#Illinois Alumni Champions Focus on Sustainability

The University of Illinois and the Illinois Sustainability Awards

University of Illinois alumni are prominent among the 2016 finalists for the nation's oldest state sustainability award. Here are some of the home-grown environmental champions who are making their commitment to environmental sustainability count in their careers.

Aaron Stash, Manager of Environmental Strategy and Sustainability, United Airlines

Michael Ashkenasi, Director of Sustainable Programs, Andersonville Sustainable Community Alliance

Molly Graham, Senior Program Associate, Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance

Vytenis Milunas, Director of Project Management, University of Illinois at Chicago

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, the organization that has organized the Governor's Sustainability Awards for 30 years is also a place where 14 U of I alumni have chosen to devote their talents for preserving environmental quality in Illinois. Two of them are also profiled below.

Nandakishore Ragagopalan, Illinois State Pollution Prevention Officer, Associate Director, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center

Lance Schideman, Research Scientist, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center

Aaron Stash '00

Aaron Stash '00

Alum Makes Big Impact in Sustainability at Work and at Home

Growing up in Central Illinois and attending the U of I, Aaron Stash (BA '00) took away a passion for environmental conservation and sustainable living that led him to set his goals high.

As Manager of Environmental Strategy and Sustainability at United Airlines, Stash takes on the challenge of improving the environmental footprint of one of the most fuel-intensive of industries.

Stash's team and United made history in June 2015 when it bought a $30 million stake in an alternative fuels developer Fulcrum BioEnergy. The investment was a sector-leading statement about how replacing petroleum with sustainable biofuel could be a game-changer in cutting aviation's carbon footprint. In March his team implemented the first commercial-scale use of sustainable aviation biofuel anywhere (for flights out of Los Angeles International Airport).

United's efforts toward sustainability have made it a finalist in the 2016 Illinois Governor's Sustainability Award program. The 30th anniversary awards ceremony will be held Nov. 1 at the Union League Club of Chicago.

"Without living and operating more sustainably, our future looks bleak," according to Stash. "Thankfully, citizens, governments and businesses recognize the challenges that global climate change is creating and are working together to address those challenges," he added.

Stash leads a comprehensive sustainability strategy which includes fuel efficiency, recycling, upcycling, education, and empowering United employees to be more sustainable. But most impactful could be the agreement to gradually produce, starting next year, 180 million gallons of jet fuel made from municipal solid waste for United jets. Few in the sustainability field have the opportunity to cut carbon emissions at work by 80 percent.

At home Aaron and his wife Jenny (BA '02) live in the state's first LEED Platinum-certified house that they helped design and build in Northbrook Ill.

Growing up around and studying at the U of I "I was constantly reminded ... of the importance of our environment and our farm land," explained Stash. "I was able to leverage that personal passion to my professional career and have used my communications and management background to continue United's journey to become a more sustainable airline."

Michael Ashkenasi '12

Michael Ashkenasi '12

Planning Major Acts Locally for Chicago Quality of Life

For Michael Ashkenasi (MUPP '12), growing up in Chicago reinforced the idea that cities were the key to building a more sustainable future.

As Director of Sustainability Programs, he has helped the Chicago neighborhood of Andersonville take the environmental axiom "act locally" to a high level. The model of community action built by the Andersonville Sustainable Community Alliance (ASCA) has made it a finalist for the Illinois Sustainability Award, to be announced Nov. 1 at the Union League Club of Chicago.

The Chicago neighborhood radiating out from North Clarke Street near Rosehill Cemetery has worked out a formula for livability and a strong sense of place with multiple facets combining land use, economic viability, community amenities, as well as a fundamental adherence to environmental sustainability.

"I believe the breadth of our sustainability initiatives has been impactful, especially for a neighborhood-based 501C3 organization," said Ashkenasi. "We don't just work in one or two areas. We encourage waste reduction, water conservation, renewable energy, adaptive reuse, public art, and placemaking, legislation advocacy, and so much more."

