Climate change will impact all communities, but not in all the same ways. For the historically marginalized, environmental issues are compounded by issues of equity, access, and power. Cielo Sharkus, a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, uses hybrid computational and field modeling about climate-related phenomena to help historically marginalized communities plan for climate change at a grassroots and local level.
Sharkus's research investigates the hazardous impacts of climate-related phenomena such as fire, drought, and flooding on human health and safety by exploring the effects on drinking water quality, pollutant movement, and solute transport. Her work focuses on understanding how marginalized populations disproportionately experience environmental disasters and how to build physical and social resilience to these occurrences.
One example of her work in action? Sharkus partnered with Nuestras Raíces, a grassroots urban agriculture organization based in Holyoke, MA, to create predictive models and maps for the organization. She also works to disseminate the information to farmers and plan how to combat some of the issues she identifies in her modeling.
Working directly with communities is a crucial part of Sharkus's passion and ethos. "Participatory research, learning, and outreach are critical aspects to transforming engineering theory into engineering practice," Sharkus says. "It is essential that being an engineer is based on a code of ethics because you are building something impacting people."
Sharkus is also the founder of H.O.P.E. (Humans for the Opposition of Pollution and Emissions), a non-profit dedicated to participatory learning and engagement centered around hazard mitigation and environmental remediation in New England.
Sharkus believes it is essential to work with community partners on these issues, and that without those connections, engineers risk thinking that they know more than the communities about what is happening around and to them.
"These communities are very smart and know what is going on,”says Sharkus. “I think an important aspect of this work is not approaching it from a point of power or superiority. The community has a great deal to teach us."
Sharkus and her advisor, Christian D. Guzman, recently received a seed grant from the Institute of Diversity Sciences to expand on Sharkus's research, specifically looking more deeply at the differences between urban and rural environmental justice communities.
Sharkus is an NSF Research trainee at the Energy Transition Institute, a Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center Fellow, and an American Water Works Scholar. She is a 2020 recipient of the college's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Award. She is also a 2021 Agents of Change in Environmental Justice Fellow, where she has written and spoken on topics such as combating eco-anxiety and how engineering can strengthen environmental justice.
Sharkus holds a master of engineering in environmental engineering from UMass Amherst and a BS in biochemistry with a minor in environmental studies with distinction from WPI. She is also an active leader in the National Society of Black Engineers.