“I have been able to see and understand how things can just be linked together to make our environment more sustainable, and I think recognising that may be a trait or ability I have right now…to bring ideas and people together.”
By Sharmain Grainger
It may not be often that you happen upon an individual who wears a lovely smile as a permanent accessory.
But once you meet Dr. Maya Trotz you will be satisfied that she is undeniably one such person.
Smiling, however, certainly isn’t her best asset. She is an avid learner who is fascinated by nearly everything and everyone who she comes into contact with.
“I have been able to see and understand how things can just be linked together to make our environment more sustainable, and I think recognising that may be a trait or ability I have right now, and to bring ideas and people together,” said a thoughtful Dr. Trotz.
She has been expertly using her talent, which she acquired over time, to defy the challenges associated with the limitations of mankind to better understand and sustain the environment.
For a great deal of her life she has been so engaged and has essentially made a name for herself in this regard.
Although she currently resides in Tampa, Florida, she has been sharing her knowledge with a view to amplifying the need for sustainability in the Caribbean, and especially her homeland. An Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida, Maya was born on February 25, 1973. She grew up with her parents – Ulric and Marilyne Trotz – and siblings in Kitty, Georgetown.
She attended St Margaret’s Primary and then Queen’s College (QC) where she had a natural affinity for a number of activities ranging from sports to debating. And she remembers her days at QC as probably the best of her life, where she was able to make significant friendships, some of which have lasted until today.
Our ‘Special Person’ recently visited these shores, during which she attended a symposium at the University of Guyana (UG) and of course, she was able to share extensively her passion for sustainability and ways it can be achieved.
She made it clear during a recent interview that she is opposed to a reactive
attitude to sustaining the environment.
“In the past it was more like a band aid…you have an oil spill and then you clean it up, now we need to be much more proactive, otherwise we will continue to need band aids,” Dr. Trotz asserted.
She has therefore been working on a theory that if Environmental Engineering or preserving the environment is linked to health, people will recognise that prevention is in fact better than cure.
Choosing her career path was nothing random. In fact Dr. Trotz shared “I think a lot of things influence the career you go into, and I definitely had parents who were very committed to having me going on to University after high school.”
She recalled that her parents themselves were very committed academically. Both her father, a renowned Scientist, who was behind the introduction of the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST), and mother, vigorously pursued post graduate programmes – her father in the area of Chemistry and her mother in Languages.
Essentially, the importance of formal education was drilled into the heads of young Maya and her siblings from very early.
She reflected that at a tender age she had a desire to become a gardener.
“I used to tinker in my mom’s yards and sell her plants and stuff like that to her friends,” Dr. Trotz said. She was eventually told that her burning passion was in fact to become a horticulturist. Horticulture is the
branch of agriculture that deals with the art, science, technology and business of growing plants.
What was, however, interesting is that while horticulture came as a joy to her, she wasn’t remotely the best agriculture student. In fact she probably hated agriculture as a subject area.
But her passion would eventually evolve.
“I would hang out with my father a lot and, when I started high school, I would be at his office (at IAST) a lot, and was able to see all that they (he and his staff) were doing in terms of various technologies that were appropriate for Guyana. I think I was intrigued.”
She said that by the time she entered Sixth Form there were not many teachers to teach the courses she was expected to do. But her father would volunteer his time to teach her class Organic Chemistry. In fact, because of her father, she and a few of her friends had access to Chemists at IAST who, according to her, “would host me and some of my friends. We would do experiments in the IAST lab, and I felt so lucky that I had a parent who allowed me to have access to a facility where I could go and learn.”
Her friends were certainly impressed. But even as Maya’s passion for science burgeoned she simultaneously found some time to dabble a little bit in theatre.
“Throughout high school I worked at the Theatre Guild and the National Cultural Centre…I was actually being paid,” Dr. Trotz asserted as she reminisced on acting in plays directed by the likes of Ron Robinson.
But perhaps it was towards the end of her high school days that she gained a better understanding of what would eventually become her ultimate forte.
