environmental justice

LISTEN: Cielo Sharkus on how engineering can bolster environmental justice

“I didn’t want to just be someone producing science for the sake of science."

Cielo Sharkus joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss how the field of civil engineering can help combat environmental injustice and better engage with communities.


Cielo Sharkus, a PhD candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and former Agents of Change fellow, talks about the challenges of being a woman of color in engineering, and how she started a nonprofit to combat the doom and gloom in the environmental space.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Sharkus, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Alright, today's guest is Cielo Sharkus, a PhD candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Sharkus, a former Agents of Change Fellow, talks about the challenges of being a woman of color in engineering, how she started a nonprofit to combat the doom and gloom in the environmental space, and how civil engineering can help combat environmental injustice. You may remember Sharkus from speaking with her mentor, Dr. Jo vanderSpek a few weeks back on the podcast. Enjoy.

All right, I am really excited to be joined by Cielo Sharkus. Cielo, how are you doing today?

Cielo Sharkus

I'm doing really good, Brian, how are you?

Brian Bienkowski

I'm doing excellent. And where are you today?

Cielo Sharkus

So I'm at my apartment in Amherst. I've been working from home for about like 18 months.

Brian Bienkowski

Right? Yeah, all of us are still, most of us are still doing that. I know. It's, it's crazy how much it shook our world up. And so you are originally from Massachusetts, you haven't gone too far. You're from, and helped me with my pronunciation, is it Worcester?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, it's Worcester, Massachusetts.

Brian Bienkowski

Alright, so you are from Worcester, Massachusetts. It does not look like how it's spelled. And you said you fell in love with science as a young girl. But you didn't see people in the field that look like you. This is a refrain I've heard often here at Agents of Change. So tell me about that. Tell me how you fell in love with science and how that lack of representation impacted you, and what you thought about science or engineering as a career.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, so I fell in love with science as a young girl. So my family and I, we used to travel to New Hampshire to go camping. And one of my favorite things during the summer was when it would rain. And I would go outside afterwards. And there would be all like frogs in the road, all worms that came up, came up in the grass. And I would be like five and six years old, and I'd be like, really, really fascinated about this. And so one day, I asked my mom to buy me a microscope. And I used that microscope to like look at a sample of water. And I saw all like the water bugs moving in it. And so I think right around like the, like fifth and sixth grade, that's when I really got interested in biology. And so I remember really vividly like asking my science teacher to give me like more work to do, or more stuff to study. And so ever since then, since my parents actually didn't graduate high school, they suggested I go to trade school. And so when I was in trade school, I decided to do biotechnology. And this was a really cool trade for me, because most of the students that graduated school, they went off and did, you know, hands on activities didn't usually go to college. But for me, this was really eye opening to me, because that's where I really got to understand like having a career as a scientist, and like what that could actually look like. And so I really think my teacher back then, her name was Jo vanderSpek. And Jo was the only person I've ever met who had a PhD. And she was the only woman who I’d ever met who was a scientist. So for me, that was really inspiring. I was like 14 years old, joining this biotechnology shop. And she gave me my own lab coat. And on the lab coat, it said like future doctor Sharkus. And so this was so inspiring to me. And even though that was the only person who I'd ever met, she wasn't a woman of color. I feel like if I had had more representation, or if I had met more people that looked like me, I feel like I would have been able to get started sooner, and I would have been able to have thrived in like undergraduate and graduate school earlier. I think having access to those resources would have been really critical. Because even though I did have Dr. V, it was still really challenging in high school to be able to like understand and mitigate pathways to higher education since my parents didn't have the background and not many my friend's parents did either. So that was really challenging.

Brian Bienkowski

So tell me about trade school. You know, we haven't talked about it much on this podcast. And I've always been fascinated with it. Growing, coming from Michigan, where a lot of people go to trade school for the automotive industry. But I don't know much outside of that about it. Tell me about your experience.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, so I tell this all the time to some of my friends from graduate school, it was so different. So we would go to school for one week, learn like regular math, science, English. And then for one entire week, for like 40 hours, we would just spend learning our specific trade. And so at my trade school, there were people who did like automotive, culinary, people who did like painting and design, there was a machine shop, there was also like an allied health one where you could become a CNA. And so for mine, specifically, I got a certificate in like biotechnology. So I would be able to go out in the field and perform like regular lab exercises that you would usually do with like an associate's degree, or like some bachelor's degrees. And so it was just so different, because for my junior and senior year, instead of just spending time in the classroom, I actually got to be out in the field, doing co-op my whole, like, junior and senior year. And this was really awesome and exciting for me, because I got to really see like, what it was like working in that role. So as I said, like most of my friends now have those type of jobs also didn't like attend college. But it's really nice getting to have resources and like people who, you know, can bake for me, I have one of my friends who's baking me a wedding cake, I have friends who I go to for my car. And so I think it's really cool.

