Women in science, tech focus on environment at conference

Mary Landry, a retired rear admiral from the U.S. Coast Guard, said she was on the frontline of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill while serving as the federal on-scene coordinator in 2010.

“BP was fined more than $60 billion,” she said. “And part of that went toward evaluating the impact of the spill on fisheries and on the coastline, with a tremendous amount of science going on since that event.”

Speaking to a group of more than 100 students, professors and business professionals at New Jersey Institute of Technology on Friday, Landry highlighted the importance of continuing to advance science to integrate it into future policies, which could potentially prevent the next disaster.

“We have to be willing to examine the decisions we have made in light of science, and, in examining those decisions, must be willing, if necessary, to change our policies and our regulations for next time,” she said. “That is how we get smarter and better.”

The Murray Center for Women in Technology at NJIT held its 2018 “Women Designing the Future” conference on Friday, with this year’s topics surrounding the environment, and specifically, ‘doing more with less.’

“The conference highlights innovative, high-impact work by women that integrates technology, science and design to address complex social problems,” Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, director of the Murray Center, said. “It is especially exciting for the younger women in the audience to meet passionately engaged female role models who do what they like and like what they do.”

The full-day conference featured presentations and discussions between women scientists, government leaders, entrepreneurs and social justice activists centered around the near-future challenges posed by accelerating climate change and manmade pollutants, including disaster preparedness and basic food and water security.

“Designing a future does not just mean being innovative. Rather, it means having to address world problems with scalable solutions to implement and support them on an ongoing basis,” Saska Mojsilovic, head of the Artificial Intelligence Foundations Department at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center and co-director of the Science for Social Good Initiative, said. “Domain experts and responders are on the frontlines; funding for these efforts is always somewhere else; and the kinds of skills that are needed to create new solutions are hidden in academic, or increasingly, in the private sector.

“If we want to move this planet forward and create solutions that this world needs, we need to triangulate these three currently decoupled things.”

Lucia Rodriguez-Freire, an assistant professor in NJIT’s department of civil and environmental engineering who is studying how contaminants move from abandoned mines into Native American communities, said any solution also must be heavily studied from all angles.

“We scientists need to work with communities and shareholders together to come up with solutions that are applicable to all involved,” she said.

Nancy Jackson, a professor in NJIT’s department of chemistry and environmental science, said that includes being willing and able to better disseminate research.

“It is extremely vital that we, as scientists, get our information and knowledge out to localities,” she said. “For us to harbor research in peer review and scientific journals, which most people never see, really isn’t affording the population an understanding of what kinds of actions are being taken that may either increase or decrease their vulnerability.”

Nathaly Agosto Filion, chief sustainability officer for the city of Newark, said she works across multiple departments, including water and sewer, engineering, policy and emergency response, and many more, to make sure they are doing everything they can to make Newark a cleaner, greener and healthier place.

“Women leaders have been raised to do the work that is inherently collaborative,” she said. “We are good at reaching across the aisles and finding ways to work together.

“The thing that I find most powerful about our planning process in Newark is our ability to have conversations with so many people about what our future is and what we collectively agree it should look like.”

Lisa Newman, chief operating officer at AeroFarms in Newark, said she also is humbled and privileged to work with many amazing women at the indoor vertical farming company.

“Our workforce is comprised of 46 percent women, with more than 60 percent of our farm workers in Newark and just under 37 percent of corporate being women,” Newman said. “We work with women engineers, biologist, horticulturists and more, and, while I may be the COO, more importantly, AeroFarms understands that I am first and foremost a soccer mom, a wife, a daughter, an aunt and a sister.”

Finally, Annie Novak, founder and director of Growing Chefs and co-founder and farmer at the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, New York, encouraged the students in the room, especially women, to make what they are passionate about a reality.

“When I graduated college, I did not see the job that I wanted,” she said. “So, while I took an internship with the New York Botanical Garden, I also created a nonprofit based on an edible schoolyard model that, at the time, was only present on the West Coast. Now in its 13th year, Growing Chefs is going strong providing field-to-fork food education programs to kids in schools.

“A pro tip for undergrads — if you create a business card that says you are a ‘director of a nonprofit’ at the age of 22, your career will skyrocket.”