Dr. Trotz recalled that around this time Guyana was experiencing a great deal of power outages. However, a group who had visited from Los Angeles, United States, had proposed the idea of bringing a barge of American waste to Guyana to burn it in order to provide electricity. IAST was the institution designated to monitor that venture. However, Greenpeace,
a non-governmental international an organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment while simultaneously promoting peace, did not waste time to speak out against the proposed plans.
In the view of Greenpeace International this development was “so ridiculous…the US sending its waste to a poor country that had no facilities to properly manage it…this was toxic waste,” Dr. Trotz said.
She was certainly paying keen attention the unfolding state of affairs. In fact she was intrigued, even inspired, to delve into studies that would advance efforts to protect the environment. Based on her exposure to extensive literature she eventually started to associate waste management to chemical engineering.
It, moreover, came as no surprise that she would pursue studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which is renowned for its science and engineering programmes. While she majored in Chemical Engineering there, the theatrically-inclined Maya Trotz opted to do a minor in Theatre. She would, however, soon learn that the Chemical Engineering programme at MIT was pharmaceutically-oriented. By her senior year she took an elective in Environmental Engineering.
She had a keen interest in polymer engineering (engineering field that designs, analyses, and/or modifies polymer materials) and therefore decided that she would pursue this for her doctorial degree. Environmental Engineering was a secondary option she’d embraced. Study in polymers was not to be, as she was instead accepted at Stanford University in California, the world’s leading research and teaching institution, to pursue Environmental Engineering.
At Stanford, however, she was able to learn a great deal about surface chemistry as it relates to how mineral oxides interact with various metals, mainly for water treatment.
Soon after graduation she was teaching Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida.
“A lot of my work right now is under this theme of sustainability which deals a lot more with engaging, at least for me, communities or stakeholders, and a lot more with how you change the current educational system so that this kind of approach is integrated into the curriculum,” Dr. Trotz related.
Her focus therefore has been geared at “training a next generation of students who think in a sustainability framework. This means that you are looking at social issues, political, economic and environmental issues and you can apply that framework to anything, and for us in particular, we apply that to issues related to water, energy, nutrients and food”.
But it was even before completing her doctorate that she was attempting to use her knowledge to help the country of her birth. It was while she was pursuing her studies, a devastating cyanide spill occurred at the OMAI gold mine in Region Seven.
It was the Summer of 1995 and the doctor in training had just completed one year at Stanford University, so she returned home to spend her vacation time with her family. She recalled that it was perhaps the day after her arrival home that the spill occurred. She was eager to put her knowledge to the test.
She remembers taking a boat ride to the Bartica area with the intent of collecting water samples. “I called back to my colleagues (at Stanford) who were much more advanced to find out ‘how do you sample for cyanide?’ They were telling me about the need for all these protective equipment,” she recalled.
Her father was no longer at IAST, but Trotz was very aware that the institute had equipment to measure cyanide levels. She had even started to embrace the idea of using the situation for her thesis. She eventually found out that the appropriate gear to get the task done was a limitation. Coupled with a lack of forthcoming information, she was dissuaded from getting involved in the Omai situation altogether.
This was perhaps due to the fact that the very outspoken Trotz might have ‘stepped on some toes’ when several letters she had written raising questions about the heavy metals that were expected to be among the cyanide following the spill, were published in a daily newspaper.
But that wasn’t the end of her involvement in these parts to invoke the importance of sustainability. She recalled working on a project with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international non-governmental organisation that works in the field of wilderness preservation and reduction of humanity’s footprint on the environment. This saw her being able to examine the use of mercury in the mining industry. The project was not nearly as fruitful as Trotz had anticipated.
But she was able to indulge in other projects and even did some work with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) which saw her being able to make presentations on water quality. She also did some work with the Guyana Water Incorporated and University of Guyana.
Among the other projects she was involved in over the years was one with Conservation International (CI). Her work with CI allowed her to travel to Konashen, a Wai Wai District in the South of Guyana. There, a rapid assessment programme was conducted in 2006, and Dr. Trotz got the privilege of conducting water quality analyses at a number of sites.
Each project that she was able to delve into was supported by funding that she was able to solicit. And according to her, she wanted to be more involved in her homeland, complete with the endorsement of government. “I didn’t really get very far with engaging government at the time,” she recalled.