Brian Bienkowski

That is really cool. And so you went on to get a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and I apologize for my dog, I'm gonna have to go get her. And you were already working on environmental justice issues, stormwater quality, and chemicals, pollution in soil in air. Oh, boy, she's really howling. So tell me, tell me when you became aware of the intersection of the environment and injustice, and what did you do and find in the storm water and pollution work as an undergrad?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah. So this is a really good question. I think part of it also plays into part of my experience as a young girl. And so thinking back to that age, one of my favorite things was being fascinated with like the intricacies of all the small facets of life. And so that's why I chose biochemistry in college. And so, as I started to get into that type of work, although it was really cool seeing how all the really, really tiny pieces of biochemistry add up to a human body, moving, living and breathing, for me, it wasn't enough. So when you do biochemistry, most of the time, like, your job will be focusing on something so small and abstract, it was really hard for me to want to feel passion in that knowing all of the social injustices going on in the world. And so that's when I started exploring ways that I could approach climate justice or climate injustice from the biochemical point of view. And so my junior year, everyone at WPI, has to do a project called IQP. And so for my IQP, I chose to address some type of water injustice. And so that's when I started working with a team of four civil engineers. They were all white and male. And we all had a really good time. But we loved learning from each other and learning how we can tackle some of these issues of climate justice based off of my personal identity, and based off of their expertise in civil environmental engineering. Since I had never heard of that field, I'd never really explored it, I'd never took an engineering class before. They helped me get exposed to what that type of research is and what that type of work is. And it was so valuable, because I was able to help open them up to how biochemistry could solve some of those pollutant problems. So we worked on this project in Fitchburg, Mass, it's about 20 minutes north of Worcester. And in Fitchburg, our job was to understand why there was so much just, detritus in the water, there was so much trash pollutants, there was really low dissolved oxygen, high amounts of total dissolved solids. And so we worked together to try to figure out how to remove those pollutants. And the way we did it was through science communication, which was a lot of fun. And so from there, we were able to present to the Mass DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection, to show that through community education and community empowerment, we can solve some of the water quality issues rather than just going forward and like digging up everything or completely changing the way of river channel structure is.

Brian Bienkowski

So, a little peek behind the curtain here, I happen to be working with you on an essay you're writing, and I don't want to spoil it for folks, but you do talk about this experience working with these, with these guys. And I, and I think it's really fascinating. If you can kind of give us you know, your identity as a woman of color and then working with, I believe it was three, how did you guys, how did you kind of find common ground and, and work through that. Coming from kind of different areas and you said you were all from, not only were they three white guys, but three white guys with different backgrounds as well. So how did you guys kind of coalesce and come together?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, it was so funny. We're such a funny team. It was one member of like the football and basketball team. His dad was a civil engineer. And then the other two guys were like rural farmers from New York who sang opera and did all sorts of just funny wacky stuff. And I loved hanging out with them just because they were so funny. So I think, when we started talking, we both talked about misconceptions we had about each other. So I originally thought like, I wasn't going to get along. The, you know, professor might have instigated it, because she asked me, she was like, “Cielo, are you sure that you're going to get along with these guys?” And I was like, “I don't know.” And so they said, well, they're like, “Yeah, we thought you were so uptight.” Because, you know, you focus so much, I'm usually not the type of person to like, go out and get involved at WPI, I was really kind of studying at home. But the way we found common ground was we all both really loved sharing jokes and sharing food. And so every day, I would come in with some new type of snack. And then my friends would tell me a funny story. And that was a nice way to get like, relaxed. Not feel like we're only going to the office, because we have to, but because we genuinely liked each other's company. And that was fun. And so in the essay I talk about trying to like dismantle just common misconceptions about each other and about different identities and figuring out how you can just share that passion of kindness and like fortitude on going forward and making change. And so that's why I really loved working with them.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, food is such a great equalizer. It really does bring people together. I love that. I love that aspect of it. I mean, laughter of course, too, laughter’s fantastic. But, but food can really bring us together. So Cielo, I've been asking everybody, what is a defining moment that shaped your identity.

