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Cornell Engineering

Making it Make Sense

A young engineer advocates for sustainable engineering.

By Bridget Meeds

abena1When an engineer uses the term “matriarch” to describe nature, you know you’re not talking to a typical nuts and bolts person. And when she elaborates on her philosophy of creating a built environment that flexes with the weather and land, rather than trying to control them, you know you’re in the presence of someone who is working in a shifted paradigm.

Abena Sackey Ojetayo ’07, M. Eng. ’09 is that person. And that paradigm—one which prioritizes sustainable infrastructure that allows humans to live in concert with their environment—is informing the path of her already remarkable career.

Ojetayo, who was named to the 2013 list of New Faces of Civil Engineering by the American Society of Civil Engineers and was singled out as a “Notable Black in Energy” by the U.S. Black Engineering & Information Technology Magazinein 2012, is a senior project coordinator in the Energy and Environmental Engineering section of Cornell University Facilities Engineering.

She provides project management support for Cornell NYC Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus, as well as helps to monitor Cornell’s progress toward meeting the goals of its 2009 Climate Action Plan. Her path to this position and her enthusiasm for sustainable infrastructure began with her supportive family.

Ojetayo was born in Ghana, and her family immigrated to Maryland when she was nine. Her mother, a financial analyst, and her father, an informatics pharmacist, recognized her math and science talent early on.

They fostered her interest and encouraged her to attend Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md., a science and technology magnet school. Her teachers suggested she consider engineering. It appealed to her, especially because during family visits back to Ghana, she witnessed the need for vital infrastructure.

“I went into engineering thinking ‘How do I use this to solve problems?’” says Ojetayo. “I wasn’t wild about equations. I just wanted to learn how to get things built and elevate people’s living conditions.”

She first visited Cornell during a Diversity Hosting Weekend, and even though the weather was unusually awful for Ithaca, she knew it was the place for her. “I went to visit MIT and I was seriously considering Carnegie Mellon, but they both felt narrow,” says Ojetayo. “I wanted the flexibility to be able to also take hotel classes if I wanted to, which I did.”

Classes she particularly enjoyed in the College of Engineering included Jery Stedinger’s risk analysis and management course; Frank Wayno’s course on creativity, innovation, and leadership; and Francis Vanek’s class in civil infrastructure systems. Vanek remembers Ojetayo as bright, energetic, and already thinking big ideas. 

“We need, more and more, the kind of engineer Abena represents, one who works at innovating and implementing green technologies,” says Vanek. “How we build and power buildings and transportation systems needs to change. The hundred-year-old technology we’re using is not meant for the new environmental realities we have now.”

When Ojetayo finished her bachelor’s degree, she took a position as the assistant director of Diversity Programs in Engineering, where she worked with underrepresented students to facilitate their success. There, her problem-solving abilities were appreciated.

“Abena is extremely sharp and that mental acuity extended from a quick witty retort when kidding around in the office to coming up with creative solutions to problems that we encountered in our daily operations,” says Richard Allmendinger, former associate dean for Diversity and Faculty Development.

While working with Diversity Programs in Engineering, she earned her M. Eng. through the employee degree program. In January 2010, Ojetayo left Ithaca to join the Dr. Aloy & Gesare Chife Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Nigeria. The foundation was backing the development of a master plan for the Anam New City Project, a sustainable city. Ojetayo served as the infrastructure project manager.

One of the challenges of the project was that the location was in a flood zone. “In this project, we didn’t want to fight the land,” she says.  “Our challenge was to build a city that can adapt to yearly floods.”

Her team studied Dutch cities and decided to design streets that could also serve as canals—open to wheeled vehicles in dry weather and boats during the flood season. This project greatly influenced her thinking on sustainable engineering.

“What’s happening in developing nations is really cool and underrated,” Ojetayo says. “We can learn a lot by studying that kind of low-impact living, which shows respect for nature. Living your life around the natural cycle, rather than forcing it the other way, is the way we need to go.”

