Making Sustainability a Reality: U.Va. Engineering Student Finds Focus After Break from Academics

May 17, 2010 — Since childhood, sailing has been an important part of Cara Magoon's life. When her first year as a University of Virginia engineering student went off course, she took to the water and gained perspective that helped her find focus in academics and a sustainability-oriented career path.

As a first-year student, Magoon lost interest in her plans to major in mechanical engineering. She was distracted by the local music scene and her volunteer work at a Charlottesville community center, Better Than TV. The center served the area's homeless and anyone who was looking for a meaningful experience that didn't involve sitting in front of a television set. Working with local musician Brandon Collins and members of the musical group Accordion Death Squad, Magoon helped set up and run the center's library, vegan café and clothing-exchange store.

On Sundays, she worked with the organization Food Not Bombs, collecting food from donors and cooking and serving meals at Tonsler Park.

At the time, Magoon describes herself as being in "exploration mode." Dorm life wasn't for her; her coursework seemed too theoretical compared with her very tangible service work. She withdrew from school and stayed at friends' houses or slept at the community center.

Eventually she found a few part-time jobs to help pay the rent at places she was staying. She met a lot of Charlottesville's homeless and transient community during this time.

In the summer of 2006, Magoon returned home to Hampton Roads to take a charter boat captain certification course. With her passion and skills – a sailor since age 12, she trained under an Olympic coach and competed in national races – she planned to offer charter dinner cruises and teach sailing lessons to pay the bills until she could pursue a career designing alternative energy systems and sailboat racing rigging. Uncertain if she would need the mechanical engineering degree, she considered experimenting with alternative rigging set-ups on her own.

After earning the certification through Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Magoon again reversed course. While a nautical life would be exciting, she knew she had important problem-solving skills to learn. She opted to return to U.Va. to further develop her analytical and design capabilities, and to learn how she could take a part in creating a more sustainable society. Studying civil and environmental engineering seemed to be the obvious path.

"I wanted to take advantage of the career boost that comes with an undergraduate degree," she said. "I wanted to start making a difference, rather than waiting to save enough money to propel my life away from sandwich-making and landscaping. U.Va. would open more paths than would working as a telemarketer."

In the fall of 2006, she began pursuing a civil engineering degree with a focus on the environment. A course during her first semester back at school, "Designing a Sustainable Future," set the tone for the rest of her U.Va. career. The course was taught by Paxton Marshall, professor of electrical and computer engineering, who is known on Grounds for launching student projects that have positive impacts on the environment and communities.

Magoon's coursework was strengthened by hands-on sustainability projects. Working with Dan Michaelson [LINK TO HIS PROFILE], an environmental science major, she designed a composting program for U.Va. Dining Services that has been running since fall 2008.

The project began as part of her "Designing a Sustainable Future" class. Under Marshall's guidance, Magoon worked with Panorama Farms in Earlysville to research best practices in composting and set up a system for moving food waste from a U.Va. dining hall to the farm's composting operation. This spring, the program expanded to receive waste from two additional dining halls, and organizers estimate that they will compost about five tons of food waste per week.

In the summer of 2008, she advanced her knowledge of ecology and sustainable infrastructure by taking a three-week course in permaculture – a field that models human development after natural ecosystems – at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She shared this knowledge with fellow students through a January Term course. In fall 2008 and 2009, she taught fellow undergraduate students surveying techniques and AutoCAD design software.
Internationally, Magoon worked on a clean-water project in the rural community of La Gracia in western Belize that was supported by the U.Va. Jefferson Public Citizens Program, the U.Va. Center for Global Health's Undergraduate Scholars Program and Engineering Students Without Borders.

For the past several years, Magoon and fellow students worked to create a sustainable water treatment and supply system that uses biofilters to purify public spring water and improve rainwater collection. The students built a prototype of the system in the village's school as a model for replication in homes throughout the village. Last April, Magoon helped the team secure a Jefferson Public Citizens Award worth $30,000 to carry out the summer project.

Later this month, Magoon's former team member, rising third-year engineering student Ariel Sayre  – with $10,000 in funding from the U.Va. Engineering Foundation and Linwood A. "Chip" Lacy Jr., an Engineering School and Darden alumnus – will lead a new team back to the area to expand the group's work. Magoon acted as a mentor for this phase of the project, helping to set the stage for future work in the area.

The clean-water project served as the basis for her thesis, and her articles on the ethics of international research have been published in International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering and the Virginia Policy Review. She and her collaborators are submitting articles to other journals and have presented at several conferences around the country.

Magoon's credits her committed pursuit of sustainability projects to inspirational professors, namely Marshall and Robert Swap, associate professor of environmental science in the College of Arts & Sciences.

"These experiences and professors helped me learn as a student and grow as a person," Magoon said. "They empowered me and gave me confidence to pursue my passion for sustainable development work, both here and abroad."

With the projects she began earlier now in the able hands of U.Va. students, community members and the people of Belize, Magoon plans to further her environmentally focused studies. She has applied for a position in the Regenerative Design Institute of Bolinas, Calif., where her goal is to strengthen her skills in permaculture and environmental engineering.

One day, she hopes to set sail again. Instead of dinner cruises, though, Magoon now sees herself aboard a research vessel, perhaps studying degraded plastic pollution in the ocean.

— By Zak Richards