We Celebrated our Centennial in 2021. Check out our Centennial webpage
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2022 ESE Distinguished Alumnus

Richard Johnston receiving award

Richard Johnston (right) receiving ESE Distinguished Alumni Award from Barbara Turpin (left).

Richard Johnston, PhD 

Richard Johnston earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering from the Gillings School in 2008, and he co-leads the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program on Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, which tracks water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) services globally. He leads wastewater monitoring activities and helps use these data to develop insights about health.

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 34 individuals since its inception 25 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), Marla Smith-Nilson, Kellogg Schwab, Hua Wang, Jian Zhen Yu, David Pinsky, P.E. (ESE, MSEE, 1983).

Get Involved

  • Stay connected through the Well Connected Online Community, a password-secure online directory that allows you to update your contact information and connect with other Gillings alumni.
  • Attend an ESE event or seminar
  • Participate in the ESE Alumni/Student ‘Ment/Net’ event held annually in April
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  • Support the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering
  • Submit your own alumni update to be posted below: Send your degree, graduation year, and where you are now (position title, location, activities) to ese_alumni_stories@unc.edu.
  • Submit your own alumni story to be featured below: Send your our degree, graduation year, and where you are now (position title, location, activities); a brief summary or story* about what inspired you to choose your degree/career/UNC; and a high resolution photo to: ese_alumni_stories@unc.edu. *please use first person

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

Alumni Features

Chang Zai Kang

Chang Zai Kang

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 skillset 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

Mark Barnett, PhD, PE, BCEE

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

Rory Polera, MSEE

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 and 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 skillsets and my passions have been critical in shaping my career as it is today.

Hannah Gordon Leker

Hannah Gordon Leker, BSPH, MSPH

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 and 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

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.
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