Cielo Sharkus

So the defining moment that shaped my identity was actually when I did my bachelor's thesis project in Switzerland. So at WPI, same thing, in your senior year, you have to do a project, usually with a team, but I did mine by myself, because my major was so small, there was only 10 people. So my project was to go to Switzerland, and to try to address a really similar issue. So I was trying to understand why migrant workers were being disproportionately exposed to heavy metals that were in pesticides on plant applications. And so my job was to try to understand through fluorescent nanoparticles how we could, you know, try not to have those particles in their human lung cells, and how to figure out, have them like not be impacted as much. And so for me, this was really, really challenging. Being in Switzerland was super isolating, it was very lonely. I was also faced with a lot of systemic and institutionalized racism there. And this made me just like, very just desolate and alone. And because of that, I was forced to learn how to survive and thrive in like a space where I didn't belong. So this is really personal. But when I was there, I just faced all sorts of different things. So I had, like, experiments sabotaged, there were people who were just like, outright super rude and racist to me. But for me, I learned how to persevere and really make my own space in science and engineering, even if I didn't belong there. And so I think that was a huge turning point for me. I was alone in a different country, I was 21 years old, finishing my bachelor's degree. And I was undertaking a really big scientific research project, I was there for three months, completely doing my own science. And there was a lot of bizarre experiences, where people wouldn't trust me with materials, or something would go wrong, that I had no control over. And then, you know, I would be harshly just like, disproved of for. But because of that, when I came back to the United States, I realized that it was, it was just such a big growth period for me. So like, number one, I learned how to take charge of my own research. So I really stood behind my research really stood behind my results, the results I had were really impressive. And then I was also able to understand like how those institutionalized racism and systemic racism can really impact and affect someone. So because I didn't have a mentor there, it really pushed me and motivated me to be a visible woman of color for other students, so that I can make sure that doesn't happen to other students. And so I can develop ways to bring people up in research and to support them if that happens to them.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, I'm really sorry, you had to deal with such an ugly experience, but at 21 years old to turn that into a positive and growth moment, I think speaks volumes to you as a person. That's, that's, that part of it is very cool to hear. But what what an ugly experience to have to go through and I'm sorry, that happened.

Cielo Sharkus

Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, it was it was definitely really challenging, especially coming back and trying to dismantle it. I must have told this story that at least like two dozen people, and everyone was just like, “what? I can't believe that happened, you looked like you had so much fun.” But it's a lot of like, you know, I posted fun Instagram stories of me traveling in Zurich, and then like Paris and stuff, and I was like yeah, you know, but behind the curtain it really was extremely challenging. I was mostly trying to still have fun so I could like save my spirit in some sort of way. So I could at least finish and continue on with my passions.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, and anybody that's (a) traveled or (b) has conducted science, let alone conducting science while traveling in a foreign nation, you already have enough on your shoulders, right? I mean, there's already kind of, I would imagine there's already immense pressure. And this just speaks to the kind of the added pressure that certain people have to go through in these fields. And again, I'm glad that you were able to turn it into a positive experience. And sometime after that you decided to go to graduate school for civil engineering. I'm curious about this. Tell me about how and why you decided to go for that, for civil engineering? Because it seems like you had a couple different career paths before this couple of different disciplines you were interested in, why civil engineering?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, so this is a really good question. I think to understand why civil engineering, we have to think about why I also ended up becoming a biochemistry major and undergrad. So in my first semester, at WPI, it's super accelerated, and I was about 10 days into my first calculus class, and I just failed my first exam. And the professor just sends me an email while I'm at work. And he's like, you know, Cielo, you have to come to my office, immediately, I have to tell you something. And he told me, I got a 10 out of 100, on my first exam, and he told me, there was no way I was going to pass the class. And if I was an engineer, I should seriously consider doing something else. And so he notified like, my advisor, and my advisor was like, yeah, Cielo, you need to like not do engineering, I don't think you'll be able to pass the math courses. And so I really, like flirted with the idea of continuing, but I just really couldn't, because I don't, I really wouldn't have made it, I would have failed. And so I had that in my mind, like, while I was in Switzerland, and I was just like, sitting there like in my bedroom one day. And I was like, you know, I really feel like I could do engineering again, now that I know I could do it for water, I should try to do it for water. And especially since environmental justice is so important, there are people out there that need protection, there are people out there who are being forgotten about, I really think I could go and do it in water resource engineering. And so at the time, when I left for my bachelor's thesis, I actually only had a 2.9 GPA. And so that was really challenging. So in order for me to be able to go to graduate school, I knew that during my project in Switzerland, I had to get an A. And so I was really motivated to try and finish up the best science I could in that project. So that I could like indisputably be a high quality, high quality candidate for graduate school. So I did all those things. When I came back, I ended up getting an A and so I had just enough, a high enough GPA to apply to grad school. So I had like a 3.1 GPA. And so I just became just so, like, undeniably confident in myself that I could make it even if other people didn't think I could, I would just figure out a way. And so I applied to so many places. I met with so many people that after the like three, four month interview period, I really felt like, like I could do it. There were people that believed in me from all sorts of places that other people would never believe. So I had like interviews at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, only because I emailed people and I reached out and I was like, yeah, I know that my, you know, qualities as an applicant might not be that stellar. I know I have bad grades in calculus. But like, I really am dedicated to this system, I know that I can approach it in a unique way. I know that no one has ever done like biochemistry connected with justice connected with water. And because of that, I just felt like I would be a really great candidate for a PhD. And eventually, a lot of people believed in me. And then eventually I decided on UMass after meeting my advisor, and my advisor being so about justice, as well.

