Catching up with...Carolyn Rodak

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Carolyn Rodak with Sarge, her four-legged alarm clock.

Carolyn Rodak with Sarge, her four-legged alarm clock.

Carolyn Rodak spent most of her high school free time in orchestra pits or marching down the streets of Farmington Hills, Mich., all the way to two state band championships.

She gravitated to the woodwind section, with a repertoire that included the bassoon, flute, and the alto and baritone sax.

By senior year, she added concert tuba to the mix.

She found its signature sound and heft exhilarating.

“It actually made me feel like a badass carrying around a 40 lb. tuba,” said the inaugural chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.

Her tuba toting well behind her, Rodak is content expanding her musical horizons these days by learning guitar.

And for an engineer gifted with an ear for music, Union’s strong cross disciplinary ethos struck a chord.

“Coupled with my passion for undergraduate education and interdisciplinary collaborations, Union stood out as a great fit for me both personally and professionally.”

Rodak earned her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. During the course of her studies she had the opportunity to instruct middle school students—not the easiest age to teach— in groundwater science.

The experience reaffirmed her decision to become an educator.

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“I had the students working in teams, and the teacher came over and complimented me on my relaxed command of the classroom,” Rodak recalled. She even commented on my ‘teacher voice.’ Her kind words have stuck with me over the years.”

Rodak’s research focuses on water quality and the related infrastructure. She has muddied her boots countless times on Mohawk River banks collecting water samples. Her findings have revealed an alarming amount of industrial and sewage runoff and other contaminants that have befouled the river.

Compelled to act, she volunteers her time and skills as a “citizen scientist” with Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to restoring the ecological health of the Hudson River and its tributaries like the Mohawk.

She has drawn inspiration from the environmental justice movement that prioritizes the needs of groups disproportionally bearing the brunt of society’s developmental choices.

It is a philosophy that she seeks to impart to her students.

“As I've grown, I've found that my destiny seems to be more aligned with educating the engineers of tomorrow and doing so in an inclusive way while emphasizing the immense impact even the smallest choices can have on communities and our ecosystems.”

Rodak inside the Borden Flats Lighthouse in Falls River, Mass.

Rodak inside the Borden Flats Lighthouse in Falls River, Mass.

FIRST APP YOU LOOK AT IN THE MORNING: My dog is my super reliable 5:30 a.m. alarm clock. Once I find my phone, I check the Google Calendar app. Otherwise I'd have no idea what was going on for the day.

GO-TO BREAKFAST: I love a good bagel with cream cheese, yogurt and a hot cup of coffee.

WHAT’S THE LAST GREAT BOOK YOU READ? "Design for a Better World, Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered" by Don Norman. I enjoyed it so much that I'll be co-teaching a Templeton Institute course in the fall related to the book. It also inspired me to learn more about the price of our current lifestyle. I followed it up with "The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most." I'm currently reading "Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives."

Next on my list is "Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need."

BEST ADVICE YOU EVER RECEIVED: I have definitely transitioned from asking "why?" to "why not?" If there is no good answer, I'm jumping in.

FAVORITE PLACE TO VISIT (AND WHY?): The Borden Flats Lighthouse on the Taunton River in Falls River, Mass. Overnighting in an active sparkplug-style lighthouse surrounded by water is cool beyond words. It is also haunted, another plus.

WHAT ARE YOU WATCHING RIGHT NOW? I bounce from show to show, rarely watching anything too serious (despite my book list). Right now, I'm re-watching “Brooklyn 99.”

ONE SKILL YOU WISH YOU HAD: I optimistically bought a guitar a year and a half ago…

THREE DINNER PARTY GUESTS (living or deceased): First and foremost, my dad, because he was a big Detroit Lions fan, so I would love to discuss the most recent football season. Second, my mom, because I'd be in so much trouble if I managed to raise the dead and didn't invite her. And third, the person who invents or invented time travel, so I can become their best friend and explore time and space together.

FIRST CONCERT YOU ATTENDED: The Verve Pipe at the Michigan State Fair.

LITTLE KNOWN FACT ABOUT YOU: I spent a lot of time playing video games as a kid. Like many in my generation, I claim to be an epic “Mario Kart” player. I'm a fan of the “Final Fantasy RPG” series and a mega-fan of old school “Final Fantasy 7.” You essentially start the game as a group of environments, trying to save the planet from a corporation that is killing it by overharvesting energy. There are days when I wonder how much that plot line influenced my decision to become an environmental engineer.