Senior Czyzyk implements sustainable initiatives in Panama, Africa

February 11, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Biological engineering senior Kelsey Czyzyk began her academic career at Villanova but soon realized it wasn’t the best fit. The Allentown native said, “I came from a large high school. Villanova was a good university but was too small for me. I transferred because Penn State offered so many opportunities.”

And Czyzyk has taken full advantage of those opportunities.

During the spring semester of her sophomore year, she studied abroad at University College Dublin, the largest university in Ireland. She recalled, “Our department head, Paul Heinemann, had just returned from a trip there, so I was curious to check it out.”

Two engineering classes, two agriculture classes and an Irish cultures course kept Czyzyk busy. She said, “It was beneficial to work with groups of students from many different cultures."

On weekends, Czyzyk traveled to take in the country’s scenery and visit popular landmarks, all part of, as she deemed it, "an amazing experience."

Czyzyk was unable to attend the spring Engineering Career Fair since she was in Ireland, but that didn’t deter her from finding a summer internship on her own. She said, “I reached out to Global Brigades, the world's largest student-led global health and sustainable development movement, and they offered me a sustainable development internship.”

Teamed with seven other sustainable development interns from Penn State and other universities across North America, Czyzyk spent one month in Darién, Panama, working with the province’s residents to improve various environmental, business and human rights programs. She recalled, “We asked residents what they liked about the programs and what initiatives they might find beneficial for future programs.”

Her biggest accomplishment in Darién, Czyzyk said, was assessing options for residents to naturally fertilize their farmland. She explained, “Agriculture is a huge part of their way of life, but many of their current practices aren’t sustainable.”

At the end of her internship, Czyzyk and her team presented their findings to Global Brigades staff and community members. She smiled, “We created a manual with options for composting and crop rotation that would result in more productive soil and better crop yields. They translated it to Spanish and continue to use it as a resource.”

In the fall of her junior year, Czyzyk joined the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program, a perfect match for her interest in sustainability. 

She wanted to help research the viability of expanding the program’s greenhouse initiative in Kenya to Cameroon. Czyzyk explained, “The main challenge was that Kenya had drip irrigation, which is basically a hose with holes in it, but Cameroon did not. Our charge was to figure out how to get these hoses to Cameroon.” 

The solution for now, she said, was finding a reliable supplier to ship the irrigation. “My HESE courses taught me a lot about assessing a need; finding appropriate, scalable solutions to the need; and turning that into a social venture in the most efficient way possible.”

Implementing those skills, Czyzyk worked virtually with partners in Kenya and Cameroon to assess how much water was being saved by using a greenhouse instead of open air farming. She explained, “They would send us results, which I documented. This would give us a solid selling point for the HESE greenhouses.”

The following spring Czyzyk and her classmates focused on finding the best way to get HESE greenhouses in Sierra Leone. She said, “This time it was a little more challenging because our target population in that country is much poorer, so the greenhouses would not be as accessible.”

One option her group suggested was partnering with Sierra Leone’s community health workers and mother support groups. Czyzyk said, “Sierra Leone has a very high infant mortality and maternal mortality rate. Greenhouses produce vegetables and other nutritious foods, so we want them to be available for that population.”

Another option the group proposed was a payback model: they would install the greenhouses and the farmers would pay them back over time with the profits they make from selling vegetables. Czyzyk said that model is especially feasible because greenhouse crops are more plentiful.  “They can be grown year-round unlike open air crops, and there is less worry about pests.”

Last summer, Czyzyk found herself facing a minor dilemma. She was already committed to an internship at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in State College but she also wanted to make the trip to Sierra Leone to see her project come to fruition. Not surprisingly, she found a way to fulfill both obligations. “I started my internship early so I could take a month off and travel to Sierra Leone.”

Czyzyk spent four weeks training carpenters how to build the greenhouses, developing quality control documentation to go along with a construction manual and troubleshooting the construction process when things would go wrong. “We faced a few challenges with the materials, such as warped wood and nails that were too long.”

When she returned to State College, Czyzyk jumped right back into her internship at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She spent the remainder of the summer getting a wide range of experience, from creating erosion and sediment control plans to “putting on waders and surveying streams.”

In fall 2014 Czyzyk summarized the results from the Kenya and Cameroon water studies in a paper and presented her findings at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in San Jose, California. She said, “We found that the greenhouses, even in favorable weather conditions, used 60 percent less water over open air farming and up to 95 percent less water in unfavorable weather conditions.”

Her data was also used as part of a proposal to help the HESE program win a Securing Water for Food grant last fall. The funding will be used for the HESE-World Hope International Greenhouses Revolutionizing Output Project, which will help women farmers in Sierra Leone and Mozambique.

As she wraps up her studies this spring, Czyzyk is working part time, dividing her hours between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Trust for Tomorrow. Headquartered in North Carolina, The trust is an environmental and educational nonprofit with programs to promote sustainable communities and environmental stewardship.

Reflecting on her experiences in the HESE program, Czyzyk said one of the most important lessons she learned is that it’s not practical to think you’ll have all the knowledge of a project going into it. “Sometimes, you just have to jump in and learn along the way.”

She is currently applying to graduate schools and eventually wants to spend time in the field, studying climate change and how it affects hydrologic systems, before seeking a faculty position in academia.

  • Biological engineering senior Kelsey Czyzyk

    Kelsey Czyzyk takes soil samples from an Embera Puru community farm in Panama. She spent one month in Darién, Panama, as a sustainable development intern for Global Brigades.

    IMAGE: Provided by Kelsey Czyzyk
Last Updated February 12, 2015