It was at a lecture by indigenous Canadian activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier during her freshman year that Marie-Odile Fortier realized the impact that climate change had, not just on the environment, but also on underrepresented populations. And, despite her initial reluctance to pursue a Ph.D, she has since become enamored with research surrounding (and the teaching of) life cycle assessment — a process that looks at a product's impact from extraction of raw materials to manufacturing and distribution, to its disposal.
She joined UNLV in July 2022 as civil and environmental engineering and construction assistant professor after stints at the University of California, Merced (2018-22) and State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (2015-18). Here she's found a place of optimism and inclusion, critical elements in fueling her research and teaching.
What is your role at UNLV, and can you walk us through the responsibilities of that role?
I came to UNLV as the engineering faculty member of the Sustainability in Arid Lands cluster hire, which successfully hired three new faculty members in different colleges at UNLV with potential to generate new collaborative and interdisciplinary research in this topic area.
As a faculty member, I balance my time between research, teaching, and service. I teach undergraduate and graduate courses related to sustainability in engineering. In my research duties, I meet with and guide graduate and undergraduate researchers and provide feedback on manuscript drafts, brainstorm research approaches, collaboratively develop models of the life cycles of energy systems in Python code with students, train on new skills, and share professional development opportunities.
I am growing my team currently, so I am actively recruiting new members, as well. I meet with collaborators and stakeholders (usually virtually, but occasionally traveling to meet in person), prepare grant proposals, and keep up with recent developments in my field. We present our research at conferences, which brings me to the service part of my work. I serve on the Diversity Committee of the International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technology, helping to plan the June annual conference throughout the year. I peer review manuscripts submitted to journals upon request.
No day is quite like the previous day, except that I am most frequently at my computer.
Prior to UNLV, you founded GERLCA. What is that and who are the people working behind the scenes?
GERLCA is the name I gave our research group, which stands for Geospatial Energy Resources and Life Cycle Assessment. My research group is currently spread across UNLV and UC Merced, as my two Ph.D. students Amir Sharafi and Alyssa Pfadt-Trilling are completing their degrees there. The group includes myself, graduate student researchers, undergraduate student researchers, and sometimes postdoctoral researchers.
We primarily focus on researching the life cycle climate change impacts of energy systems and how they vary geographically. Life cycle climate change impacts (or the “carbon footprint”) can be calculated using life cycle assessment (LCA), a quantitative method that tracks emissions from cradle to grave, from raw material extraction through to disposal, including the impacts of background processes. It is particularly useful in energy systems research: LCA can identify hotspots for improving environmental performance across the life cycle, guide design and installation location selection for new energy systems, and allow for comparison of the carbon footprints of novel energy systems to other sources of energy.
What inspired you to get into this field?
I first became deeply interested in climate change after attending an invited lecture by Sheila Watt-Cloutier during my freshman year of college. I had not previously considered how climate change was leading to disproportionate impacts on indigenous populations or really fully grasped the massive environmental changes arising from climate change before her talk. I was struck by how absolutely momentous the issue of climate change was, and how it was also essentially an environmental justice crisis.
Originally, I had not been planning to pursue a Ph.D. I had the incorrect notion that a Ph.D. would be years of studying a minor component of a subfield of a subfield, and that I would be stuck forever working on the same thing as a result. I also was truly intimidated by the idea of doing research, thinking that maybe only the very best and most devoted people had the “right” to communicate new knowledge and that it would be so easy to make a mistake that affected engineering design forever if published. I later realized how research was ever-evolving and how studies build upon prior knowledge or reanalyze past assumptions.
My longtime friend Wilton Mui, now also a Ph.D., and his undergraduate research advisor Ben Koopman allowed me to volunteer with Wilton in his lab research and attend research group meetings during my senior undergraduate year [at the University of Florida]. This experience took away a lot of the irrational thoughts I had about research and made me see how research satisfied my intellectual curiosity. I learned how dynamic a research career could be. I credit Wilton for giving me that insight, and I try to make researching accessible to undergraduate students, as some people might have the same epiphany that I did and go on to pursue research careers that benefit human knowledge.
What is your favorite or the most rewarding aspect of the work that you do?
I live for LCA. Something about this approach has absolutely merged into my persona and ways of thinking. Sharing that passion with students and helping them develop skills in this area is something that tends to make me lose track of time, as I can’t help myself from getting into the details and from going off on relatable and teachable, but frequently tangential, anecdotes to drive home crucial points.
My students are probably tired of hearing this statement, but I am such a life cycle person that I inevitably share and explain the inner workings of everything behind the scenes, especially when I believe this knowledge can help others understand various processes. I find this type of mentoring fun, and it leads me to prioritize training students. I have PowerPoint presentations galore breaking down things like how we develop grant budgets, how to adapt codes to make specific types of graphs, how to handle certain tricky modeling aspects in LCA codes, etc.
I also love learning about other people’s research, the methods that they use, and the big questions in their fields, even outside my own discipline.
You reference inclusive values on your website; how important is it to have researchers in this field who can contribute a variety of perspectives?
Inclusivity is both a personal and professional value to me. Society is improved when people are empowered to their full potential and not limited by unjust barriers to entry and retention. As mentioned on my website, GERLCA welcomes and supports women, LGBTQ2SIA+, BIPOC, neurodivergent, undocumented, and first-generation members, researchers with disabilities (including non-apparent disabilities), and other identities that have been systematically minoritized/marginalized in science and engineering.
