In the one-year practice-based and two-year research-based Master of Science in Environmental Engineering (MSEE) program, our graduates earn the vital skills and training needed to solve today’s biggest environmental engineering and public health problems.

MSEE alumni are providing solutions and making a difference in the field of environmental engineering both locally and globally, as illustrated below through several alumni stories.

Each year, the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering presents the Distinguished Alumni Award to graduates who have had noteworthy careers deserving of recognition; the recent award winners (listed below) are all graduates of the MSEE program, which demonstrates the amazing things our graduates can do, the impact they have and the distinguished professional network all graduates become a part of.

Our Alumni

“I know that my time as an MSEE student prepared me to do exactly what I put into practice every day in my new director role here in Guatemala.” -Taylor Edmonds

Taylor Edmonds (MSEE ’14) is using her UNC education to provide sustainable engineering solutions to rural communities in Guatemala. These communities require access to the basic needs of water, sanitation, hygiene, education and health. Taylor works for a ministry in Canillá called Asociación La Libertad; she founded and now directs their engineering projects department.

The goal of the department is to connect national and international organizations with development projects in rural areas of Guatemala. Current projects include building a new school with Rotary International and starting a potable water project with Engineers Without Borders. Edmonds also is leading the installation of a footbridge with Bridges to Prosperity and the expansion of an elementary school with Pencils of Promise. Taylor credits her success, in part, to her time as an MSEE student, when she was pushed out of her comfort zone and had to learn to look at problems in new ways.

John Young (MSEE) received the Abel Wolman Award to recognize those whose careers in the waterworks industry exemplify vision, creativity, and excellent professional performance characteristic of Abel Wolman’s long and productive career. John also is a recipient of our department’s distinguished alumni award in 2007.

Rory Polera

Rory Polera, MSEE

Rory Polera (MSEE ‘09) is a Field Engineer for Oasys Water in 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.

Jin Yan (MSEE ’16) was hired by the Chinese Academy of Science and is working with Professor Rujin Huang in the Key Lab of Aerosol Chemistry and Physics Institute. This laboratory recently was established to tackle China’s serious air pollution issues. The Chinese government is determined to solve these complex problems and is recruiting scientists with backgrounds in aerosol science and technology to work for cleaner air and healthier communities. As a member of this team, Jin uses her skills in analytical chemistry and her knowledge of atmospheric chemistry to conduct laboratory experiments that support the Institute’s research on atmospheric aerosols.

Jin Yan, a 2016 MSEE graduate, is working on China's air quality problems.

Jin Yan, a 2016 MSEE graduate, is working on China’s air quality problems.

Jin first became interested in atmospheric aerosol as part of an undergraduate project, but soon understood that the complexity of air quality problems required advanced models. She says that the MSEE program provided her with a systematic study in air pollution, and that she benefited from the various seminars, laboratory experiments and team discussions she was part of. These activities provided her with broader insights on the health, economic and political problems related to air pollution.

“I realized that to build advanced air pollution models, I would need a deeper knowledge of aerosol processes in the atmosphere. The Gillings School’s MSEE degree provided that knowledge.”

After graduation, Byron Kominek worked for USAID as a natural resources development officer.

Byron Kominek (MSEE ’08) worked as a natural resources management officer with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2011-2016. During this time, Byron served in Zambia and Mozambique creating and monitoring projects to preserve forests and protect elephants from poachers. Most recently, Byron conducted site visits for the Cadmus Group, LLC, at potential USAID school construction sites in Malawi to assess impacts on the local ecosystems.

Byron says that before entering the MSEE program, he had experience with both engineering and working in developing countries. He believes that UNC’s MSEE program gave him the opportunity he needed to delve into the nexus of engineering, economics and policy that has informed how he approaches open-ended development projects.

“Engineering is more than a mastery of technology. It requires developing alternatives to address economic and political issues and clearly presenting their impacts to stakeholders.”

Peter J. Kolsky says of his time at UNC:

ESE Professor of the Practice Pete Kolsky

“The knowledge, skills and attitudes I learned in my MSEE program so long ago have served me well in water and sanitation engineering around the world for consulting firms, NGOs and governmental organizations. I acquired the skills to address practical engineering problems and gained an understanding of fundamentals that allowed me to step back from time to time to ask larger questions about planning, policy and better ways to do things. I put that knowledge and skillset to work in many different ways, including slum sanitation and drainage in Egypt, rural and urban water in Mozambique, urban water transmission and treatment in Cambodia, and cholera control in Haiti. The public health aspects of my MSEE, as well as the engineering elements, proved to be of lifelong value, particularly in starting an academic career at the University of London after 14 years of practice. I very happily acknowledge my debt to the UNC teachers and tradition that educated me; one of the reasons I returned to Chapel Hill to teach, 35 years later, was to pay some of it forward to the current generation of students.”

Douglas M. Owen remarked:

“I believe that the most powerful element of my educational experience at UNC was the public health focus. Having the MSEE program in the School of Public Health offered me interaction with students and faculty of diverse perspectives and backgrounds, which was unique from my more ‘mainstream’ undergraduate engineering education at Purdue University. While the quality of the education was evident while I was a student, it became even more obvious once I had graduated. I quickly learned that my professors were icons in the field and were very actively engaged in shaping drinking water policy throughout the United States and globally.  My UNC education allowed me to engage uniquely in my professional career and contributed meaningfully to whatever success I achieved after graduation. The ability to call upon my experience with professors active in the profession afforded me opportunities that I never would have encountered if I had chosen another path.”

Distinguished Alumni

The Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) awards the Distinguished Alumni Award to graduates who have had noteworthy careers deserving of recognition. The recent award winners listed below are all MSEE graduates, and they represent the positive difference program graduates can make.

2017 – Marla Smith Nilson

2016 – Grace Robinson Hyde

Grace Robinson Hyde is chief engineer and general manager of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.

2015 – Christopher Schulz

Christopher Schulz works with CDM Smith, an environmental engineering consulting firm in Denver, Co.

2012 – Gerald E. Speitel Jr. and John J. McKetta

John J. McKetta is a professor at the Engineering University of Texas at Austin.

2010 – Pete Kolsky

2009 – Douglas M. Owen

2007 – Alan E. Rimer

2007 – John Young

2006 – Desmond F. Lawler

2004 – Brian L. Ramaley

1995 – Peggy Layne

Peggy Layne is the assistant provost for faculty development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.


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