But what may be listed among her most laudable efforts at giving back is her recruit programmes for students to travel to the University of South Florida to pursue their doctoral degrees.
“I have recruited so far from Guyana a UG (University of Guyana) Graduate, Kofi Dalrymple and he is now graduated with his PhD and works in Tampa at a company called Algenol,” said a proud Dr. Trotz. In fact she disclosed that Dalrymple too has since started to give back to his homeland, and was even asked to take a place on the UG support team that was set up by the new UG Vice Chancellor.
Dr. Trotz herself has been giving direct input to UG as a member of the Transformational Task Force set up by Chancellor, Professor Nigel Harris. It is her expectation that “UG will eventually become a thriving University with the necessary equipment and faculty members who are paid properly and are working on projects throughout Guyana that, not only leads to Guyana’s development, but also contribute to new knowledge in the world that could actually inform the world on how to live more sustainably.”
She is convinced that Guyana can effectively lead the sustainability approach. In the meantime though, she is willing to continue in her own small way to help realise this ambitious movement.
Dalrymple has not been the only one to benefit from Dr. Trotz’s support. She has also recruited Ryan Michael who completed his undergrad in Chemistry at UG before travelling to the South Florida University to undertake his PhD in Environmental Engineering. Michael is currently pursuing post doctorate studies. Dawn Fox, who is currently a chemistry lecturer at UG, and Wainella Isaacs, who was a few years ago named a Caribbean Examinations Council top performer, are among those who were recruited by Dr. Trotz to study at University of South Florida.
“She is really interested in keeping things going here and looking at ways to engage women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths,” said Dr. Trotz of Isaacs. “I think that is how you keep your connection. There is one way to keep connection through research, the other way is through educating students,” she added.
She just recently met with two undergraduate students of UG who are expected to attend the University of South Florida shortly, also to pursue studies in engineering.
“I think it’s those types of pipelines that must be developed throughout Guyana and the Caribbean. We need a mechanism to ensure that our young people have opportunities to further education, whether it is through UG or UWI; we need to build partnerships and hopefully with social media, there is a way that these kids could link up with each other, and my hope is that they can work from a framework that pushes the sustainability agenda,” Dr. Trotz emphasised.
Even during her free time, Dr. Trotz is busy finding ways of helping to make some meaningful contribution. She recounted that in 2013 while on sabbatical, she found herself involved in the Caribbean Science Foundation in Barbados, where she was able to undertake a project with Sagicor Visionaries Challenge and the Caribbean Examinations Council.
In fact she modestly admitted that she was the lead person on that project for the Caribbean Science Foundation in terms of the conceptual idea. The project was rolled out in 12 Caribbean territories and of course she ensured that Guyana was very included although the sponsor, Sagicor had no office here. “I told them I can’t really do this if you are not going to include Guyana…they were eventually thinking about expanding to Guyana and Suriname,” recalled Dr. Trotz who was soon after travelling to Guyana to hold workshops with teachers.
But she had a desire to bring the programme directly to the students. “I asked them to put me in front of the kids because that is where the energy comes from. To me you need to put a scientist or engineer in front of the kids who can really inspire them to do sustainability projects,” asserted Dr. Trotz.
She recalled working with local Science Coordinator within the Education Ministry, Ms. Petal Jettoo, who according to Dr. Trotz, did an amazing job as the lead official in Guyana, and has been getting the students to put forward excellent sustainability projects.
Although she has since parted ways with the Sagicor Visionaries Challenge, Dr. Trotz said that she is elated that it has now been incorporated in the Education Ministry’s Science Fair for the schools.
“They have merged the two and they are using the rubric we created for the science fair…this is what you want. You want students to solve things that are affecting their schools or communities, you want them to make sure that the school and community will support, and you want them to figure out how to support and sustain it, and you want it to be a sound project that they propose,” said Dr. Trotz.
According to her, it is always heartening “when things are done to sort of make substantial changes in how you educate and engage people.” And this, she noted, can easily be attained through curriculum change. Dr. Trotz is, moreover, excited that CXC is on the verge of introducing a new Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) subject on Green Engineering, which she believes, will encourage a lot more thinking about sustainability.
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