Lure of the Orient beckons environmental engineering student

Written in 2003Jean Foster

Jean Foster’s childhood spent with her family in exotic Malaysia, where primal forests create a continuous skyline of green from shore side mangrove to mountaintop oak, gave her an enduring fascination for the Orient.

Malaysia’s population is surprisingly diverse, influenced by centuries of trade with China, India and Arab nations, and later with the Portuguese. While there are myriad indigenous Malay tribes, nearly 35 percent of the country’s population is immigrant Chinese. And it was this vibrant Chinese culture that captured Foster’s imagination and ultimately set the course for her career plans.

Before starting college, Foster spent two summers living in China’s capital city of Beijing, known as Peking to Westerners until 1949. There, she was able to immerse herself in the language and culture, and business atmosphere of the country’s financial hub.

It’s very hard to become fluent in Chinese, she notes. “If people speak slowly, I can follow conversations, but if they speak at a normal fast pace, it’s very difficult,” Foster laughs.

She quickly realized differences in how the environment is treated and viewed in Beijing as compared to the U.S. For example, she once observed workers plant grass in a Beijing park area, and then spray paint it green so that it looked nice. In this city of 12 million people, it’s a daily routine to save water from your shower to flush the toilet, Foster said, yet other forms of recycling are virtually nonexistent.

Since 1949, Beijing has expanded five-fold, aggressively embracing new technology and industrial development. But there’s been a price to the environment along the way. The sky is white, not blue, from air pollution, and there are huge differences in people’s standards of living–— from shacks to posh apartments, Foster said.

“I think it’s probably very common that standards and requirements to protect the environment don’t keep pace with growth and industrial ‘progress’ in developing countries,” said Foster. “And I want to do something about that, to engineer designs that incorporate environmental health into development plans up front.”

Fired with a passion to work in environmental science, Foster chose to pursue her college education at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. “I like that Duke emphasizes a balance between engineering courses and liberal arts,” she said. “Duke also has a strong program in Chinese, and China is where I ultimately want to work.”

Now a rising junior in civil and environmental engineering, Foster experienced her first engineering internship at an ExxonMobil petroleum refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during the summer of 2002. There, she helped evaluate the efficacy of a prototype biological oxygen demand meter in measuring the amount of oxygen required by the microorganisms to biologically degrade the wastes in the wastewater treatment plant.

Although the meter she tested wasn’t sensitive enough to meet the plant’s needs, she learned a lot about how research teams function in the real world. “They’re trying to develop an accurate meter to help plant operators anticipate upsets before they occur,” she said.

This summer, Foster accepted a second engineering internship with ExxonMobil at a petroleum refinery in Joliet, Illinois. Working with the environmental compliance team, she has helped to inventory benzene-containing waste and wastewater streams and develop a program to ensure that the company complies with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.

“I’ve learned how complex it is to operate a big refinery and still comply with EPA standards,” Foster said. “I was surprised at how many people are needed for the regulatory compliance team. So much energy goes into making sure that nothing goes wrong at the refinery.”

“My internships have helped reinforce for me that I want to be an engineer who helps prevent environmental problems, not one who fixes them after they’ve already happened,” she said.

She is looking ahead to this year’s engineering coursework because as a junior, “I will get to start digging into the really meaty courses for environmental engineering,” Foster said.

She’s already emailing her professors and conducting information interviewing to fine tune where she wants her career to take her. She’s also contemplating studying abroad in China through Duke’s study abroad program, and it may be possible for her to take actual engineering courses there as well, depending on her mastery of the language.

Note to readers: In January 2005, Foster and Deirdre McShane founded a chapter of Engineers Without Borders at Duke. As seniors, the two organized an expedition to Indonesia to help survivors of the December 2004 tsunami. Foster graduated in December, 2005. She was accepted at Oxford in the UK for graduate school.