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Behrend welcomes new face to the

science department

Photo By: fredonia.edu


AnaBella Lassiter, Arts & Entertainment Editor

An office decorated with a blue tapestry on one wall, a blown-up globe hanging from the ceiling before the window, and the lights turned off during the late afternoon. This is the office of Dr. Sherri Mason, Penn State Behrend’s new sustainability coordinator and what a phenomenal addition she makes to the Behrend staff.

Mason is from Dallas, Texas. She majored in Chemistry at the University of Texas in Austin after she discovered her love for it in sixth grade, where she presented on why water and oil don’t mix. “I thought it was fascinating, and I told my teacher that I thought it was really fun, and he was like, ‘Oh, sounds like you like chemistry!’ and little bells went off in my head, and I decided that, yes, I wanted to be a chemist!” she explained.

However, for Mason, it wasn’t just chemistry that she wanted to study. After watching an episode of the show, “Different Strokes”, in which the daughter of the show is going to prom and washes her hair with rainwater, Mason was struck by a revelation. In the show, instead of reaping the benefits the young girl’s aunt told her she would get from washing her hair with rainwater, her hair turned green because it was acid rain.

“Now, of course, the scientific validity of that was questionable, but the point that the show made upon me was, like, holy cow, we as a species could be doing something to our planet to the extent that it keeps other animals and plants from living,” she explained. “That just really hit me really hard. That’s not the way that we should be running this planet.”

So, after teetering between Environmental Science and Chemistry, Mason completed her Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry because she was informed that she could apply that degree to environmental science. After graduation, with her degree in hand, Mason then decided, on a whim, to move to Missoula, Montana because she had never been there.

“All I knew was that I wanted to live near a college. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I can pretend that I had some grand master plan but no. I moved there, cleaned hotel rooms, tutored in math and science; I was a waitress, and a really bad one at that. And after working those kinds of jobs, I was like, you know, I should go back and get my doctorate,” she laughed.

And a doctorate she earned at the University of Missoula. Mason was the first to get a PhD in her family and realized, during grad school, that she loved teaching. From Missoula, after recognizing how isolated Missoula actually was from the rest of the world, Mason moved eastward after applying to SUNY Fredonia. There, she taught as a professor and decided to study plastic pollution. This decision won her the Heinz Award for the groundbreaking research she did on the microbeads and microfibers in freshwater and, according to Fredonia’s website, shedding light on the potential implications of microplastics on human health, which lead to policy change on state, federal and international levels.

Despite this astounding accomplishment, though, Mason claims that the highlight of her career thus far came from a conference. This conference took place around the same time her study on plastic pollution and bottled water was released.

At this conference, a United Nations ambassador approached Mason, saying, “I had to find you because I just wanted to thank you. We have been trying to get the World Health Organization to really take on plastic pollution as a human health concern and asking them to do a study, and they have not been open to it until your work came out and now they are. So, I just wanted to thank you.”

From Fredonia, Mason applied to be Penn State Behrend’s Sustainability Coordinator, and, though she had no plans with her move to Montana, she most definitely has some plans for Behrend.

The big thing she is working on right now is an assessment of where we are at as a campus. “So, we look at our energy usage, our water usage, our waste, our recycling rates. We look at food service. We look at what classes we are teaching and how many of them have a component of sustainability in them,” she explains. “So, the assessment encapsulates all of campus. From there, she can decide based on the assessment, where to go and what to focus on.

One thing that has gained Mason’s attention is the campus garden. The garden has the potential to grow things that dining services use a lot of such as vegetables like green onions as well as herbs. By utilizing the garden, the campus can use foods that it  has grown itself which is commendable, and this can also save money. With that being said, Mason is currently working closely with the Sustainable Food Systems Coordinator, Katie Chriest, to rethink what the garden is and how to make the garden have a larger impact on campus.

Currently, students can minor in Sustainability Leadership, and Mason offers classes in the Fall and Spring that students can take for their general education courses. Mason also mentioned looking for students for a research project that will begin soon. This next project of hers will focus on the trash from the rivers in Erie County.

“The goal is to think global, act local. I love Erie. I love the lake. We live in the best place in America,” she said. “This area of the country with the lake and the climate is wonderful and working with students to make Erie a liveable, environmentally sustainable community, I think, will help revitalize Erie.”

If interested, be sure to talk with Dr. Mason. She is more than open to both students in the sciences and all other majors across campus. “It’s not just about educating one group of people.” Mason explains, “It’s about educating all people across the board because we all play a role in society. Yes, you are one person but you are one person who has a huge impact. What you do everyday matters.”