Graduate student combines both her passions to figure out how to make the world a better place
By: Yasmeen Ebada
Journalism master’s student Tess Herman spent her winter break in Haiti, interviewing and filming local entrepreneurs who are trying to implement sustainable technology initiatives, transforming organic waste into biogas technology. Her reporting sheds light on the struggles that entrepreneurs are facing to implement environmentally sustainable technologies and is the subject of her professional project.
To help fund her trip, Herman, also working on her master’s in Environmental Studies, was one of 27 students who received the 2018 Student Enhancement Award, among the most prestigious student grants at Ohio University. The program received 89 proposals from students and only accepted 27. The 2018 recipients received funds in between $3,300 to $5,700, and Herman was awarded the maximum amount.
She enlisted the help of journalism doctoral candidate Aaron Atkins to follow two young engineers, McKinnley Workman and Sébastien Benoit, who started Lakay Vet, a biogas company in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti.
Biogas technology is just one example of a sustainability initiative that faces challenges for implementation in the United States and around the world. The first step, Herman said, is to collect organic waste and transport it to a site to begin the organic waste recycling process. Instead of decaying in a landfill in the U.S. or on the streets in Haiti, the organic waste is allowed to decay under controlled settings with the help of specific bacteria. These special bacteria produce methane, the chemical equivalent of natural gas, which can be collected and used for energy.
Herman focuses specifically on biogas technology and on the challenges faced by entrepreneurs who are trying to implement sustainable technology initiatives in the United States and around the world. She also had the help of Media Arts and Studies doctoral candidate Franklyn Charles on the trip.
Herman has firsthand knowledge of the technology and its processes, as she is focusing on biogas technology for her Environmental Studies degree and built her own small biogas production setup as a part of it. Through her interactions with people and through various biogas conferences that she has attended, Herman realized that there are fascinating stories about people who are trying to implement the technology but are facing unique struggles.
“There are a lot of good people out there trying to implement sustainable technology initiatives but for some reason those initiatives are not getting done, and I want to know why,” Herman said. “I also want to know who are the people who wake up and put themselves in these challenging situations and face setbacks every day. Is it for the sole purpose of doing the right thing? Or is it just for the money? Or both? Or for completely different reasons?”
One of the primary environmental issues in Haiti centers on soil degradation which occurs when trees are over-harvested and not replaced, stripping the earth of its naturally occurring nutrients over time as the unprotected soil blows away or is washed into the ocean. Additionally, trees help regulate the water system by absorbing water from the ground, holding it and putting it back into the atmosphere so it can rain again.
As a byproduct of biogas production, the waste digestion process creates an organic fertilizer, which can be applied to the degraded Haitian soils to improve crop production through soil amendments as a part of a long-term sustainable agriculture.
Atkins tests the flight controller for drone video.
Herman wanted to show the places that have had waste and energy issues and how it is being addressed in Haiti, but there are other issues that Workman and Benoit are facing as well.
They are trying to address several issues including waste, the lack of reliable energy, the poor-quality soils and the lack of opportunities for local Haitians. They want to create long-term and enriching jobs for Haitians through their company.
“We went down there, and we took an observationalist approach to this video journalism project where we followed them and learned about their company and some of the general issues that they are trying to address in Haiti,” Herman said.
Franklin (left) and Atkins (right), with Herman.
Herman said they were not crafting scenes: they wanted to get to know the pair on a personal level, which is why they decided to structure it to have a full two weeks of production to help deal with limitations such as cultural and language barriers.
“We had to get comfortable with the people, so we had to understand their feelings and sentiments behind it, we wanted to spend a lot of time with them to get a more intimate perspective on who these people are and what gets them out of bed every day,” Herman said.
Biogas technology has been a viable energy production method since the 1960s but is not well-known outside environmental engineering circles. Herman noticed the divide between communication and practice and wanted to understand why more people were not aware of it or its value – particularly to developing regions with limited energy production and waste infrastructure.
“Science shows that we do need to have a diverse portfolio of waste and energy management strategies to make our world more sustainable, but we don’t have them. Where is this divide coming from then?” Herman said.
Through Herman’s environmental studies research, she met people who are trying to implement these technologies but run across different challenges such as governmental, local municipal or major structural issues.
“Who are the people that are willing to stand up to it day in and day out and put their entire livelihoods and financial resources on the line to try and do the right thing?” she said.