Brian Bienkowski

So before we get into some of the work you're doing, which I want to talk about, can you give us kind of broad strokes, when we think about, when I think about environmental justice research, the first thing that comes to mind is, you know, epidemiology, toxicology. I guess maybe it's because of the type of reporting I've done. But can you tell me a little bit about engineering and civil engineering and where that intersects with justice? You know, how can your profession make a difference?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, so civil and environmental engineering, one of the common misconceptions is that those are like the easiest types of engineering to do. But civil and environmental engineering are all around us. So building infrastructure, or transportation, infrastructure, those are all civil engineering. And then environmental engineering is all water resources, air pollution, soil pollution, and all the things that impact our daily lives specifically. And so for example, civil engineers, specifically, when you're thinking about designing a city that is going to give low-income people of color access to say, for example, recreation, that would be really critical. So there's a story about some highway infrastructure and transportation that was built in New York, and the people who designed the New York City transportation purposely excluded people of color and people of low socioeconomic status from accessing like their beach shores. And so focusing on addressing justice is removing the institutionalized racism that's from our city design. And for environmental engineering, that's especially important. So it's thinking about pollutant discharge, figuring out how surface water quality issues eventually get into our drinking water. So thinking about how air pollutants might disproportionately affect low income people of color. And one of the most just stark figures that I have is that 10 million people a year annually die of air pollution, and of those people, 70% of them are women. And of those people, I would say 80 to 90% are people of low socioeconomic status. So when we're talking about justice, a really critical component of it is addressing those air, soil, and water quality issues. And plus giving people access to the resources that are really spiritually important. And especially for like Indigenous people, and people in general, having access to clean safe recreational spaces is very critical to us as humans. Same thing with, water is a human right. So is recreation and access to safe spaces.

Brian Bienkowski

Have you found, getting into the program, getting into the research outside of your mentor that a justice lens is becoming more widely used in engineering?

Cielo Sharkus

I would say that perhaps in the past year from the civil unrest, but I wouldn't necessarily say it's so sincere. Justice work has been going on for a really long time, since like the early like 1980s, Robert Bullard, for example, in the 2000s. So it's nothing new. I think catching on to like the mainstream type of, you know, scientists, engineers in the mainstream academics, like it's catching speed. But for me, like, approaching justice, specifically from like, the water quality and water resource quality aspect, I feel like is pretty novel. But you know, when I first started, and I started talking to professors about my approach, I actually got like a bit of backlash. A lot of people who didn't believe that this was important. They didn't think it would bring the conventional like accolades or funding. And even now, when I apply to fellowships, I've received a lot of fellowship rejections because they don't think that justice is an aspect of engineering. I actually got one result back that said, you know, this isn't something that engineers do, you'd be better off applying to like the NIH for a health grant or something. And I was like, no, that's not true, like engineering and health go hand in hand, those are really critical together.

Brian Bienkowski

That's curious, I would just think that in a, I'm not surprised to hear that, because I would think in a profession like that, that there would be kind of a nuts and bolts mentality, right? We need to, this design needs to happen, this is how we've done it, this is how we do it. And then to bring in new ideas is often challenging in a lot of those types of professions. So I'm not surprised to hear that, but it is encouraging to hear that maybe that's shifting a little bit, hopefully. So now you're working on understanding how climate change disproportionately affects disenfranchised communities in Massachusetts, right there. So tell me about this work. What communities of Massachusetts are you looking at? And what have you found out so far?

