Grad Student Spotlight: Cameron Newell

Few of our graduate students at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) arrive here by following the exact same script. After all, the very nature of pursuing scientific training—always asking questions, always refining methods and ideas—tends to favor detours over simple, direct routes.

That’s why many of our students make their way here more like a pinball than an arrow; not out of aimlessness or lack of dedication, by any means, but by seeking diverse experiences and allowing those to shape and guide them. These students come with an appreciation that some of the most exciting discoveries and decisions can happen on the go, firsthand and unplanned, and that being open to the world is often the best way to find your place in it. In many ways, that’s how Cameron Newell found his way to the Master of Environmental Horticulture program at SEFS a year ago.

Cameron Newell

Newell on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos.

Newell grew up about an hour northwest of Melbourne, Australia. After earning a bachelor of science with majors in botany and zoology at Monash University in Melbourne, he spent a few years exploring an assortment of jobs, from driving seeding drills and rouseabouting on farms in the west, to working for the Victorian state government one summer as a firefighter. “It was the wettest summer in 100 years,” he says, “so I ended up filling sandbags more than putting out fires. It was a good thing, I guess, but you don’t make as much money that way.”

For one 18-month stretch, Newell hooked up with a filmmaker who was looking for a camera assistant on a documentary. The project involved capturing a year in the life of crocodiles, following them from babies and nesting mothers on through to mating. Newell didn’t have any experience as a cameraman, but before he knew it he was spending weeks in the field filming up around Darwin and other remote reaches of the country. “It was kind of scary most of the time,” he says, “sitting in a little flat-bottom boat filming crocodiles.”

At the end of that string of jobs, Newell set off with his brother on a seven-month backpacking adventure through South America. They flew into Santiago, Chile, and then trekked through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador before spending a short time in Colombia. Near the tail end of the journey, while still in Ecuador, Newell met Susan North—his “soul mate, an amazing woman from San Diego,” he says. “My plans changed a bit from there.”

So after their last stop in Colombia, the brothers headed their separate ways, with Newell traveling up to the United States with Susie. From there, they would spend the next two and a half years dating long distance while Newell worked on several other documentaries—including films about kangaroos, flying foxes and red crabs—and applied for a green card to live in the country. When he was finally able to join Susie in San Diego full-time, he spent about two and a half years working in environmental consulting.

Newell

Newell, left, working on the documentary about crocodiles he helped film in Australia.

During that time, he’d been thinking about ways to get more engaged with environmental restoration and sustainable farming. “My parents had a nursery growing up,” he says, “so I was always growing plants. I had my own little side business doing small-scale stuff on farms, putting in windbreaks, things like that. But sustainable agriculture has become a bigger interest of mine through time and jobs, and I wanted to work out a way to pair agriculture and restoration.”

He started digging into potential graduate programs that would give him the flexibility and hands-on field application he wanted. That’s what attracted him to the Master of Environmental Horticulture degree program with SEFS, where he’s now working with Professors Kern Ewing and Jim Fridley. His research focuses on habitat restoration for pollinators in small agricultural areas in Seattle and surrounding communities, including Duvall and Carnation. “Pollination is a big thing at the moment with the collapse of the honey bee populations,” he says. “There’s going to be an increased need for native pollinators.”

Newell has just completed his first year here, and this summer he’s carrying out some pollinator surveys in a few local towns to determine which pollinators are around and active. He’s also gotten involved with the local project tracking the reemergence of Western Bumble Bees in the Seattle area, so he’ll be out chasing bees from time to time.

He has about a year left in his program, and after that Newell says he’d eventually like to work in Africa or somewhere else in the developing world. What happens in the meantime, of course, is all part of the adventure—and could end up leading him in another direction entirely!

All photos © Cameron Newell.

Newell
Traveling is still very much in Newell’s blood. In fact, he just got back from 10 days in Canada with his father. “My old man came out,” he says, “and we rented an RV in Vancouver and drove up to Banff and Jasper.”

Allison McGrath: Going Solar

A little more than a year ago, Allison McGrath was already plenty busy with her graduate school commitments. In addition to pursuing a joint master’s with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) and the Evans School of Public Affairs, she was working part-time as a student assistant for the Evans School Executive Education program. But then she stumbled across a volunteer project that paralleled her research interests in water management—and that offered a tremendous opportunity to apply her studies to direct practical use.

