Heidi Vreeland: In search of the next challenge

Thursday, September 5, 2013

If there was one thing that nudged Heidi Vreeland to transfer to Georgia Tech, it was a poorly written poem that she read while attending another college.

“The poet said that when all of the colors of light come together, they create black,” said Vreeland, an environmental engineering major. “It’s not about metaphors - I love metaphors. It’s about science. If you write about something, you should understand it. And the poet didn’t understand that when you put all of the colors of light together, you get white.”

Her classmates didn’t appreciate this distinction either.

“That’s when I realized that I wanted to be around people who would challenge me and question what they read. I transferred to Georgia Tech in the spring.”

A lifelong interest in both science and environmental issues quickly led Vreeland to choose her major and to become involved in Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a student organization that brings engineering expertise to the developing world. In her coursework, she has focused on air and water quality issues, and in her free time, she has focused on…the world.

Turns out, the two have a lot to do with one another.

“Breathing indoor air pollution is the second leading cause of death among women in the world – mainly because it’s the women who do the cooking, and so many women cook over smoky stoves,” she said. “It’s the fourth leading cause of death for both genders, worldwide.”

Last summer, she put this information to work in Ghana, where, as a Mundy Scholar, she helped distribute low-tech, cleaner-burning cookstoves for EWB. She helped with a similar EWB initiative in Nicaragua this past spring. Both times, she met with a reaction that humbled her.

“You know that the smoke makes them cough, so I told them that the stoves would make it so they wouldn’t cough so much,” she said. “But they didn’t really understand what I meant. They think of coughing as a way of life.”

After she graduates in December 2013, Vreeland plans to remain involved with EWB – serving as a mentor for newer members –but she’s also interested in bringing her skills to another part of the world. One option: Vietnam.

“I went there last summer after I finished up working in Ghana. I was analyzing the air quality of a new brick kiln that a friend had built, and I still have some contacts there.”

Another option is Seattle, where Vreeland spent the summer of 2013 as an intern for the Boeing Corporation. While hardly as exotic as her previous travels, it was every bit as rewarding.

“I spent the summer mapping optimizations for their maintenance tasks. I was charged with finding ways to reduce water-use and with reducing emissions in routine maintenance checks,” she said. “If even one of the suggestions I made is used, it could make a big difference over the lifecyle of the aircraft.”

The Mundy Global Learning Endowment will be accepting applications for the next round of funding until Oct. 1, 2013. Find out more now.