Jeremy Guest: A Q&A With iSEE’s Acting Associate Director for Research

Jeremy Guest: A Q&A With iSEE’s Acting Associate Director for Research

Jeremy Guest was named iSEE’s Acting Associate Director for Research on Jan. 1, 2021. Guest succeeds Madhu Khanna, who was promoted to iSEE Interim Director in September 2020.

Guest has been associated with iSEE since 2014, contributing to projects like the SEE Fellows Minor, the  Smart Farms Project, and the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI). He has been the recipient of various distinguished awards, including from the Water Research Foundation, for his groundbreaking work in environmental engineering and the development of sustainable water and sanitation systems.

In this Q&A with iSEE Communications Intern Maria Maring, Guest discusses some of his experiences in the realms of research and sustainability, and what he hopes to accomplish as iSEE’s new Associate Director.



First and foremost: Congratulations on your new role  at iSEE! How are you feeling after your first few weeks at the job?

I’m excited! I’m particularly enjoying learning about all the interdisciplinary initiatives going on across campus. It’s eye-opening and impressive: the breadth of work that researchers on campus are pursuing. Through this role, I’m getting to know a lot of people across campus who are doing really impactful work, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better.


You’ve been affiliated with Bucknell University, Virginia Tech, the University of Michigan, and finally the U of I. In fact, you’ve been connected to iSEE since its beginning seven years ago. How do you believe your unique experiences from these different places have prepared you to be an Associate Director?

I have been fortunate to work on great interdisciplinary projects and to engage with researchers from across campus. During my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, I was part of a Sustainability Fellows Program. I was the only engineer in my cohort, and I had the opportunity to regularly interact with graduate students from law, chemistry, sociology, public health, natural resources — a range of disciplines. We took a lot of time to explore concepts in sustainability science together, and I really valued that experience.

Shortly after I finished at Michigan, a few of us from the Sustainability Fellows Program published a paper looking at the interdisciplinarity of sustainability research. Through that work and our many conversations, I developed a deep appreciation for the impact that interdisciplinary research can have, and also the importance of ensuring that everyone at the table sees value in everyone else’s contributions.

Since arriving at UIUC, I’ve sought out similar experiences. I’ve enjoyed interacting with colleagues from across campus in research and education, including through the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative, the Center for Advanced Study, and various research centers on campus. I jointly developed and taught ENVS 301 — a core class for the Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Fellows Program run through iSEE. The breadth and depth of knowledge across campus are really incredible.

Interdisciplinarity is a core feature of iSEE. It’s a mechanism to engage researchers from across colleges, across campus, and to pursue solutions and challenges that can’t be addressed by one area of study. I value the experiences I’ve had in engaging with scholars from across disciplines. I think that both appreciation for interdisciplinarity and the tangible outcomes from our collaborations have put me in a strong position to engage researchers from across campus through iSEE.


Reflecting on your educational and personal experiences, was there a defining moment that led you to where you are now? Who or what inspires you toward sustainable action?

Growing up, I always had a passion for both the environment and protecting people. I knew I wanted to be a civil and environmental engineer. I wanted to focus on providing key infrastructure and services to people. I got more and more into environmental engineering because of the complexity of the challenges students are trained to overcome.

We know well that our infrastructure and technologies have unintended consequences – the ways we provide people with safe water, sanitation, transportation, food, energy, the built environment. It became clear that social factors, including equity and fragmentation (or differing viewpoints) among stakeholders, weren’t being adequately addressed when training engineers.

As I thought about the impact I’d like to have on the world — the technologies I wanted to develop and the solutions I wanted to work on — sustainability was always a critical feature. Central to advancing the sustainability of safe water, sanitation, infrastructure, safe housing, energy, and food is the need for systems that are financially viable, environmentally sustainable, equitable, and accessible to everyone.


Are there other research topics aside from sustainability and sanitation that strike your interest?

I view sustainability as an aspiration that we’re trying to pursue in all of our work, so I generally think of it as something that permeates everything we do. It’s a core feature. We conduct research related to sanitation and resource recovery from bodily waste; we conduct research related to biofuels and bioproducts; we conduct research related to drinking water treatment. We also collaborate with folks in crop sciences, plant biology, natural resources, sociology, economics, and other areas. We work with teams of scholars to develop methods to generate insight about what is the most sustainable path forward, and we chart pathways for research and development to prioritize research to help move society forward.


