lasting solutions to the water and sanitation crisis—the first step out of poverty toward transformation. She is an expert in identifying and partnering with on-the-ground implementing organizations and has a unique ability to communicate the world water crisis and the stories of our project beneficiaries and inspire us to take action in effective ways.

Marla is the co-recipient of the 2013 Self Magazine ‘Woman Doing Good’ Award and was recognized for this award on NBC’s Today Show. She is the 2015 recipient of the World Affairs Council World Citizen Award, delivered the 2016 Centennial Lecture at the University of Arizona, and was a presenter at the 2017 Portland TEDx event. Her Op/Ed writing has been featured in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and ParentMap, for which she won a national writing award.

Marla lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, Jim (MSEE 1994), and potential future Tar Heels, Calvin (16) and Melina (14).

2017-2018 Distinguished Alumna Marla Smith-Nilson
Award Presentation and Seminar

Solving Global Water & Sanitation Problems
with Lessons Learned as an ESE Student

View a recording of the April 6 event

Thanks to all who participated in
the “MentNet” Alumni/Student Event on April 6
(sponsored by the ESE Chapter of the Gillings School of Global Public Health Alumni Association and ENVRSO).

Thanks to all who participated in the "MentNet" Alumni/Student Event on April 6 (sponsored by the ESE Chapter of the Gillings School of Global Public Health Alumni Association and ENVRSO).

The Awards Committee of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering seeks nominations for its Distinguished Alumni Award in January each year. This award has honored 28 individuals since its inception 19 years ago. Many graduates of ESE have had noteworthy careers and are deserving of recognition.
Read more about previous award recipients

Margaret (Peggy) Layne, Walter Lynn, David McNelis, Pat Mulholland, Ray Oglesby, Rob Shimp, K. Hosny Mancy, Anthony (Terry) Rolan, Billy Turner, Brian Ramaley, James Edzwald, David Johnson, Des Lawler, Greg Allgood, Alan Rimer, John Young, Virginia S. Houk, Marjorie Aelion, Doug Owen, Charles Rodes, Pete Kolsky, Leonard A. Smock, Gerald Speitel, and Stephen Morse, M. Katherine Banks (flyer), Chris Schulz, Andrea Dietrich, Grace Robinson Hyde (flyer).

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Alumni Features

Alumni Updates

Alumni Features
Chang Zai Kang

Kang Chang

Kang Chang (MS 2011)
Innovation Advisor at RTI International in RTP, North Carolina

Through the completion of my MS as one of the first students at the Water Institute, I saw the need for better systems of learning, private-sector skills and human-centric design in the world of international development.

Read more about Kang

In the years following UNC, I worked at a social entrepreneurship research institute to gain a more complete picture of the challenges facing international development. I soon saw the role of innovation and innovation management as being a crucial skill set to create meaningful interventions, support organizational learning and provide a systematic way of creative problem solving. Since then, I have focused my career on supporting organizational and regional innovation capacity building. In my current role, I support universities, governments and corporations through strategic advising, innovation training and innovation ecosystem development.

Mark Barnett headshot

Mark Barnett in Rwanda with Engineers Without Borders, working on a water supply project in 2017

Mark Barnett, Phd, PE, BCEE
PhD (1998)
Professor of Environmental Engineering and Associate Chair
Department of Civil Engineering
Auburn University

I tell my undergraduate engineering students that it’s hard to go wrong with a master’s degree, but a Ph.D. is a longer, tougher slog with a less certain outcome.
Read more about Professor Barnett

Nonetheless, despite the long, tough slog, my North Carolina Ph.D. has afforded me many opportunities that I otherwise would not have had. First of all, I hold a reasonably prestigious, secure, and well-paying job as a tenured professor. Being a university professor is a great job, and no two days are the same. I get to work on a college campus and live in a college town. Other than a few hours a week when I have classes, my schedule is very flexible.

In addition to the other rewards of teaching and research, I have gotten to do many other things that I otherwise would not have gotten to do, including consulting, testifying, serving on government panels, and seeing most of the U.S. and much of the rest of the world.

