Environmental Student Leaves Legacy at University

May 20, 2010 — Dan Michaelson has left his mark on the University of Virginia.

Michaelson, 21, of Alexandria, is graduating May 23 from U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science with a bachelor of science in engineering science. He is one of the driving forces behind two of the University's most successful sustainability projects in recent years: the Observatory Hill food-waste composting program and Hereford College's organic garden.

The compost program sends about 2½ tons of food waste a week from Observatory Hill Dining Hall to Panorama Farms in Earlysville, where it is composted. The program received a silver medal in the 2010 Governor's Environmental Excellence Awards, which recognize significant environmental contributions from business, industry, government and individuals.

The compost idea started with fellow student Cara Magoon, but Michaelson built it on paper for a class and then did not want to see it end when the class was over. He worked with Green Dining, a student advisory group for Dining Services; Facilities Management's recycling office; U.Va.'s Office of Environmental Health and Safety; and the Aramark Corporation, which operates the University's dining facilities. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality eventually approved composting as an educational program, with students heavily involved in monitoring and keeping records on the compost.

Michaelson brought his composting expertise to the Hereford Gardens project. Involving faculty, staff and students, the project is part of an ambitious agenda overseen by physics professor Keith Williams. Students learn many lessons growing their food, tending it from seedpod to plate.

"With Dan's help, the garden grew tenfold in area within three years," Williams said. "Dan brought several key pieces of knowledge to the project, most notably composting and cover-cropping. We had to start with hard clay, rocks and concrete fragments left behind from construction. Dan knew how to improve the soil, and we now routinely use cover crops like vetch to help us build up our nutrient-rich, productive soil."

In Williams' outdoor "classroom," students experiment with planting techniques to determine which plants go well together, use cover crops to prevent erosion and deploy trap plants, such as eggplant, to draw bugs away from other plants.

Michaelson is modest about his role in these projects.

"I think it's great, but I don't want to be too egotistical here," Michaelson said. "I am not fully in control of what appear to be my accomplishments."

He noted that many people championed the composting project, and others pushed it through regulatory process. The garden is the work of many people, including students, faculty and staff.

But others said Michaelson's contributions were pivotal.

"If it was not for his efforts, the University would not have the composting program it has today," said Bruce "Sonny" Beale, recycling program superintendent. "He is a diligent worker who goes above and beyond to make sure that the goals are met.

"He is one of those extraordinary gentlemen who takes his tasks and the environment seriously. It's been my extreme pleasure to work with him for four years and watch him grow into a fine young man."

"With Dan's help and vision, we were able to develop a sustainable, long-term plan for the minifarm," Williams said. "The minifarm will thrive as long as faculty
and students continue to work together to maintain that vision."

Michaelson crafted his own undergraduate major, working with hydrology, soils, microbial ecology and environmental systems management to fashion an engineering degree in environmental science.

"I want to know about environmental systems and have the skills to be able to make decisions about their management," he said.

Ultimately, he wants to design sustainable agriculture and landscapes, to "produce food in a more ecologically sensitive manner." He cited an aquaculture project in India where sewage water is used to fertilize plants, which then feed the fish, which are then harvested for food.

"They are using resources in a closed-loop system," he said. "I want to create a sustainable design of society with the environment for the benefit of both."

Michaelson will continue his composting work this summer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. After that, he hopes to go to graduate school to study ecologically sustaining engineering.

"I have a massive appreciation and respect and love of nature," he said. "As a male and a human, I need to be fighting for something. I need to focus myself on a challenge and this is a cause that makes a lot of sense. Nature provides me with happiness and this fight gives me intrinsic satisfaction."

He also wants to apply his engineering background to making himself more self-sufficient, including growing much of his own food.

"When you alter your way of living, you become more aware of the materials that sustain your life," he said.

— By Matt Kelly