Herman said there aren’t many stories about the challenges faced by those trying to install sustainable technology. She said there is an assumption in the U.S. that if a person wanted to use sustainable technology, or green energy, they could just do it, but the reality is different because of so many obstacles in place.
Herman’s project helps put a face on biogas, organic waste management, and energy production, which may help others with no knowledge of the subject develop a better understanding of the processes and policies involved.
“We are telling the personal stories of the entrepreneurs, and I’m doing that mostly because people don’t just want to hear science stories. I could talk about biogas technology all day, but it won’t help,” Herman said. “If you see the humans that get up every day and face the barriers, people would better align with their efforts, their determination, their creativity and their ingenuity, rather than the hard science alone.”
Herman approached Atkins about the possibility of going to Haiti to help her with aerial videography since Atkins has done several projects using a drone.
“She has been working on this project for a long time and she put a lot of effort into it, so this is her baby. I was there for support, filming from the air, to pull audio and to follow her around with a boom mike on top of mountains,” Atkins said.
Not only did the team have the pressure of getting footage in a specific amount of time, but they had to deal with other cultural obstacles as well. For 15 days they relied solely on each other to get the production done, they moved quickly and had to make different adjustments as far as production goes.
“Before we left, we had planned carefully what, when, where and how we were going to shoot. The moment we got there we realized none of that was going to work because Haitians are protective around cameras,” Atkins said. “Anything that was worth shooting was shot and a lot of things we had to do on the fly. We had to be flexible and make things happen and ultimately, we did. We got it done.”
Dr. Robert Stewart, director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, encourages students to get out of their comfort zone and explore new boundaries for their research.
“I’m always happy when our students tackle subject matter that moves them beyond the borders of Ohio and even the United States. This is a great example of that kind of work,” Stewart said.
Herman will also work on a third master’s degree as part of the Leipzig University dual master’s degree program with the journalism school. Along with four other master’s students, she will spend six months in Germany taking coursework and will write a thesis for her master’s degree from Leipzig University.
Dr. Bernhard Debatin, director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics and Herman’s thesis committee chair, described Herman as someone who is motivated, creative, smart and a self-starter. Debatin said Herman was eager to work on a project that allows her to combine both her environmental studies and journalism degrees.
“It requires a fair amount of organizational skills and discipline to be able to pursue two master’s degrees and now she will add another one,” Debatin said. “I have enjoyed working with her and I have enjoyed being her thesis committee chair for her journalism master’s degree.”
Associate professor and Graduate Director Dr. Aimee Edmondson said she is delighted to see master’s students spending their breaks doing such work.
“What is so great about Tess’ project in part is that it shows what I always have believed, that journalism is like tofu. It picks up the flavor of whatever it is mixed with, and this project is a fascinating mix of utilizing journalistic skills and environmental studies expertise that Tess has acquired during her time at Ohio University,” Edmondson said.
Geography professor Dr. Geoffrey Buckley, one of the professors on Herman’s thesis committee, said Herman impressed him as someone who wanted to break new ground with her research.
“Her inquisitive nature and adventurous spirit are infectious. Even in challenging conditions, Tess exudes confidence and determination to complete the task at hand. I look forward to seeing the results of her work,” Buckley said.
Charles also did not have a specific role, but he was mostly helping with videography along with Herman.
Charles said he has enjoyed working with Herman in the past so when she mentioned the project last summer, he never hesitated to say yes.
“Tess is a great spirit and jovial person to be around. After she completes all her data gathering, I am excited to see how she weaves the narrative together on the importance of recycling and biogas production from waste,” Charles said. “She is an excited environmentalist and I want to see this successful project upon completion.”
Herman wanted Atkins and Charles to help her so that they could produce a better-quality research project. She could have done it by herself, but she said you can create a better-quality product if you have more people and can do more in a shorter amount of time.
“We just wanted to have a diverse staff of men and women and they are just professionals, they know what they are doing so they have a lot of training. You can send three inexperienced people on a job and not get anything done,” Herman said. “They are just good at what they do, and I have worked with them before and they work well together, it was the perfect union of a crew.”
Haiti is just one of the three destinations that Herman is focusing on for her project. The other two places are North Carolina where she will follow a company that produces energy from swine waste and New York to follow a company that manages food waste.