How will your expertise in engineering and research help iSEE further its mission of sustainably meeting food, water, and energy demands for a growing population?

A lot of my work has focused on helping make transparent and informed decisions about how to move the needle on sustainability. I think, in particular, my focus on charting pathways in research and development that can align trajectories for economic, environmental, and social sustainability puts me in a position to support iSEE’s research mission.

Ultimately, what I’m most excited about is learning from scholars across campus. I want to help teams of scholars secure the funds that they need to pursue work they’re excited about. I want to help make connections and bring people from across campus together. I want to help make it easier to pursue impactful interdisciplinary research.


Why is iSEE’s work important for the university and the greater C-U area?

Part of iSEE’s mission includes working with local communities, farmers, industry, and others to bring ideas to fruition. A necessary part of translational research is to engage with a broad set of stakeholders so that you can develop solutions that have value for everyone involved. iSEE is in a position to facilitate connections between local stakeholders and experts on campus. These connections can help develop opportunities for research to have a tangible societal impact, and for marginalized voices to play a greater role in defining research directions.


Above: Guest, left, and his students with staff from the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) in Tamale, Ghana in 2017. Through the USAID Soybean Innovation Lab, Guest and his students collaborated with SARI researchers to establish and grow the first environmental analytical laboratory for water quality testing in northern Ghana. Top: Members of the Guest Research Group take a break during a 5K mud run for charity in 2014 with the students dressed as minions and Guest as the super-villain Gru. All credits: Jeremy Guest

An important element of sustainability is equity. Especially given our current climate, why is it critical to incorporate social justice and anti-racism into iSEE’s research agenda?

It is well-documented that the brunt of climate change disproportionately affects underserved and marginalized communities in the U.S. and abroad. As we pursue sustainable solutions, we have to address and actively overcome inequalities that have been established by and reinforced by our past and current approaches to energy, infrastructure, community services – in essence, everything.

It’s also well-documented that we develop the best solutions when there are diverse voices at the table. As we think about how we can improve people’s lives and protect and enhance the environment in the 21st century, there must be an acknowledgment and prioritization of communities and individuals who have been subject to environmental injustices. People are central to the goal of sustainable development and moving society forward in an equitable way.


In your opinion, what is the U of I’s most notable sustainability success? Conversely, where do you believe we have the most work to do?

iSEE is active in research, education and outreach, and campus efforts to advance sustainability. Given that my role is centered on research, I’ll focus on that aspect.

iSEE has been very effective at bringing researchers together, especially around research in agriculture and engineering. An excellent example of that would be the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), a Bioenergy Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, which iSEE helped secure and still supports. CABBI has brought together faculty, staff, and students across a broad range of expertise. CABBI has been an excellent vehicle to build additional collaborations. iSEE has also supported other actionable research related to climate, energy, infrastructure, water and land stewardship, and agriculture, and we continue to support scholars coming together from across campus around these topics.

In terms of areas to improve, I think we have a long way to go in engaging with and supporting the social sciences, health sciences, humanities, and other domains in sustainability-related research. Natural sciences and engineering are important, but all of these systems we’re studying involve people. It’s undeniable that people — their behavior, their health, their perceptions, their social networks – directly influence the sustainability and equity of solutions, and whether they have the potential to be adopted and maintained. We have to do more to engage with all parts of campus.


How do you feel about the near and far future in terms of sustainability on campus? What are your goals as Associate Director?

I am consistently inspired by the excellence of the faculty, students, and staff across UIUC’s campus. The quality of work and the collaborative nature of people across the University make me very optimistic about pursuing sustainability here.

Some of my goals in this role are to increase engagement across departments, increase the number of departments and researchers supported by the institute, make connections that wouldn’t otherwise be there, increase the diversity of teams, and put those teams in a position to successfully secure external funding. My goal is to create a supportive environment in which anyone can come together and pursue the ideas that they think will be impactful, and to make the process as easy as possible.


Lastly, what do you do in your free time?

I spend time with my family: my wife and two young boys. Aside from Zoom-schooling and navigating the daily challenges of isolation in a pandemic, we spend a lot of time outdoors and playing Pokémon Go with the kids. We use Pokémon as an excuse to frequent all the parks around town and meet up with friends outdoors.