Partly thanks to Ashkenasi's Masters of Urban Planning and Policy degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, ASCA has implemented a more data-driven approach to evaluate its impact.

In 2015, the neighborhood composted 22.2 tons of food waste and recycled 5.7 tons of paper, 0.6 tons of plastic and aluminum, and 1.3 tons of glass from along its historic district streets. Its Green Building Incentive Program and technical assistance have helped local businesses upgrade lighting and cut utility bills.

Repairs to waste bins and tree grates, and the addition of new trees and 66 on-street parking spots also contributed to the attractiveness and livability of the neighborhood.

"I've always felt the traditional definition of the "triple bottom line" – people, planet, and prosperity – has been a good way to explain the umbrella term of "sustainability" to the public," Ashkenasi noted. "Climate change is real and it's happening right now. We are now seeing the effects of a ... society that didn't really value or prioritize our natural environment. (But) I'm optimistic for the future. We finally seem to be heading in the right direction."

Molly Graham '13

Molly Graham '13

From School to Work for Earth, Society and the Environment

When Molly Graham (BS '13) graduated from the School of Earth, Society, and the Environment she said she felt well prepared to start working towards a sustainable future.

For the past two years, Molly has been doing just this at the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA), a regional energy efficiency organization that works in 13 states. The Chicago-based non-profit promotes the benefits of energy efficiency through regional advocacy and a portfolio of programs, which work to cut energy use in commercial and residential buildings. MEEA's policy and program helps industry partners understand and implement cost-effective strategies that provide economic and environmental benefits.

"Sustainable business practices and living a sustainable lifestyle will be the most important factors in determining the fate of our livelihood," Graham said.

MEEA is a finalist for the Illinois Governor's Sustainability Awards for their work on the Building Operator Certification Program, which Graham works on. Award winners will be announced Tuesday, Nov. 1 at the Union League Club of Chicago.

MEEA's strategy for offering Building Operator Certification training in Illinois has made it one of the most robust in the nation. Its success has been built on partnerships (notably including the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity) that have helped to create a demand for education and training for building professionals.

Chicago's Benchmarking Ordinance requires energy data tracking and verification by trained professionals for buildings of 50,000 square feet or larger. When Chicago extended the requirement to large multifamily buildings, MEEA and partners responded by developing a unique multifamily building operator training pilot.

"Our population is expected to grow by two billion people on a planet that is already strained for resources," Graham explained about her career choice. "Without any sustainability efforts there will be nothing left for generations to come."

Vytenis Milunas '82

Vytenis Milunas '82

Engineer Joins Army of Generals for Sustainable Research Laboratories

Vytenis Milunas (BSME '82) is part of an army of generals at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) who continue to strengthen a framework of leadership for sustainability in education, research and practice.

UIC is a finalist for the 2016 Illinois Governor's Sustainability Award to be presented Nov. 1 at the Union League Club of Chicago after completing a two-and-a-half-year examination of what it means to be a sustainable university in a period of climate change. An administration charge led to a deep dive by university committees yielding 20 goals and strategies that allow sustainability to permeate university activities at all levels that led to the publication of "To Green and Beyond - Excellence through Sustainability at UIC."

Milunas' part of that aspiration is sustainable design and operation of campus laboratories. As Director of Project Management he has influenced major new construction projects be energy efficient. Recently the university retrofit laboratories at the 60-year-old College of Pharmacy. There, an ultra-high energy recovery system and building automation system revitalized research laboratories to current operational and environmental standards. As President of the Chicago Chapter of the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories, Milunas champions the efforts to disseminate and educate Chicago-area universities and science centers in energy efficiency and sustainable strategies, policies, and programs.