Cielo Sharkus

So I looked at all 350 towns and cities in Massachusetts, and one of the things I'm really finding is that those disenfranchised communities that we see today, in, say for example, Lowell, Lawrence, Springfield, Worcester, Boston, Holyoke, all of these places, where there's mostly high concentrated amounts of people who are of low socioeconomic status, who may have limited English proficiency, limited access to transport, all of these people are being exposed to 100 and 500 year floods at a rate that is much higher than their white counterparts, for example. So for example, in like a really white city, such as Lee, you don't have the same type of risks that we're seeing in like downtown Holyoke. And so for me, this is very concerning. If you remember from a couple of days ago, in British Columbia, there were those really widespread 100-year floods. So 100-year floods are happening more often. These are, these used to be floods that happened, you know, once every 100 years. But now that we're seeing them more common, we're going to be seeing people who don't have the resources to recover from those type of disaster events facing them more often, causing things like loss of life, loss of quality of life, loss of their housing, and their businesses. And so this is really, really critical. Along those lines as well, one of the things I've been trying to understand is the impact of legacy contaminants in soil. So legacy contaminants are contaminants that have the capacity to be in the same space for 100 to 200 years. And so I've been doing some studies as well, trying to understand just the placement of these contaminants, and they are mostly located in the same areas, the same areas of the 100 and 500 year floods in those like low-income, low socioeconomic status areas with high amounts of marginalized people or disenfranchised people. And so this is extremely concerning. So my next step of research is trying to understand, is there any possibility that the floods will move the legacy contaminants like deeper into the soil? And will that have any effects on food, water and energy? And so that's my next step of research. I'm, I'm trying to get it done. These things take forever, but I think I've made really good progress in the past two years.

Brian Bienkowski

So when you talk about floods, obviously, the natural disaster itself isn't necessarily discriminating. But you know, I would imagine the infrastructure, the zoning, those are the things. When you mention that certain communities are disproportionately impacted by these floods or dealing with these floods more, can you, can you walk me through some of the problems within the community, the inadequate infrastructure within the community that is making the flooding so much worse for certain folks?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, so much of it is just heavily ingrained in city infrastructure. So some of it could be, say for example, you have an extremely heavy rainstorm. If your city hasn't had the proper capacity to build, you know, roads, floodways, stormwater discharge basins and properly deal with stormwater you can have a lot of secondary effects. So in Lowell and Lawrence, for example, when stormwater overruns there or MS4, like city sewer systems, they get combined sewer overflow. And so the water from the rainstorms, even if it doesn't like directly flood your property, you can have like sewage backed up into your spaces. And that's an obvious sanitary issue. And then for other spaces, when you think about like other like clean and livable cities, they have things like dikes that cause the, when the floodwaters come, they don't usually overtop the dikes, but if they do, they're discharged, and they're placed in the, somewhere where it can just get drained away. But in these cities, we don't have a lot of these things. So in like Lowell, Lawrence, Springfield, they are retired industrial areas. And so a lot of the riverfront hasn't been built for properties. They've just been kind of like retrofitted for community housing. And so that's, that's the difficulty when it comes to city infrastructure. But a lot of what I do is not necessarily addressing the infrastructure challenges. It's mostly describing what's still there and the impact that it will have on people. So hopefully policy changes can inform those infrastructure changes or bolstering for climate change for those cities.

Brian Bienkowski

And there's a social part of this, too, you're not just collecting data. Tell me about engaging with the residents from these communities and what you hope to gain by involving them in the research from the outset?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, absolutely. So I've really loved working with the community. I recently worked with this nonprofit called Nuestra Esperanza. And what I loved from them is it's a trans rights activist, as well as some other people of color from the community. And what they taught me is that for them, it's a mostly Puerto Rican community, they find that Holyoke is one of like, their saving places. It’s a place where they have the opportunity to be themselves and be able to do whatever they want. And so for them, when I told them about all of these dangers of stormwater, all these dangers of flooding and climate change, legacy contaminants, they were extremely concerned because they didn't know about that. And so I think that knowledge is really empowerment. And so I've been working with Nuestra Esperanza, community members, as well as farmers to help understand what these risks are. So they can get them addressed right away. In Massachusetts, there are between 45 and 50,000 brownfields, I believe, and I think only 35 to 40,000 of them have been cleaned up. But the remaining ones that haven't been cleaned up are like located in what I just said, and, you know, places that don't know about them with people who might be directly harmed by them. And so for me, part of my research is getting it and explaining it to the community members so that they can be prepared for and advocate for themselves in, you know, City Hall, or with their district representative, or their district managers. So we can just have the same thing safe, clean recreational spaces, in places that they can spend time and hopefully be themselves in.

