Sustainability Seven: Jelena Srebric

Photo of Dr. Jelena Srebric

Dr. Jelena Srebric has been a professor of mechanical engineering and architecture at the University of Maryland for almost seven years and has collaborated with UMD in founding the Center for Sustainability in the Built Environment (CITY@UMD). Their work informs and serves campus Facility Management, the Sustainability Council, and the President’s Energy Task Force by providing analytical tools and devices capable of managing environmental quality at scale. Srebric is featured in our “Sustainability Seven” not only because of her passion for sustainability but also for the work she’s done to make this information accessible to the community and campus and to empower student engineers to make sustainable choices. 

1. What major roles do you see for mechanical engineers in transitioning to a more sustainable and resilient society?

Mechanical engineers are an interesting bunch. We are kind of unsuspected pioneers for sustainability. I heard of the word and concept of sustainability actually for the first time from another mechanical engineer in the late 90s. Because every profession has its own code of ethics and behavior, at that time, the understanding of sustainability for mechanical engineers was basically the concept of ethical engineering. Eventually, as this concept moved forward, we actually understood it as an opportunity to develop things that do not exist. It progressed from this kind of simple idea that represents the way we should be doing things anyway to realizing “Hey, that’s really not enough! We better start pushing the envelope.” Basically, the role of mechanical engineers in a sustainable society is really to create, implement and imagine systems that do not even exist right now. And mechanical engineers are really good at creating things that move, that fly, etc. They can do a lot when it comes to different aspects of sustainability.  

2. What first inspired you to apply mechanical engineering research to help solve sustainability challenges? What inspires you on this path today?

What inspired me was the new challenge of sustainability in my profession. It gave me a really exciting scope for the work that I am doing. I was really interested in the novelty of the concept and that allowed us to research, investigate and understand new things that we never thought about before. Something that I personally enjoy about sustainability is that sustainability issues require the participation of many people. If we want to deliver something that is truly better than before, we need to have a group of people around the table that are genuinely invested in educating each other. So that we all can contribute something meaningful to create something that no one has seen before. That learning potential that exists there is something that keeps me excited about sustainability.

What inspires me to continue on the sustainability path today are my students. I teach courses that are heavily focused on sustainability, basically different kinds of analysis tools, different kinds of systems, evaluation processes, and I would always have people in class that challenge me or that have read something that I haven’t heard of before. It’s so enjoyable and the classes are always so unexpected. There is always an exchange. It’s not just me sitting there barking some formulas at them. My students are really engaged. 

3.  How does your research program called “the Center for Sustainability in the Built Environment at the University of Maryland”, (CITY@UMD), contribute to our campus’ sustainability goals?

CITY is kind of the mathematic calculator. We contribute through our capacity to collect and analyze data on building energy and consumption. My team had been working on this type of data collection and analysis for 2 or 3 decades, and when we came to UMD, Facilities Management was ready and interested to work with the academic arm of the institution. Basically, many different people who are truly invested in sustainability shook hands and each of us contributed something special to create a better environment. The result was TerpFootprints, a map-based content page on building energy and water utilization for the entire campus. We essentially created a physics-based computer game that married the physical data from Facilities Management with our numerical data models and made a complete and new data set for the campus. This opened up opportunities to understand what was going on without having to stress the system and require additional metering, which is so expensive. And we made it available and accessible to the entire community. So there are classes that are done with the content from that webpage, as well as individual projects and research projects. Also, Facilities Management now downloads the annual reports on campus energy performance from the TerpFootprints webpage. 

4. You try to take an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability by working with faculty from other departments. What are some of the major benefits and major challenges to this type of collaboration?

I will start with challenges first because the benefits are so overwhelming. The challenges are that serious approaches to sustainability do require interdisciplinary collaboration, and those are mostly related to a mindset of people who are coming to the project. If someone tells me that there are drawbacks to the project, and they start talking about the time that is needed to do interdisciplinary projects, that there are costs, that there are different kinds of communication problems, and etc., it's all coming from a mindset that is not right for the project and will hinder projects from moving forward. 

The benefits of an interdisciplinary approach are numerous. The benefits are better solutions and real sustained benefits. It's not a one-time event, because sustainability is not just about making, for example, an energy-efficient building on campus or a water-efficient solution, it's actually sustaining them. Real work and real sustainability come from maintaining that system for a long time and knowing how the system works and having input from everybody who is living in that ecosystem and participating in sustainability.  Having this type of collaboration brings about solutions that are high quality and really improve quality of life to all the people in the system because we become connected to each other and become aware that we are connected to each other. 

5. You recently served on the University Sustainability Council. What has been your favorite experience on the Council?

I think my favorite part about being on the Council is really the discussions about projects that the university could undertake. There are collegial open-minded discussions and real-time understanding of where the limitations are and where the opportunities are. It's a very rare moment when you have the entire University System represented at the table from students to higher ups in administrative offices and even Facilities Management. Sustainability solutions are not easy, but if you have all the actors at the table, it becomes a learning process that is absolutely necessary in order to understand each other's limitations, especially understanding where the technology limitations are. There would be no possible way to have such meetings without having all the players at the table.

6. What are some other sustainability projects that you would like to see implemented on campus and why?

When I think about it, my favorite projects are green roofs. So these are not the backbone projects that will help our campus become more sustainable, but I like green roof projects because they allow for several things to happen at the same time. They're really very aesthetically beautiful. They allow you to recreate many ecosystems so you can have landscaping solutions implemented such as stormwater management, some alleviation of local temperatures on that particular roof, and help save some amount of energy. For me, green roofs are kind of an ultimate sustainable solution because they touch on many aspects. They are a very unique system that teaches us how natural systems deal with sustainability, and you have a sort of comprehensive solution that is so far-reaching. So I would love to see more green roofs on campus. 

7. What do you hope the merge between mechanical engineering and sustainability will look like in the future? What challenges do you foresee for getting there and how do you think we can overcome them?

I hope that mechanical engineering curriculum will have components that go far beyond what we're doing right now to encourage students to focus on sustainability. I hope one day students will come to understand that their work is part of the concept of sustainability, or how the concept and ideas of sustainability can feedback into what they’re designing, manufacturing or implementing. It would be good for mechanical engineers to have an understanding of how their personal mechanical engineering decisions actually reverberate through the system. So in some ways, today’s students feel isolated in their fields without this broader knowledge, unless they are seeking it out themselves. We, as a faculty, fail to put what we are designing and manufacturing every single day into the broader context. Today’s scope makes students kind of become invisible and unaware of how important their work is, and basically we make them less powerful or less involved in the decision-making process. It matters what alloy you pick. It matters what air conditioning system you pick. It matters what windows you pick. It matters! So actually students’ decisions are very important, and I feel that we do not sufficiently empower individual students to see this. It has to start from freshman year because there are some students’ senior projects that require sustainability, but by that time, students and faculty see it as an add-on feature. I hope that this merge looks like engineers seeing how their work feeds back into sustainability and that they have a deeper understanding of their role as a whole.

Photo of Jelena with students at CITY@UMD

By Nicolle Schorchit , Communications Intern, Office of Sustainability