College of Engineering News Room

Using Systematic Assessments for Sustainable Development

By Brad Stager

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering PhD student receives Fulbright and Boren awards for proposed research in Ghana

Yoel Gebrai

Yoel Gebrai is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Engineering at USF with an Engineering for International Development concentration.

Decisions, decisions, decisions. What does a USF engineering student do when they are offered two highly competitive and prestigious fellowships? In this case, environmental engineering PhD student Yoel Gebrai was allowed to accept a Fulbright U.S. student research grant and a Boren fellowship, which he was simultaneously awarded in Spring 2022.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is the largest and most coveted educational exchange program. Each year, it provides around 2,000 recent graduates, graduate students and young professionals the opportunity to engage in cross-cultural exchanges through research and study in a foreign country. Similiarly, Boren Awards are an initiative of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office and provide an opportunity for intensive language study in areas critical to U.S. interests. Boren Scholars and Fellows immerse themselves in the cultures in world regions underrepresented across study abroad programs.

As both a Fulbright grantee and Boren Fellow, Gebrai’s research in Ghana will support the country’s efforts to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 goals were created to solve global social, economic, and environmental problems that are interrelated and must be addressed at the same time. Gebrai’s training in systems thinking and sustainability at USF in his Engineering for International Development (EID) concentration helped him identify a key to addressing food, water, energy, and economic problems faced by communities in Ghana — a leafy, edible and fast-growing plant known as Moringa oleifera.

"My dissertation research involves conducting a comparative life cycle sustainability assessment of Moringa leaf and seed products in Ghana, West Africa,” he said. “I will be working closely with partners in Ghana on comparing the various life cycle impacts of different Moringa products.”

Found throughout countries in Asia and Africa, the plant has a variety of uses ranging from a food source to a potential source of energy and clean water. The leaves are considered by nutritionists to be a good source of vitamins, minerals and amino acids, while the seeds can be used in a process to purify water or produce a valuable oil used in cosmetics, cooking, fertilizer, and biofuels.

Partners Gebrai will work with to collect the necessary data for assessing this important crop’s environmental, economic and social sustainability include university researchers and nongovernmental organization staff at the University for Development Studies in Tamale, the Ghana Permaculture Institute in Techiman, and Minsapp Ventures in Tamale, which purchase Moringa leaves and seeds from a network of around 2,000 farmers. Gebrai will also improve his use of the Twi language spoken by several million people in the southern two-thirds of Ghana during his time in the country.

Gebrai’s use of Moringa oleifera as a potential holistic solution to problems faced by communities in Ghana reflects his early interest in sustainability issues that sparked his choice of a career in engineering. He earned his Master of Science in Hydrogeology from Clemson University.

“I decided to go the engineering route during my senior year in high school,” Gebrai said. “I was interested in energy and the environment, and I knew that there were a lot of engineering careers related to those sectors.”

A paper titled, A systems approach to analyzing food, energy, and water uses of a multifunctional crop: A review, published in Science of the Total Environment in 2021 and co-authored with his PhD research advisers James Mihelcic - professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering - and Kebreab Ghebremichael - associate professor in the Patel School of Global Sustainability - outlines how sustainable engineering serves communities. The paper considers how systematic analysis shows how a multifunctional crop like Moringa oleifera can impact a community by providing food, water and energy security.

By pursuing the EID doctoral concentration, Gebrai said he has a clear path toward his professional goal and that the opportunity to integrate global problems and solutions as an important part of his education made a difference in his decision to attend the USF College of Engineering.

“I wanted to get training that would prepare me for a career in international development and build my skills as an independent researcher,” he said. “The unique combination of pursuing an engineering degree with interdisciplinary training and the international field research experience that the Engineering for International Development concentration offered was exactly what I was looking for.”

The Engineering for International Development concentration offered to graduate students in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering emphasizes sustainable practices and results that incorporate different perspectives — cultural as well as technical — in finding and applying solutions to problems. The role engineering plays in international development in terms of sustainability, the environment, health, gender, and society is considered in the coursework, especially on issues of concern to developing countries and smaller and marginalized communities in North America. In 2020, Gebrai volunteered for a month of service with the Peace Corps in Madagascar.

Gebrai credits support from USF and the College of Engineering as playing an important role in his success and the goals he’s achieved so far.

“There have been a lot of resources that have been helpful to me since arriving at USF,” he said. “The NSF Florida-Georgia LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate program helped me transition to my PhD program, which was very important for me since I started during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The USF Office of National Scholars provided invaluable support for me when I was applying for the Fulbright fellowship. I am also a part of NSF National Collaborative Research Traineeship (NRT) Strong Coasts program here at USF. The program features an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students who meet weekly to develop community-engaged training and research to help better manage complex, coastal food, energy, and water problems.”

Toward his vision of an academic career focused on international development, Gebrai will participate in the NSF International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) Sustainable Women’s Argan Oil Production program prior to starting his Fulbright. The five-week research program takes place in Morocco from June 5 to July 11.

“I may not end up tying this experience directly with my dissertation research, but it is a great professional development opportunity and will help me get closer to my goals,” Gebrai said.

The NSF IRES is co-directed by Tara Deubel, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, as well as USF PhD graduate Colleen Naughton, who’s now an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of California-Merced.

Just as Gebrai applies engineering principles to find solutions, he also employs a certain mindset to help him consistently reach milestones in his academic career.

“I like to always keep the big picture in mind with things that I do,” he said. “When things are going well or when they become difficult, keeping long-term goals or impacts in perspective has always been something that helps keep me focused and moving forward.”