Brian Bienkowski

Have there been any challenges in engaging with community, or anything you've had to learn from a communication standpoint. Maybe instead of writing a very technical white paper, maybe now you have to do a one page explainer or something? Have you had to learn anything and any challenges in that regard?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, so I think because I'm not a traditional engineer, for me, just dismantling and trying to understand models, climate models, all of this engineer talk myself. The way I distill it to myself is the same way I explain it to the community members. The community members can completely understand science the same way someone with a PhD would have. And so for me, that means like walking them through, like how I developed this, explaining it in like a plain language summary. I show them how I got the data, we have some workshops about working with the software, and a lot of the software can be free and available. Say, for example, like, the online mapping tool. And so what this means is, I really, really work closely with them and help explain that, you know, I'm going to be doing this with you. And I'm going to be around a lot longer than just this project is going to be around. They describe that in the past, they felt like really burned by scientists, who kind of just like used them or like, you know, colonized their data, so to speak, and just like leave them with no resources or nothing. And so I really wanted to be careful that I didn't do that, that I wasn't just researching this area to have a paper, that I was researching this area, because I really care about the community members. And I really wanted them to have the protections that they deserve from the disproportionate climate hazards.

Brian Bienkowski

That's been, a few Agents of Change fellows have written about this idea of really engaging the community and involving the community from the research from the very beginning. And through the end and beyond, which I think is critical. And, you know, frankly, we've been trying to do this in journalism, too. There's a lot of parallels where you just don't show up, talk about a problem, publish it, and then leave. It's just not a good model. It's not serving anybody, except a few people who read it, perhaps. So I think there's a lot of parallels there. And I think there's a lot of promise and opportunity if people do this, this work, whether it's journalism or science in a very intentional way. It has a lot of potential for community empowerment, I think.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, absolutely. That's, that's exactly what I was thinking. So it made me really hurt when they said they spent so much time working with a scientist, showed them the sites, helped them gather the data. And you know, they felt really used and I was like, you know, absolutely, I really want to make sure that I stay with you for this project and that we actually really have some physical change. I didn't want to just be someone producing science for the sake of science, I wanted to be in the field because I really wanted to address the justice issue. If you're, you know, just creating models or just talking about science, but not actually creating change, I just feel like that's so against why I decided to be a civil environmental engineer.

Brian Bienkowski

I also know, there's been times, and I don't know if you experienced this at all with this project, where I've gone into the field reporting, and a lot of the people you meet that are dealing with excessive pollution or health issues, or climate impacts, whatever it is, they, they are so desperate to tell their story. And they, they want somebody to hear it so bad. And then, like you said, a lot of people just take the story from them, or take the data, and then leave. And I think it's understandable why a lot of people have a kind of a healthy distrust of our professions. I'm not saying, I'm not saying that some of that hasn't been stoked by bad actors. But you know, you do you do start to realize why some people have a mistrust. And I hope folks like you are, are helping to combat that in some way. And I'm sure you are.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. When I worked with a similar community group, that's what they shared to me. So for them, this was deeply personal. They shared just anecdotal stories about people getting sick from the soil and water and how, like, no one believes them. Because Western Massachusetts is supposed to be so beautiful, there’s supposed to be so many great protections for their water. And they just felt just so unheard. They did have some people like reporting on the story, and some people are doing research, but nothing ever happened from it. And this has been going on for decades for them. So I definitely share their pain, especially because the aspect of not being believed resonated so much with me, because my Switzerland story. It was the same thing when I was there, like no one believed that this would happen to me. And I was like, no, I'm telling you, I like you don't want to have to keep advocating for yourself eventually, you know, as you're forced into silence, so to speak, because no one will believe you or they're only going to believe you so that they can profit off of it.

Brian Bienkowski

So you have been pretty vocal in our program about you are an optimist. I think, maybe I'm putting words in your mouth. But you seem to be somebody who's, who's more optimistic about some of these issues, which I really appreciate. And in that vein, you are the president and founder of HOPE incorporated, H.O.P.E. It's a nonprofit focused on providing vulnerable communities with funding and resources to clean up hazardous waste sites. So first of all, congrats, it sounds like you have all this free time in the world. So I'm sure, I'm sure that's how it came to be. But tell me about this. Tell us why you felt the need to do it, what unmet need, your organization is filling and how you find the time to do this.