One of the most personally and professionally rewarding times of my life was living with my young family for five months in the Netherlands while I was on sabbatical, fulfilling a life-long dream of living and working in Europe.

Finally, seeing your former students graduate, mature, and become leaders in their profession is very rewarding.

Rory Polera works at a power plant in China.

Rory Polera works at a power plant in China in 2015.

Rory Polera
MSEE (2009)
Field Engineer
Oasys Water
Cambridge, MA

What inspired me to choose my major was both a profound appreciation for the environment coupled with ensuring our basic public health needs are existent and preserved.
Read more about Rory

Between traveling to South America during undergrad and doing a series of undergraduate research programs in water/wastewater research areas, I started to appreciate the complex and interdisciplinary nature of environmental engineering work. Dynamic ecosystems of water, air and soil have kept me on my toes continuously learning throughout the past 10+ years.

From summer undergraduate research programs at VT and semester research at Illinois, I started to build a foundation on water related research areas, focuses and needs. From there I attended UNC and continued my research interests.

In between my two years at UNC, I was granted a fellowship to take my research to Perth, Australia as part of the NSF EAPSI program – an incredible program to say the least.

Upon graduation, I moved on to work for GE in their EHS division focusing on corporate environmental issues/affairs, appreciating a different approach in environmental protection through industrial manufacturing and service operations.

Today, as a field engineer for Oasys Water, I have transitioned back to my educational roots working at an exciting startup deploying forward osmosis based desalination systems globally, treating some of the dirtiest and most challenging industrial wastewaters in power generation and oil & gas markets. I have worked on running pilot tests in the US and commissioning full scale demonstration plants in China.

As my career continues to evolve, my educational roots mixed with various skill sets and my passions have been critical in shaping my career as it is today.

Hannah Leker headshot

Hannah Leker

Hannah Gordon Leker
BSPH (2013), MSPH (2015)
Public Health Policy Analyst
Maryland Department of Health

After completing her MSPH, Hannah became interested in the role of policy as a link between research and its practical application in society.
Read more about Hannah

In 2016, she was a Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine where she worked with the Gulf Research Program and learned more about the links between science and policy.
In her current role as a public health policy analyst for the Maryland Department of Health, Hannah drafts reports and updates public health regulations for the State of Maryland. She facilitates conversations between public health subject matter experts, Department leadership, and legal experts. She also identifies bills of public health importance and drafts position papers on their public health impact during the legislative session. As a public health policy analyst, she enjoys working on a wide variety of public health topics and learning first-hand about how state-level public health policies are created.

Lars Perlmutt

Lars Perlmutt, PhD
MSPH (2009)
Health Scientist
Office of Air and Radiation, US EPA (RTP)

I continue to be inspired by my late father, Louis, who, as a physician, was a strong proponent of bringing healthcare to rural areas of North Carolina.
Read more about Lars

My love of science, weather, and a desire to help the most susceptible and vulnerable populations led me to pursue an Environmental Studies degree as an undergraduate at UNC (class of 2003) and focus more specifically on the health effects of air pollution while pursuing an MSPH in Environmental Health Sciences (class of 2009) at UNC SPH. Through work at the US EPA on topics associated with exposure science and environmental justice, I ultimately decided to pursue a PhD in Environmental Health Sciences, where I recently finished at New York University (class of 2015). The desire to protect and improve public health has stuck with me, which is exactly why I enjoy my current position back at the US EPA as a Health Scientist in Air Quality Policy.
Alumni Updates

Leiran Biton, MS (2007)
Air Quality Modeler (Physical Scientist)
US EPA-New England Region, Boston, MA

Nicole Hagan, PhD (2014)
Health Scientist, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, US EPA (RTP)

Elizabeth D. Hilborn, RN, DVM, MPH, Dipl. ACVPM
MPH (1994)
Health Scientist (Epidemiologist), US EPA (Chapel Hill)

Cassandra O’Lenick, PhD
MS (2008)
Postdoctoral Researcher
National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Boulder, CO