Taking on ‘a Collaborative Challenge’

Taking on ‘a Collaborative Challenge’

Luis Rodríguez was named iSEE’s Associate Director for Education & Outreach on Aug. 16, 2021, when he assumed leadership of educational programs such as the iSEE sustainability minor, the Levenick Teaching Fellows Program, and the new undergraduate Environmental Leadership Program (ELP).

Rodríguez, an Associate Professor of Agricultural & Biological Engineering, has been associated with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign since 2005. Before he was appointed at iSEE he worked to establish strategies and resources for people to work effectively in interdisciplinary environments. This is exactly what iSEE hopes to expand, making it a perfect fit for Rodríguez.

In this Q&A with iSEE Communications Intern Grace Izzo, Rodríguez discusses some of his goals at iSEE — and what made him so passionate about sustainability.


How did you become part of iSEE, and what made you want to take this position?

In my case, I was honored to be asked to apply and was excited by what I learned about the opportunity! I have always looked at sustainability as a collaborative challenge. I consider this one of the biggest and most essential problems to solve, and no one can do it by themselves. Not only do we have to collaborate in order to create solutions, but we also have to analyze those problems from so many different perspectives. We need to analyze from disciplinary perspectives and cultural perspectives in order to generate not only an effective solution, but one that is also compatible with all the people who will be working together. iSEE was interested in seeing more interdisciplinary work, and it’s my strong belief that this is the type of training many of us need to engage in if we want to attack these big problems.


What’s been the most interesting part of your new job so far? 

With any new job, you are always learning where people were before you arrived, so you can try to find a way to run with the pack and hopefully have some influence. I am learning a lot about existing programs and how many of these things came about before I arrived. I am hoping to find ways to make some of my own ideas fit into what already exists. Something iSEE hasn’t addressed until now is the graduate-level experiences in sustainability. I think it’s one that the campus will see as a great opportunity, so I am looking forward to that!


What do you look forward to most in the next year, five years, and 10 years at iSEE?

There is an opportunity for iSEE to express itself in other ways throughout the campus. Sustainability is not currently a stand-alone independent entity when it comes to academic programs. There is potentially a way we can develop that type of programming in the future such that people could get a degree in sustainability. Not too many of our peer institutions have done that yet. Sustainability is still the adjective in front of other things like sustainability law or sustainability policy, and it needs to be its own thing soon.

Near term, I would like to see iSEE create some new opportunities for graduate education, and I would like to see the Environmental Leadership Program be a successful second-year program. If we can get a nice cohort of students in front of policymakers on a few different scales, both municipal and state, we can see how that will impact iSEE’s future. Hopefully the pandemic continues to cooperate with us, and we can do more of these things face-to-face, which would represent a great success.


You oversee several important iSEE educational programs. What are some of your primary responsibilities? 

Our biggest new program is the Environmental Leadership Program; right now, we are updating and expanding on our pilot programs that were introduced last spring. The Environmental Leadership Program will expose students and help them prepare to seek policy-based solutions, particularly those related to the environmental sector. Students who participate in the program are going to have the chance to develop and pitch ideas to policymakers all over Illinois for a real hands-on experience. These students will learn how to catalyze the development of new policies that are going to influence our sustainability as a society. The biggest problem in these grand challenges is implementing our effective policy. This is something that I even need more training in.


Why is the ELP important, and how do you hope to expand it?

Policy greases the wheels. As for how we hope to expand it, I do think that there are policy-related opportunities in the corporate sector. While our governments can help set the rules for how we interact and behave with one another, it’s the corporate entities that have a lot of influence on how they are implemented. We would like to expose the program to those corporate entities and show them how corporations can be dynamic and creative in identifying strategies and implementing them in a compatible way. I think that is one key area where growth is not just interesting, but it is in demand.


Do you have any specific plans for iSEE Congresses in the coming years? What are you looking forward to? 

In the Fall 2021 Congress, Circular Foods is something I have been working on, so I was very excited for it! The manner in which we recycle and bring what would otherwise be residues in our food and agricultural systems back in as inputs for various parts of our agricultural systems is very interesting for me. That being said, as I look forward to future Congresses, we want to find something the entire campus and the local communities would find interesting. We do occasionally look at some of the past Congresses to see if there’s a cycle of topics we could expand on and continue to grow while keeping them relevant to our audience. Currently, we have lots of ideas that are adding up, and I see them in the context of things that are disaster-related, or potentially pandemic-related. The truth is we are in discussions regarding how to frame the topics, so all these ideas are on the negotiation table. Thankfully, we have a very active faculty population on our campus, and a lot of ideas are boiling up.


You’ve done previous work on disaster resilience, including in Puerto Rico. What drew you to that research? 

Puerto Rico is my home. That makes it very easy for me to be motivated about anything happening there. As a Ph.D. student, my research was in the reliable delivery of resources like food, energy, and water, but it was applied in a very different context. We were working on Martian life support systems at that time, meaning we were trying to find a way to build an ecosystem on Mars and make that ecosystem function. To do so, you need to provide food, energy, and water for the astronauts and be able to recycle all the waste produced. We ended up shifting our research focus to reliable delivery of food, energy, and water.

It turns out that immediately after a disaster resources like food, energy, and water are also at great risk. My hope right now is to provide strategies to communities so they can prepare themselves with higher success before these types of events occur. In Puerto Rico, as is true for many island nations, they are at greater risk to the quality of disaster aid, relative to what you might see on the east coast of the United States, which also sees many hurricanes. This is particularly concerning when we see the effects of climate change potentially increasing the intensity and frequency of these storms. It is easy to be passionate, but it is much harder to find viable solutions that communities will accept.


What excites you about sustainability work? What frustrates you about it?

It is one of the biggest challenges out there. It is also one that we just cannot ignore. The frustration that comes with sustainability work is that we see solutions that seem obvious if they were adopted, but it’s not easy to change behaviors — we can’t easily mandate adoption in many cases. That comes back to the reason why I am motivated to see an increase in interdisciplinary practice among our students. While I am an engineer and that has its benefits, it is also an Achilles’ heel because we (engineers) often feel we see obvious solutions. The value and merit of collaborating broadly to bring solutions to fruition is an essential skill for those who seek to improve societal sustainability. Problem solvers need to work closely with their stakeholders to co-design solutions, thus improving the likelihood of long-term implementation. That is what I hope to help people achieve as they interact with our programs here in iSEE.