Like many students, Erin Lash’s path at Virginia Tech didn’t follow the route she initially planned. Now, the senior from Bear, Delaware, is redefining what it means to be a sustainable biomaterials major.

“I had been accepted into general engineering, and I went in with my eyes set on biological systems," Lash said. "After a year, I decided that I wanted to do something with an environmental focus. I wanted more of a hands-on experience, with more of a heart-and-mind kind of connection. After talking to some of the department heads, I narrowed in on sustainable biomaterials, with a minor in green engineering.”

It turned out to be the right choice — Lash has been named the 2019 Outstanding Senior for the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Sustainable biomaterials has traditionally prepared students to work in the wood products and wood science industry,” Lash explained, “but the coursework allows you to develop a range of skills that are useful in the broader field of environmental science and a variety of career avenues. You get a strong science background, but you’re also exposed to the engineering and business elements of the field.”

That diversity of skills enabled Lash to land an internship last summer with Duffield Associates, a regional engineering and environmental consulting firm.

“It was an amazing opportunity,” Lash said. “I had the chance to participate in fieldwork, such as monitoring well testing and taking tidal measurements in Chincoteague Bay for a simulation of a new wastewater treatment facility. In addition, I contributed to writing an environmental assessment report for a dredging project in the Delaware River and helped compile a GIS project, moving maps from previous projects to one database. I learned a lot, and I discovered that sustainable biomaterials had provided me a really solid foundation for the work.”

During her junior year, Lash took on a leadership role in the Wood Enterprise Institute, a student-managed entrepreneurial program in which participants design, develop, and produce a product to sell on the open market.

“Erin was selected as the business manager,” said Professor Earl Kline, the institute’s faculty advisor. “She directed customer order fulfilment and business finance activities. She was an excellent problem solver and was very focused on working with her team members to ensure that work was done on time. Her dedication to detail and positive attitude inspired all students on the team to do their best work.”

Lash, a three-time merit-based scholarship recipient who competed in the pole vault for the track and field team as a freshman and was a cheerleader in her sophomore and junior years, also found time to study abroad in Costa Rica. She cites that trip as playing a pivotal role in further cultivating her passion for the field of sustainable biomaterials.

“Costa Rica was the best two weeks of my four years at Virginia Tech,” Lash said. “The group was led by Dr. Loferski and Dr. Quesada from the sustainable biomaterials department. One thing we did was run a carbon footprint analysis for an organic processing plant. It was very hands-on — we were told to go talk to workers and get a sense of how much plastic was being used and how many days and shipments they had. Then we had to figure out our assumptions and make calculations, taking in a lot of variables.”

Lash said that staying with host families was an experience that broadened both her perspective on the world and her career ambitions.

“My host family spoke no English, which was difficult at first,” she recalled. “But I came out of the experience thinking that the world wasn’t as big and intimidating as I’d thought. I had such a broader perspective afterwards. I felt like I could do more and reach more places.”

The next place for Lash will be Johns Hopkins University, where she will pursue a master’s in environmental sciences and policy.

“Sustainable biomaterials set me up to have an exciting career,” Lash said. “The College of Natural Resources and Environment as a whole helped me figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. I was interested in environmental work, but I had no idea what kind of jobs there were in the field. Now I know what’s out there, and I couldn’t be more excited about the next step.”