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, I'm so glad you asked me. So H.O.P.E stands for Humans for the Opposition of Pollution and Emissions. And so like I said, we're a nonprofit founded in Amherst, Massachusetts. And so the reason why I began HOPE was for exactly the reason we're talking about, I didn't want to only come and do the project for my PhD, be here for five years, and then leave. I wanted to have a physical resource setup that would continue the pursuit of justice in this area long after I was finished with my PhD. And so that's how it got started. I have people who joined other graduate students who are interested in the air pollution aspect, who are really interested in helping solve food issues, equity issues, now energy issues that I've been working with some members of ELEVATE at UMass for. And so I've been really, really excited about this, it fulfills the unmet needs in the community by physically connecting research with community engagement. And that was something that we, you know, had a little bit of before, but we didn't have any like long-term standing, you know, methodologies. It was mostly like a professor, perhaps has a grad student, and they send them off to this organization when they feel like it. But now, it's a way that the community will have access to an organization that's dedicated to addressing their concerns. So when they have concerns that green space is being wiped away, or they have concerns that stormwater infrastructure is not adequate for their needs, I really wanted HOPE to be there to address them. And so it's funny that you asked how I find the time to do all this with my research. You know, I just got engaged this summer, I've actually been working multiple jobs since I started my PhD plus HOPE. I don't know. So same thing with, like money and resources. I, when I worked on the Amherst school committee, they said something that really resonated with me, they said that, you know, the way you spend your money is a statement of your moral values. And so I think the same of it here, the way that I spend my time is a statement of my moral values. If I find it extremely important to address community vulnerability or environmental injustice in my area, I'm going to spend time doing it, I'll figure out a way to do it. And so I really love that I've been able to dedicate a lot of my PhD research doing it. So my dissertation is focused on addressing the critical aspects of hope, those critical needs that the community has. And so now since I work on it with my dissertation, it hasn't been like a ton of time. I also have a lot of people who have joined in the cause. which I think is awesome. There's one person who joined actually, Dr. V, my high school teacher from biotechnology offered to be like the co-director, and is helping me a lot with working with this community nonprofit. And then I also have a lot of my friends and my graduate program, the librarian at UMass offered to help. And then I also have a lot of undergraduate students and some high school students as well, who wanted to help. And so HOPE has a vision of the of the future and optimism for me. I'm extremely optimistic that with all of the people that we have, we'll be able to solve some of these injustice issues. And so it might be seeing it from rose colored spectacles, but I really believe that if you believe in the kindness of each other, and if you believe in the sincerity of each other, you will be able to solve something together, as long as you really have, you know, those moral values. And as long as you really, really want to see change, I think it'll happen.

Brian Bienkowski

So is this something that you would like to continue after your PhD?

Cielo Sharkus

Yeah, of course, I wouldn't just start HOPE for the purpose of my PhD and then like, leave the community. So yeah, I have resources to have it set up long term. So we've applied for like federal nonprofit status, we have bylaws, we have everything. So I only can be the director for five years, and then someone else has to be, and I hope the next person to spearhead HOPE will have the same passion and vision that I had.

Brian Bienkowski

So what are, we talked a little bit earlier about kind of engineering and environmental justice. And maybe this kind of goes hand in hand with some of your work at home. But what are some specific actions or changes you think the profession could make to better incorporate justice and equity moving forward?

Cielo Sharkus

So I'm a big believer in early education, as I talked about since my time in trade school. And so one of the specific actions I think that the profession could do is start early in engineering education. So change the way civil and environmental engineering curriculum is, even change the way all engineering curriculum is, to understand the institutional and systemic ways that racism can be physically built into city structures into environmental structures. And so once you address and acknowledge the hurt, pain and suffering that our profession has caused, I think we can start to build back better. Carnegie Mellon, in 2017, started doing this. And they've had wonderful outcomes. They've had students say that they feel more comfortable with their identity. And now they feel more comfortable in the college as engineers, and I would love to see that everywhere. And so I have my own climate justice class that I teach at UMass. And I'm trying to teach students from early on that we can change some of the things that are wrong with the profession right now. And this is the way you can do it. And so I talk about climate-focused approaches, I talk about ways that we can solve injustice from the community lens, working with stakeholders, building better infrastructure that protects everyone. And that approaches equity in the same way. And so I'm really excited for it.