UW-Solar

McGrath doing her best impression of a solar panel on a hike to Obstruction Point in the Olympics.

“It was kind of random, actually,” says McGrath, who grew up in Ravenna and Kirkland. When her supervisor at the Evans Executive Education Program learned about McGrath’s interest in renewable energy, she introduced her to Stefanie Young, the project manager for UW-Solar, a student-run solar project at the University of Washington. The group’s mission, working with UW Housing and Food Services, is to develop solar installations on buildings throughout campus to promote clean and sustainable power production, improve the resilience of power systems, and reduce the overall carbon footprint of the university.

As it happened, the UW-Solar team was looking for help shoring up a feasibility study to install a new solar array on campus. McGrath had done some policy work involving biofuels, and she was drawn to renewable energy for the same reasons she loves studying water management. “It’s really interesting to me,” she says. “You have to take a systems approach to creating this resilient infrastructure.”

She was sold on the project and joined the team in February 2013. At the time, UW-Solar was operating on a $5,000 grant from the Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF) to complete the feasibility study, and the group was actively applying for grants and other support through several project partners, including CSF, UW Housing and Food Services, and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

McGrath plunged right into the mix, and though she had a little catching up to do with some of the science and technology of solar energy, she loved the challenge.

“It was a fun project to be involved in,” she says. “The nice part is that I started out in the finance and policy side, but it was really interdisciplinary and everyone was invited to participate in every step of the process. Even when stuff went over my head, I was still able to be there and learn about it.”

UW-Solar

The solar panel installation at Mercer Court.

One of the most important steps was deciding where to build the solar array. As part of the initial feasibility study, UW-Solar had identified about a dozen suitable buildings around campus, including the possibility of retrofitting an older structure. Yet they ultimately selected one of the new Mercer Court dorms, which were built with the foresight to include infrastructure for solar panels—including electrical closets on the roof instead of in the basement—even though the cost of installing the panels had been prohibitive at the time.

After months of fundraising and outreach, UW-Solar cleared that cost hurdle in spectacular fashion, raising an incredible $174,900, which was more than enough to kick off a full-scale pilot project.

Even with the funds in hand, the stakes were still extremely high to prove the long-term viability of solar energy on campus. “We chose Mercer because we thought it was going to be the most successful,” says McGrath. “Since it was a pilot project, there was a lot riding on it.”

The project itself involved installing 178 solar panels on the roof of one dorm building. They are projected to provide a significant power boost—roughly between 30,000 to 40,000 kilowatt hours a day, or a quarter of the building’s energy demands. It’s a fixed array and is expected to last decades, and it should pay for itself—including the cost of construction—in energy savings in as little as eight years. Plus, though it might seem counterintuitive in Seattle, the rainy weather actually helps keep the panels clear of dust and operating efficiently. In other words, says McGrath, solar can definitely thrive in Seattle.

Construction began on March 10, and the solar panels are now fully installed and up and running. In fact, in early April solar power proponents Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Denis Hayes (President and CEO of Bullitt Foundation, as well as founder of Earth Day) attended an official dedication of the array.

UW-Solar

Denis Hayes (left) and Governor Inslee at the official dedication of the array in April.

The project, of course, is not over. The array includes a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, a type of industrial control system that will acquire energy and atmospheric data from sensors mounted on the solar panel array. A portion of the grant money is funding a new computer lab, which will provide ongoing research opportunities for computer scientists at UW interested in testing energy data system security. As part of the ongoing educational component, UW-Solar is publishing real-time and historical energy production and savings data online. They also created a time-lapse video of the whole installation process, and they’re visiting classrooms to talk about the project and putting together curricula for other groups that want to take on similar projects.

As for McGrath, she’s returned her full attention to her thesis, which involves assessing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, originally passed in 1968, and its implementation. She’s been looking at management plans and interviewing folks from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. “I’m deep in the thick of interviewing right now,” she says, and her plan is to defend later this summer.

And when she does graduate, McGrath knows she’ll leave with far more than just her degree. After all, she helped launch a major solar project—an inspiring testament to the will, creativity and leadership of students—that will have an impact on the University of Washington for years to come.

She hadn’t expected such a powerful experience when she started graduate school, but then that’s the nature of serendipity.

“Life is cool that way,” she says.