Our research being primarily computational allows for flexibility in our work environment instead of requiring our members to be onsite during regular daytime weekday hours. This aims to provide needed flexibility for neurodivergent members, members with caretaker duties, members observing religious holidays that are not nationally recognized or culturally significant events, and members with disabilities.
I set meetings primarily virtually and meet regularly individually with each member of my group. I aim to find opportunities for GERLCA members to also interact and collaborate when possible. This helps make this flexible environment less isolating and more welcoming.
There is a social justice element to the work you do by investigating potential “greenwashing” by companies. Why is it important for people to understand the life cycle of products or processes touted as “green” or “carbon-reducing”?
Greenwashing refers to touting something as being environmentally friendly when data is unavailable to support that claim. For example, a product might use a low percentage of recycled material, but it might be more fossil energy-intensive to provide and upgrade that recycled material, leading to a higher carbon footprint than its alternative without any recycled material. If the company producing this new version with recycled material either has not calculated the life cycle environmental impacts in comparison with the other version, or knows that these impacts are higher, but still markets the product to the public as more environmentally friendly, then that would be greenwashing.
Every human-managed system or product has some kind of “hidden” environmental impacts, which life cycle assessment can bring to light by accounting for impacts from cradle to grave.
Many forms of energy are being labeled as “zero emission” due to not generating greenhouse gas emissions directly during electricity generation. However, there are greenhouse gas emissions involved in raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation steps, maintenance, and end of life management. We must determine their cumulative effects in order not to overlook potentially high-emission processes that could be further improved once the issue is identified.
With a lot of renewable energy systems, the carbon footprint is much reduced compared to fossil energy systems, but still not zero. Because the bulk of renewable energy’s emissions occur in raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and construction, which are upfront in the life cycle, these greenhouse gas emissions occur almost as a pulse, which must be mitigated by the climate benefits of the renewable energy provided. Just putting up a new renewable energy system does not guarantee lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy. In some scenarios, renewable energy and bioenergy systems can have higher greenhouse gas emissions on a life cycle basis than their fossil fuel alternatives, and in other scenarios, there might be net negative greenhouse gas emissions or net carbon removal from the atmosphere — it is unknown until a life cycle assessment is properly conducted.
Is this the type of work you imagined doing when you were younger?
I was interested in absolutely everything when I was younger. When I learned about environmental engineering, that was a perfect fit; you have to know about biology, chemistry, physics, and how they apply to engineering in various applications. This type of engineering is at the interphase of humans and nature: making things safe going from nature to humans (like water treatment) and from humans back to nature (like solid waste management). To me, it felt like the crucial, bottom-line responsibility of the engineering profession as a whole. It is innately conscientious, value-driven, and interdisciplinary.
For the longest time as a kid, I was most interested in becoming a writer. Considering how much I write, from manuscripts for peer-reviewed publication, grant proposals, new lecture and presentation materials, student trainings, and reports to collaborators, I think I got what I wished for in some way!
What are some of your goals — career or personal — as we enter 2023?
I am excited to build up my team at UNLV! This fall 2022, I came in with one graduate student, Santiago Cisneros Castillo, who was previously one of my stellar undergraduate researchers at UC Merced. We will be gaining new graduate and undergraduate students in 2023. My two Ph.D. students at UC Merced will also be coming up to completing their dissertations this year, which is exciting as they will be my first two Ph.D. students graduated. I have previously graduated five master’s degree students and served on multiple Ph.D. students’ committees. I am also looking forward to putting finishing touches on several ongoing studies with my student researchers and submitting the manuscripts for publication. It’s important to me to help my students and mentees build their way to impactful and fulfilling careers.
My personal goals for 2023 involve staying on top of my health. It’s easy to overlook when things get very busy, and we talk openly about the importance of mental and physical health within my research group. I will be making sure that I walk the walk and set a good example.
What do you like to do for fun?
I have only lived in Las Vegas since July 2022, but I used to visit more frequently before moving. While my spouse was working in the central valley of California and I was working in upstate New York, it allowed us to see each other more often when we met up in Las Vegas as the flights were more direct. We hiked in Valley of Fire (we had a habit of doing the Prospect Trail out-and-back on Thanksgiving before having a big meal at the end of the day!) and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and enjoyed the vegan restaurants within the city. We love everything Las Vegas has to offer. We fell in love with the desert, and during the pandemic, we spent quite a bit of time traveling and camping in state parks in the southwest in an RV with our pets while working remotely.
Since moving, we’ve kept up the same kinds of hobbies that we had while visiting Las Vegas: exploring hiking trails, trying new restaurants, and doing some shopping. I am pretty much a homebody otherwise, and I enjoy staying home with our pets, swimming in our pool, listening to nonfiction audiobooks through the Clark County Library’s Libby app, and watching both award-winning TV shows and trashy reality TV to unwind.
What is your favorite thing about working at UNLV?
UNLV has an optimism and community spirit that invigorates me in my work. UNLV has all of the aspects that I loved the most in my two previous positions all in one place, and it’s in my favorite natural setting (the desert), in my favorite city, in my favorite state.
UNLV reflects the character of Las Vegas in being diverse, welcoming, entertaining, and having a unique identity that is unlike anywhere else. Southern Nevada is a great place to focus on renewable energy development and analysis, as well. On top of that, there is so much potential for collaborations on life cycle assessment projects with other researchers and with industry partners.