“[In her work in Africa,] Abena has seen and witnessed firsthand, and in a much broader sense than many traditional engineers, how humans interact with the world,” says Allmendinger. “She’s seen the impact that it has on our planet and in particular on the people most at risk in our world.”

Ojetayo’s design for Anam employed distributed systems, a concept which she thinks is central to sustainable infrastructure. In the conventional model, services like a water treatment plant are centralized. In a distributed system, smaller systems are built in scattered nodes, encouraging development to grow organically around them, up to a locally manageable load.

“This is how nature works,” she says. “It doesn’t concentrate all its resources in one place. It’s incredibly resilient in that way.”

As the project in Nigeria wound down, Ojetayo returned to the United States and decided to rejoin Cornell. She was thrilled to learn energy and sustainability at the Cornell Tech campus would be one of the primary responsibilities in her new job.

Her initial work focused on site-development planning, including environmental impact assessments such as flood risks. Currently, she’s supporting efforts to develop innovative energy systems for the first academic building on the campus, which is planned to be net-zero. The campus site needs to produce all the energy needed to power the building on an annual basis, including solar and geothermal technology. As the Cornell Tech project management team in New York grows, Ojetayo’s role is evolving.

“We are continuing to support a number of really interesting initiatives with the project,” says her supervisor in Facilities Engineering, Steve Beyers M.S. ’85 ME. “Abena is the go-to staff member for coordinating with student research teams, getting grant monies, and keeping things organized.”

Another of Ojetayo’s projects is helping to monitor Cornell’s progress toward meeting targets for its Climate Action Plan. The plan’s ultimate goal is to have the entire campus in Ithaca be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Cornell’s first significant step was its 2010 decision to phase out the on-campus coal burning power plant. The new combined heating and power plant burns natural gas. Before it was brought on-line, the university burned about 60,000 tons of coal per year. This move, supplemented by cleaner grid-purchased electricity and other energy equipment upgrades, reduced Cornell’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2012.

Another key action is intensive energy conservation work being done on campus, such as weather-proofing leaky old windows in Rockefeller Hall. “The energy management group is identifying opportunities to conserve and use energy better within buildings across campus and implementing these measures” Ojetayo says. “We’ve seen tremendous decrease in the energy use. This is one program that works.”

The Snyder Hill Solar Farm is another important component of the plan. This array of 6,766 solar photovoltaic panels on a 10-acre site owned by Cornell, adjacent to the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, will produce about one percent of Cornell’s electricity when it is completed in winter 2014. It will reduce carbon pollution by an estimated 730 tons per year.

One aspect of the plan Ojetayo is especially excited about is the prospect of an enhanced geothermal system hybridized with a biogas facility, a project in the concept stage. The system is being developed by facilities staff and faculty in the Colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and Life Sciences. The biomass-to-biogas facility, dubbed Cornell University Renewable Bioenergy Initiative (CURBI), would feature demonstration-scale research projects.

“CURBI is a neat partnership with several benefits across stakeholders,” says Ojetayo. “In addition to being used for research, the facility would also generate a significant amount of energy that can be used by facilities immediately.” Together with the existing lake source cooling system, these actions could allow Cornell to heat and cool the campus using only natural, renewable resources and stored heat energy from the earth.

All in all, Ojetayo feels optimistic about the climate plan’s progress and thrilled to be working on it. “I was never the type who really wanted to just crunch numbers,” she says. “I’m really more energized when I get to translate a vision into actionable plans and make it make sense for other people.”

Part of making it make sense for other people is sharing her vision. And as she talks about that vision, Ojetayo is not shy about using language that might seem unexpected from an engineer’s lips. “We don’t want to fight the matriarch,” she says, laughing. “We have to stop building structures that are so firm and rigid, that are an assertion of our power as humans. Time and time again, nature wins, so we really have to start adapting.”

When Ojetayo speaks of the matriarch, she is not only using a metaphor but also drawing on personal experience—she and her husband Olorunfunmi Ojetayo ILR ’08, are the new parents of Oluwatimilehin. With Timi’s birth, the intellectual imperative to build a sustainable future became real for her. She wants to build a balanced, healthy world in which her son can grow and thrive.