Student’s focus on environment, service paves way for first job after graduation

May 2016 will be an exciting month for Kyle Johnson, and not just because he will be graduating with his degree in environmental systems engineering from Penn State. In May, Johnson will begin his career in environmental consulting and he’ll also see one of his ideas — to help a rural community in Panama manage waste — come to fruition.

A passion for working with the environment

Johnson has been interested in working with the environment and energy for as long as he can remember. As a child he immersed himself in nature through hiking, kayaking and backpacking with friends and family. Growing up in Julian, Pennsylvania — right on the outskirts of the Marcellus Shale boom — shaped his desire to work in an energy-related industry.

Kyle Johnson peeks out from underneath a waterfall at Pine Gorge Canyon, also known as Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. Johnson's love of the environment led him to Penn State where he pursued a degree in environmental systems engineering.  Credit: Kyle JohnsonAll Rights Reserved.

“My dad was active with the environmental organization Sierra Club, and I began volunteering with them, too. I learned about the impacts of withdrawing water from local streams, which can reduce water quality, and discharging flowback, and I knew I wanted to work in that area that for my career,” said Johnson.

At Penn State, he felt that the environmental systems engineering major in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences would provide opportunities for him to pursue the career he was passionate about. The major also exposed him to classes and information that helped him see multiple perspectives on the energy industry.

“As a society we need energy, but we also need to generate energy responsibly. I wanted to find a job that involved the environment and industry regulations, which is why I chose this degree. I’ve been able to take many courses that are applicable to what I want to do,” he said.

A new way to manage waste in Panama

As a student, Johnson served as president of Environmental Brigades, a Penn State chapter of Global Brigades focused on the environment. He led several groups on service trips to help rural communities in Panama, and he also was selected for a summer 2014 internship with the international Global Brigades organization. As a sustainable development intern, Johnson helped brainstorm new programs that the international organization could implement on the ground. His focus was waste management.

“For my internship, I went to Panama for a month to see what the communities would need and what we could realistically accomplish in a one-week service trip,” he said. “One of the big issues we saw was that there are no waste management systems in many rural areas. In many cases, trash is either burned, which can let off harmful fumes, or thrown in rivers.”

Kyle Johnson, second from left, stands with fellow student volunteers during an Environmental Brigades trip to Panama. The group completed service work for rural communities in Panama, and Johnson served as president for three years. Credit: Kyle JohnsonAll Rights Reserved.

Looking for inspiration in other organizations, Johnson found that the World Health Organization (WHO) had developed a possible solution: a brick incinerator designed to dispose of plastic syringes used in AIDS treatment in Africa.

“The plastic used in syringes is the same plastic used in water bottles, so I thought we could use this method as a way to manage plastic waste in Panama,” he said.

Working with Global Brigades, Johnson developed a plan to create a brick incinerator that communities could maintain after it was installed by student volunteers.

“The incinerator is mostly bricks and a few metal doors. The temperature gets hot enough that there’s complete combustion and no noxious smoke as a result,” he said.

The Penn State Environmental Brigades chapter will implement Johnson’s incinerator plan during their service trip in May 2016.

“I’m unfortunately not going to be able to make the trip, with Commencement coming up, but it’s really exciting to know that my ideas will come to fruition,” he said.

Kyle Johnson plays with a young girl from a community in Panama where he and other members of Environmental Brigades (a chapter of Global Brigades) completed a service trip. In addition to leading multiple service trips as president of the student club, Johnson helped Global Brigades develop a new waste management program for rural communities in Panama that is being implemented in May 2016.  Credit: Kyle JohnsonAll Rights Reserved.

ARM Group Inc.: From internship to job

Looking for additional ways to gain practical experience, Johnson found an internship opportunity that was closely related to one of his core courses, Geosciences 452: Hydrogeology, which was taught by David Yoxtheimer, research assistant with Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.

The internship was with ARM Group Inc., an earth resource engineering and consulting firm. He spent the summer of 2015 helping the company install a water supply well for an incinerator located at a landfill near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. ARM Group was consulting with a company that wanted to recover heat from the incinerator to generate electricity.

“We were putting in wells that would supply water at 1,600 gallons per minute, and I logged the well data as a driller completed the project. This data would let us see production rates for different parts of the wells, and we also generated a 3D map to see where water was flowing underground,” he said.

Through the internship, Johnson got a taste of a career working with the energy industry and environmental regulations — and he was hooked. He applied for a full-time job with the company and will begin working there in May 2016. As a staff engineer, Johnson will help the company with environmental planning for a variety of projects such as reducing contaminant mobilization during building construction, brownfield development and Marcellus shale development.”

“It feels great to have a job lined up, especially since the job is exactly what I was looking for,” he said. “I'm ready to take what I've learned at Penn State and start working on real life projects to make a difference in the world.” 

Kyle Johnson sits next to a waterfall during a backpacking trip in Maine with family and friends. Johnson's passion for environmental preservation and service helped him land a job after graduation. Credit: Kyle JohnsonAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated May 12, 2016