As a Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing Professional (MEP), Milunas' training helped completion of a building-level energy meter installation program to encompass up to 80 percent of the campus' energy consumption. High-energy-use buildings at UIC require high-quality meters, sensors, data collection recorders, robust data storage capabilities, and flexible reporting and data analysis tools to sustainably manage energy consumption, according to Milunas. His efforts and those of his team have led to multi-million dollar annual energy rebates from various state and federal agencies.

"During my studies here at UIC, in engineering and energy conversion and I created the basis for my development of building energy conservation principles," Milunas said. "The team here at UIC helped me focus my energies more clearly and provided support to execute my projects.

"Reducing energy consumption in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions, along with using recycled materials, and reducing waste streams, thereby providing a better future for our grandchildren," he added.

Nandakishore Rajagopalan '93

Nandakishore Rajagopalan '93

Sustainability Award Proves Environment and Profit Can Coexist

The Illinois Governor's Sustainability Award is important for confirming year after year that profitability and environmental protection can work as one, according to Nandakishore Rajagopalan ('93), Illinois' State Pollution Prevention Scientist.

The awards, the nation's oldest state sustainability award, will be announced for the 30th year on Tuesday, Nov. 1 at the Union League Club of Chicago.

Rajagopalan also serves as Associate Director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his Ph.D. in food science.

The position of state scientist was established by law in 2013, and Rajagopalan was well-prepared for the honor, after more than 20 years develop technologies and processes to minimize natural resource consumption in industrial operations and beneficial reuse of industrial and agricultural waste. He is currently focused on scaling-up a desalination process of his invention based on polymer assisted osmotic dehydration.

Many companies who have won the award have benefitted from the expertise of Ragagopalan and the scientists and engineers he directs at ISTC, especially in the recycling of (sometimes hazardous or toxic) industrial fluids.

His thoughts on sustainability were best expressed by Gandhi who said "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs but not every man's greed." Two mentors shaped his commitment to environmental science. He was inspired by Verghese Kurien, the social entrepreneur whose ideas turned Rajagopalan's native India from a milk-deficient nation, into the world's largest milk producer.

"I was (also) extremely lucky to work with my mentor Munir Cheryan who primarily focused on value-added research centered around the utilization of corn, soybean, and milk," he added. "While I was certainly not thinking about sustainability while engaged in these endeavors, I internalized the notion that there is always something more one can do with what is considered 'throw-away.'"

Lance Schideman

Lance Schideman '06

U of I Engineer Develops Path from Waste to Wealth

During the Technical Symposium at the Illinois Governor's Sustainability Awards, Lance Schideman (BS, MS, Ph.D. '06) will demonstrate a pathway for replacing all petroleum imports with bioenergy products derived from current wastewater streams.

Schideman will provide one of two major technology presentations during the Awards' morning session at the Union Club of Chicago on Tuesday, Nov. 1. The other presentation deals with university efforts to perfect next-generation carbon capture technology and develop new markets for captured carbon CO2.

Schideman research proposes large-scale biofuel production using stored energy in wastewater, amplified by algae farming to leverage energy from the sun. Each treatment plant could feed fuel refineries, instead of rivers and streams, with a steady, renewable energy supply.

"Sustainability indicates that something has the potential to endure," according to Schideman. "If we want to have a truly lasting impact and legacy, then we had better give preference to sustainable methods.

"My training at the U of I has provided technical skills needed to analyze complex problems and design processes that are both economically efficient and environmentally friendly, which addresses two of the pillars of sustainability," he said. "Also the broader societal engagement of the university has provided both exposure and inspiration to the social aspects of sustainability."

2016 Awards Ceremony Sponsors

Media Sponsor

Chicago Business logo and link to their website

Sustaining Sponsor

Sloan Valve Company logo and link to their website

Supporting Sponsors

DQI Inc logo and link to their websiteEarth Friendly Products logo and link to their websiteMarathon Petroleium Corporation logo and link to their website

Friends of the Awards

Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Ltd logo and link to their websiteIllinois Environmental Regulatory Group logo and link to their websiteWinergy group logo and link to their website