Brian Bienkowski

That is super cool. And, you know, you talk to someone about your science communication and engaging with the community. And I'm wondering, since you're part of this program, you obviously are interested in science communication. So what role do you see this kind of playing as you move forward, and as you go forward in your work? And how do you see it, maybe through social media, or just direct community engagement? How do you see science communication playing a role in your work?

Cielo Sharkus

So I do science communication at the local scale. I'm really about being heavily involved in the community. So up until the pandemic started, I had been teaching at Worcester public schools, at Worcester Technical High School, to high school students and college students all about what what I've been talking about. And so I love to host seminars, I love to hold host group discussions. And I love to just talk to people about ways that they can get involved, and really create, essentially an olive branch that people can attach to and bring them up with me in this pursuit of justice. And so now that I work with the community farms, I've really just been about, like, understanding climate discourse at a digestible level. So it's not some sort of abstract thing that's happening to us. But something that's happening at the same time we happen to be here and that we can approach together. And so I really love that one of my favorite memories from my climate justice class, was explaining some of the really hard and intricate equations that cause, you know, flooding, vulnerability, climate hazards, and digesting them to the students so that they can be like, oh, you know, I can address it in this way in my research. And so I do the same thing for the communities I work with. And when we host our workshops, I communicate it in the exact same way. And so for me, science communication is just working at that local scale, and helping everyone in the here and right now in my area, get ready. Eventually, one day, I would love it if HOPE could become like a national, national thing. If I could have a similar podcast, if I could write books, but I think since I'm only trying to think about how I can make it in the short term, finish my PhD and finish my research here. I think that's what I have to do for now.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, I think local work and community work can be incredibly fulfilling. As a, as someone who was a national reporter for years and really enjoyed it, I also think there's something really powerful about working on a community level, you just get kind of so much more in the weeds on so many issues and can really dig in on stuff so much more. So I think you'll have plenty to work on there and it’ll be plenty fulfilling. And a little peek behind the scenes, Cielo, you are the first interview I've had, since we brought a pup home from the shelter. And we, I have had a woodpecker just banging on the side of my house, and my dog going crazy here. So I appreciate your patience with me as I am running around and muting and unmuting. So thank you so much for your grace during this interview as I deal with this poor pup.

Cielo Sharkus

Oh of course!

Brian Bienkowski

And I have one more question for you. And I’ve really enjoyed listening to your story today. And that is, what is the last book you read for fun?

Cielo Sharkus

Well, thank you so much again, I really tried to be in a quiet space today, I rushed home and I was like, oh, man, I have to make sure I'm in like a quiet room, no one can interrupt. So I appreciate…

Brian Bienkowski

One of us. I'm glad one of us did that.

Cielo Sharkus

But the last book I read for fun was called Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. I really love this book, because it was a story of a young woman, a college dropout, who convinced hundreds of investors super high profile government officials and CEOs to trust her scientific research, even though she actually didn't have any. So she had like, I don't know, I don’t remember it was it was, in the millions or billions of dollars of valuation of her company. And so to me, it's a story about how both you have to be very confident in yourself and what you do, and how a lot of the time, people are just acting, a lot of people are just pretending to have it all together. And it's also a story about how careful you have to be when you're working on scientific achievements that are for public health and protection. Her idea and her heart was really in the right place. She was working on a medical device for early medical detection. But she was so ruthless in her endeavors. She really never took any time truly to evaluate whether she would actually be able to achieve this before she went forward with it. What really stands out the most to me in this story as well was, there were a few scientists who actually stood up for what was morally right. No matter what the consequence was. And there were some pretty extreme consequences. You have to read these books. So some of the whistleblowers for her company were, were pursued by high profile lawyers until they had to like declare bankruptcy and so they were so ruthless in standing up for themselves and what was right in science. I think it's so commendable. It’s so dramatic. I can't even believe this, this happened. It's been going on for like two decades. And the the, the trial had just begun in the summer and that's why I read it, but it was so cool.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome. That sounds like a thriller. And this is, this is nonfiction right. I mean, this is the real deal.

Cielo Sharkus

It is nonfiction. And actually, perhaps you would like it, because it's a story of investigative journalism as well. Because the, the journalists who had wrote it and investigated it also had faced a lot of backlash at work, because one of the members on her board was like a member of The Wall Street Journal, as well, it was so dramatic.

Brian Bienkowski

Wow, I will definitely have to check that out. Well Cielo, thank you so much for the recommendation. And again, thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed this.

Cielo Sharkus

Of course, I really enjoyed it too. Thank you so much for inviting me.

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