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Biological engineering senior engages in environmental research in Costa Rica

Chris Valdez built and installed floating bamboo mats for plant control in the constructed wetlands at the University of Costa Rica's Fabio Baudrit Agricultural Experimental Station in Alajuela, Costa Rica, August 2016. Image: Photo provided by Chris Valdez
November 29, 2016

“Improving environmental health has grown to be one of my biggest passions. It’s concerning to me that many people are so unconcerned about taking care of the world they live in,” said Chris Valdez, a biological engineering senior at Penn State.

Valdez’s research focus is to take care of soil and water and preserve it for future use. He hopes to be a part of solutions that ensure mankind doesn’t abuse Earth’s natural resources, since humans depend on them so heavily.

Valdez’s parents had careers in landscape design, which inspired him to pursue a career in an environmental field. Specifically, his father previously owned a small landscape company that he ran from home.

“Thanks to my dad, I have a tremendous appreciation for plants and agriculture,” said Valdez.

Reflecting on his own experiences working in the landscaping business, Valdez said, “I saw other small businesses using careless practices with lawn care chemicals that pollute our environment. That really bothered me. If small businesses are doing this, perhaps big corporations are doing it, too. I want to help prevent this from happening.”

This past summer, he completed an internship at a research facility at the University of Costa Rica.

His research consisted of two parts: converting organic waste into natural energy, and studying different types of plants that clean up polluted water.

“The plants we used are mostly water hyacinth, which is pretty common,” said Valdez. “But the most challenging part was that we had to physically get into a pond to work with these big floating plants. It was fun, though.”

One valuable lesson Valdez learned during his internship was that research has to be presented in a way that’s both profitable to clients, and also friendly to the environment.

“We have to find a way that is mutually beneficial, or it would be really hard to convince those companies to adopt new systems and greener technologies,” he explained.

Valdez said working in Costa Rica was one of his most memorable Penn State experiences.

“The people there were so welcoming. I played soccer with them every morning. I even bought myself a new pair of soccer cleats,” he laughed.

Currently, Valdez is applying to companies that are more ecologically focused. Following graduation, he wants to continue his research on treating polluted water, similar to the work he did in Costa Rica.

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