Want to Get Involved?
McGrath says UW-Solar is always eager for new student volunteers to replace graduating members and help fuel the next big project. There are about 12 students currently involved with the group, and Professor Jan Wittington from the College of Built Environments is the faculty advisor. If you’re interested, check out the group’s Facebook page to hear about project updates and other cool solar-related news, and McGrath encourages you to contact Stefanie Young. “Stefanie is a great project manager,” she says. “She really brings everyone together.”

Photos: ©; panel installation © UW-Solar; Denis Hayes and Governor Jay Inslee © Anil Kapahi and UW-Solar; the UW-Solar team, McGrath at the far right (below) © Anil Kapahi and UW-Solar.

UW-Solar

Grad Student Spotlight: Matt Norton

While Michelle Trudeau has been on maternity leave this quarter, we’ve had a few friends helping out Amanda Davis and Lisa Nordlund in the Office of Student and Academic Services. One of the cheerful folks you’ve probably seen, whether in person or as a name in your inbox, is Matt Norton, who began his master’s program at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) this past fall. We’ve been hearing a few tantalizing rumors of his past exploits—from driving airboats to having a day named after him in Florida’s Volusia County (February 8, 2001)—so we sat down with him last week to learn a little more of his story!

Matt Norton

Matt Norton steers through the Everglades on an airboat.

Turns out the rumors are true, though Norton is exceedingly modest when relating the colorful experiences that brought him to SEFS. A six-generation Floridian from Ormond Beach, he moved to Seattle in 2012 when his wife Claire was placed in the Pathology Residency Program here at the University of Washington. He’s enjoyed the cross-country transition so far, especially getting to explore all the parks and mountains nearby. Plus, the cool, wet climate has been an enormous relief from those sweat-soaked days in Florida. “One thing I guess I didn’t inherit from my great-grandfather is that I still overheat!”

Back home as an undergrad at the New College of Florida, Norton majored in environmental studies. Some of his course work and research involved canopy ecology, and spring ecology and eutrophication of Florida’s spring systems. For his thesis he focused on beach sedimentology—specifically, looking at beach nourishment (adding sand to eroding shores), policies and practices surrounding it, and how it relates to sediment dynamics.

After school, from 2009 to 2012 he worked as a lab and field technician, and later became a project manager, under Dr. Todd Osborne in the Soil and Water Science department at the University of Florida. He helped to conduct and managed research on a number of projects: several investigating the soils and ecology of the Everglades, one involving restoration work in the Kissimmee River basin, and three others looking at various species of clams and their preference for soils in Cedar Key, Fla.

Part of Norton’s job was guiding students out to study sites in the Everglades by airboat (also known as a fanboat). “You can go over anything,” he says. “It’s got Kevlar® on the bottom and a 550-horsepower engine, so you can run it anywhere, even on dry land.”

Matt Norton

Navigation can be tricky in some parts of the Everglades, where the grass goes on forever and can get up to 15 feet high.

Yet aside from enabling you to access remote reaches of the expansive Everglades—and scaring away gators—airboats are also “hellishly” loud and dangerous. From the risk of your engine blowing up to breaking down in 115-degree heat to getting lost in the endless sea of grass, tree islands and gator holes, Norton has more than a few harrowing tales from his time as an airboat pilot. So for all the fun memories of cruising through beautiful waterways and seeing all sorts of wildlife, he wasn’t terribly sad to leave that task behind when he moved to Seattle.

He spent his first spring here volunteering and later working as a surveyor with the digital mapping project at the Washington Park Arboretum. Norton spent some of that time, as well, researching possible graduate programs. “I really want to do something related to being outside and trying to help the environment in some way,” he says. And since his wife’s work as a pathologist will keep them fairly close to a larger city, Norton started thinking how he could apply his experience with restoration ecology and soil science in an urban setting.

Norton’s search quickly led him to SEFS, where he’s now working with Professor Darlene Zabowski. He’s currently studying stump decomposition and creating a model for carbon related to tree farms and biofuels with Erin Burt under Professor Rob Harrison, and he has a separate project involving restoration work in Magnuson Park.

He’s had a hand in a great many other projects along the way, too, from his days as an Eagle Scout to interning at a nuke site, but we don’t want to spoil all of his stories. So stop into the advising office sometime to introduce yourself and learn a little more about Norton!

Photos of Norton on the airboat © Ben Loughran; photo of Norton in the grass © Justin Vogel.

Matt Norton