Co-oping Through Coronavirus

Blog by Louiza Wise, BS Environmental Engineering Class of 2021

When I first heard about Northeastern University and the co-op program, one of the things I was most excited about was the idea of doing a global co-op. Experience and global impact are two of the main pillars of Northeastern and that sold me immediately on the school. I had nothing else planned out at the time: not my major, not my concentrations or even any idea of what I wanted out of a co-op, but one thing I knew was that in the fall of 2020, I was going abroad. Or so I thought. After my plans to travel halfway across the world to co-op at an innovative water tech company in Nairobi, Kenya were disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic, I started to think that whatever co-op I got this semester would just be a placeholder. Something to do for 6-months, make a little money, and get back to real learning in the spring. Instead of being in an exciting, foreign country, I would probably be stuck inside at my computer all day doing the same, boring work that co-ops often get stuck with. Then a friend sent me a link to Floating Island International (FII) and I quickly realized this would be no placeholder, but a pivotal and influential experience that has already changed the course of my plans for the future.

Yes, most of the work I am doing is inside, and on the computer, but it is fast-paced and ever-changing. Exciting and innovative work that is tough to keep up with. And while I may be stuck in one place, Floating Island International is global with far-reaching impacts. I’ve spent these past six months connecting with companies in Norway and South Africa, attending conferences in Singapore and the Netherlands, and collaborating with partners in Louisiana and California. Although this sometimes requires me to crawl out of bed at 2am for a virtual conference, in many ways, I am getting my fill of global travel.

FII sells a simple product: a manufactured floating wetland planted with native vegetation. But the ideas and impacts that grow out of the tiny headquarters in Shepherd, Montana are cutting-edge. When I joined, our unique BioHaven Floating Island had been using “nature’s wetland effect” for 15 years to improve water quality in wastewater and stormwater lagoons, enhance fishing in residential ponds, serve as bird habitats in large reservoirs, help control mosquito populations, protect coastal shoreline in the Gulf, and much, much more. I got to experience some of these important functions but also helped develop our latest service: expanding the emergent floating photovoltaic market by providing wave protection, ecosystem and water quality enhancement, and waterscape beautification.

Beyond the actual work of this co-op, I’ve met some amazing people who have truly shown me there’s no such thing as “too big of an idea.” Working with Bruce and Anne Kania, the founders of FII, I’ve learned a bit about their philosophy and how deeply their lives are entangled with their work. From an Erich Fromm quote in their workshop stating “man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve” to their discussions on climate change or post on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is clear that they recognize the interconnectedness of life and how everything eventually cycles back. This, I believe, is what drives them to be so passionate about their work and about making the world a better place. And what has inspired me to do the same.

When the country was in a place where it seemingly had the coronavirus more under control, I quickly jumped on the opportunity to spend some time in-person and actually see the floating islands for myself. I only spent one week in Montana in early July and yet, I believe those lessons will stick with me for years to come. One day during a lunch break, Bruce and I paddled out to fish on his coveted research lake, Fish Fry Lake. As we fished, we conversed about various things like passions, fishing techniques, and the definition of conservation. It was here, and on our ride back to the house, that I began to realize the two very different outlooks on life that had brought us to the same place. I had the land in my head, and Bruce had his head in the land.

I’ve spent the past four years studying, reading, and learning about the environment through the lens of an engineer: analytical, process-oriented, and defined; so, as we hauled our fish bounty back to the house, my mind was elsewhere. I was trying to remember the names and characteristics of the plants I was studying on my computer and mentally analyzing the physics of how tiny nanobubbles can sink to the bottom of waterbodies through Brownian Dispersion. The land (and water) was in my head. Bruce snapped me out of this trance by pointing to a deer wayyyy off in the distance, it was one of the first he’s seen in a while and I could hardly make it out. It was not that my near-perfect vision couldn’t see the figure, but my mind was not yet adjusted to noticing the shapes of important characters that blend right into the environment. A few minutes later, Bruce stopped our 4-wheeler to point out the Canadian Thistle, a noxious weed that was getting ready to spread its noxious seeds far and wide. The insects he had bought to control them weren’t doing their job, and he noticed right away. His head was in the land.

When I think about what has influenced me in my life, I know that a lot of it has to do with how I was raised, and where. On my first airplane ride ever, my cousin and I were flying between her hometown of Chicago and my hometown of Cleveland. A 30-minute flight, but for a 10-year-old, one of the most exciting things to happen in my young life. It was the first time I appreciated the Great Lakes for their vastness and ability to sustain so much life… and I was in shock. As my cousin and I peered out the window, we immediately freaked out, believing we must be on the wrong plane because it appeared that were passing over the OCEAN!! I know better now and can predict when I’m about 100 miles from home when the plane flies over the western edge of Lake Erie and Toledo and I spot green dye all along the shore. The mats of algae that have plagued Toledo for many years and just several years ago sent urgent warnings to residents throughout the area to not drink, bathe or even cook with their water. Water: the source of all life. To have it so forcefully and abruptly snatched from your hands is something I could never even begin to imagine. So when I do let the imagination wander, I picture myself back on that plane passing over the “ocean” of Lake Erie. This time when I look out the window, I see the coastline dotted with floating islands. Perhaps they’ll be Solar Islands producing clean, renewable energy or Tree Propagation Islands drawing tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, or a traditional BioHaven Island, preventing the release of powerful greenhouse gases like methane and nitric oxide by curbing harmful algae blooms. Whatever it is, I just know it won’t be mats of toxic green algae.

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering