Who’s Next: Environment and Energy: Meet 13 people making Pittsburgh cleaner, greener, and more energy efficient

Updated 5:55 p.m. Aug. 14, 2019

Pittsburgh is a place at once recognized for its environmental progress and for all the progress it has left to make. 

And in our first-ever Who’s Next: Environment and Energy class, we’re showcasing 13 people who are working to ensure that Pittsburgh’s progress on environmental issues only continues to grow. 

From advocates raising air quality concerns to researchers working on solutions, from those working to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste to those making the city’s buildings and institutions greener, these are 13 people who are making Pittsburgh cleaner, more environmentally conscious, and more environmentally sound. 

Who’s Next, presented by S&T Bank, is our chance to recognize up-and-coming dynamos in Pittsburgh and to introduce you today to tomorrow’s leaders and influencers. 

And we’re excited to introduce this class of innovative and dedicated environmental stewards. 

Meet them here and then get your ticket to join us at a happy hour in their honor on Wednesday, Aug. 28.

Ben Barson 

Coordinator and Composer, Afro Yaqui Music Collective

🐦 Twitter 

📸 Instagram 

Age 31

Music helped fuel America’s environmental awakening, and Ben Barson is continuing in the tradition of making music inspiring to and inspired by the environmental movement. As coordinator and composer with the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, Barson helped create Mirror Butterfly: Migrant Liberation Suite, a 50-minute opera and allegory about the impacts of climate change.

Barson also helps communities in Pittsburgh and around the world to organize on environmental issues and performed excerpts of the opera in Iraq in 2019, where activists oppose a hydroelectric dam project on the Tigris River they say threatens downstream ecosystems. “Really this is going to be a global movement of millions and millions of people that are going to say, ‘we don’t want to live in a world where my well-being comes at the expense of future generations,’” Barson told WESA.

Barson attended Hampshire College and the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Arlington. 

Chastity Bey

Community Nature Educator, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Age 24

Chastity Bey was a student in the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s High School Urban Eco-Steward program when she had her own environmental epiphany. That was nearly a decade ago. Now, Bey is serving as the conservancy’s community nature educator, making similar epiphanies possible for new generations of students.

Holding a B.A. degree in environmental studies from Penn State Altoona, Bey works full-time in her role with the conservancy while also serving as a member of the Pittsburgh Black Environmental Collective. Bey helps the parks conservancy increase diversity in its programs and works as the writer and manager of the “African American in the Environmental Field” blog.

Bey lives in Knoxville. 

Alexandra Hakala

Research Geochemist and Onshore Unconventional Resources Technical Portfolio Lead, U.S. Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL)

🔗 LinkedIn 

Age 37

Alexandra Hakala is working to reduce the environmental impacts of shale gas production by improving our understanding of the chemicals used. A research geochemist and onshore unconventional resources technical portfolio lead with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Hakala’s work is primarily focused on understanding the short- and long-term impacts of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and on identifying more environmentally sound options.

Complementing this effort is Hakala’s work with environmental geochemical tracers. This project has helped identify how hydraulic fracturing fluids move underground and has led to the sharing of this knowledge with oil and gas operators in an attempt to ensure the protection of groundwater in the Pittsburgh area against contamination and environmental hazards.

Hakala attended Princeton University and lives in Jefferson Hills. 

Douglas R. Kauffman

Research Chemist, U.S. Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory

🔗 LinkedIn 

Age 37 

Simply put, Douglas Kauffman is working to reduce the environmental impact of fossil fuels by finding new uses for carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas. As a research chemist with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Kauffman is looking for ways to convert carbon dioxide or CO2 into more useful chemicals and fuels, part of what’s been dubbed a “carbon dioxiderecycling revolution.”

Kauffman’s Who’s Next nominator told The Incline: “This ‘CO2 recycling’ lowers the carbon footprint of electricity generation and enables more environmentally sustainable use of our region’s valuable fossil-energy resources,” adding “Douglas’s impact has even been recognized by the President of the United States, who awarded him this year’s Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. This award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government to exceptionally promising, early-career scientists.”

Kauffman attended the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Lawrenceville.  

Kurt Lindsey 

Community Food Connections Coordinator, Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

🔗 LinkedIn

Age 29

Capturing a Sustainable Workplace Challenge win in 2018. Leading community garden and eco-district efforts in his neighborhood. Kurt Lindsey has done all of this while working as a community food connections coordinator at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

But he’s also focused on reducing food waste, which has a bigger environmental impact than you may have realized. From the energy and resources needed to process, transport, store, and cook food, to the methane it emits in landfills, food waste is an environmental problem, too. And through his work, Lindsey gets local agencies to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and, ultimately, to provide more nutritious meals to more people. “Today my job gives me the opportunity to make a positive impact on my community every day,” Lindsey told The Incline.

Lindsey attended the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University and lives in Avalon. 

Sarah Olexsak 

Manager, Transportation Electrification, Duquesne Light Company

🔗 LinkedIn 

Age 36

Sarah Olexsak is working to put more electric vehicles on the road as manager of transportation electrification for Duquesne Light Company. Whether it’s working on Duquesne Light’s public/private partnership with the Port Authority of Allegheny County, assisting local organizations and businesses in bringing electric vehicle charging to their facilities, engaging with car dealerships to get more electric vehicles on the road, or speaking at various events focused on clean air and environmental causes, Olexsak is there, her Who’s Next nominator told The Incline.

Olexsax previously worked on transportation electrification at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. and with the Obama White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. “I’ve been working on electric vehicles since 2006 … and am so glad to now have the opportunity to be a part of their growth in my hometown,” she told The Incline.

Olexsak attended Muskingum University and Johns Hopkins University and lives on the North Side. 

Anaïs Peterson

Environmental activist 

🐦 Twitter 

🔗 LinkedIn 

📸 Instagram 

Age 21 

Anaïs Peterson is one of the loudest and youngest voices in the Pittsburgh area’s environmental movement. An active member of the People over Petro Coalition and a core organizer with Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, Peterson helped secure a 91 percent majority on a student referendum asking if Pitt should divest from fossil fuels.

Peterson has also organized environmental marches in Pittsburgh, testified in front of governing boards, and attended rallies to raise awareness of environment harms here and beyond. And with Pittsburgh’s air quality continuing to draw poor ratings, Peterson knows her work is as relevant as ever. “What happens in Allegheny County, what happens in southwest Pennsylvania affects everyone because pollution doesn’t stay in one place,” Peterson told The Pitt News. “We can’t afford for elected officials to be silent until after it’s done.”

Peterson attends Pitt and splits her time between Oakland and O’Hara Township. 

Kareem Rabbat

Chief Innovation Officer, Ecotone Renewables

🐦 Twitter 

🔗 LinkedIn

📸 Instagram  

Age 22

Have you seen those shipping containers converted into biodigesters and greenhouses in places like East Liberty? Kareem Rabbat’s company, Ecotone Renewables, makes them. As the company’s chief innovation officer, Rabbat works to redevelop food growth and waste practices while empowering communities.

He’s also a student at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, where he’s working on a project that could revolutionize the way contaminated soil is dealt with by using contaminant-consuming bacteria and fungi to naturally solve persistent pollution problems. “I was always fascinated by the natural world growing up and I have decided to dedicate my life to preserving its integrity for generations to come,” Rabbat told The Incline. “… we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors but we borrow it from our children.”

Rabbat attends Pitt and lives in Oakland. 

Aurora Sharrard

Director of Sustainability, University of Pittsburgh

🐦 Twitter 

🔗 LinkedIn 

Age 39 

The University of Pittsburgh’s colors may be blue and gold, but Aurora Sharrard is helping the school go green. As Pitt’s director of sustainability, Sharrard has been tasked with enabling Pitt’s first sustainability plan, which formalizes decades of green initiatives and outlines a host of measurable goals, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and landfill waste, while increasing the percentage of renewable energy used on campus.

Sharrard came to Pitt in 2018 to head the university’s newly created “Office of Sustainability,” which works to bring that sustainability plan to fruition. Sharrard has also worked for the Green Building Alliance, where she co-founded the Pittsburgh 2030 District, which boasts more than 500 buildings aspiring towards 50 percent reductions in energy use, water consumption, and transportation emissions by the year 2030.

Sharrard attended Tulane University and Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Greenfield. 

Isaac Smith 

Data & Performance Director, Green Building Alliance

🐦 Twitter

🔗 LinkedIn

📸 Instagram

Age 29

As Green Building Alliance’s first data and performance director, Isaac Smith has changed how Pittsburgh measures and improves its energy use. Smith led the data analysis efforts that helped grow Pittsburgh’s 2030 District into the largest in the world.

Smith has also worked to implement Pittsburgh’s Building Benchmarking law, which requires buildings above 200,000 square feet to publicly report their utilities information, while pushing some of the largest landowners in the city to abide by ambitious energy goals. He’s also led the development of the Make My Trip Count transportation survey, which helped identity obstacles to taking cleaner types of transit. And he serves on the board of Landforce to support the transition of Pittsburgh’s workforce to clean and green economies. “He is incredibly ambitious, deeply committed, and a key innovator in Pittsburgh’s sustainability efforts,” Smith’s Who’s Next nominator told The Incline.

Smith attended Messiah College and lives in Lawrenceville. 

Noah Snyder

President & CEO, Interphase Materials

🐦 Twitter

🔗 LinkedIn

Age 31

Noah Snyder was researching biocompatible materials for medical brain implants when he had an idea. Realizing the impact these materials could have in the industrial world, specifically on industrial and commercial heat exchangers, Snyder co-founded Interphase Materials in 2015. Since then, the company has spread commercial applications of the technology and successfully demonstrated its ability to reduce energy consumption of large water-cooled HVAC units and heat exchangers.

“Because heating and cooling is one of the largest energy consumers in a building, Interphase’s environmentally friendly material has significant impacts on building energy use,” Snyder’s Who’s Next nominator told The Incline. “Interphase has applied this technology to several cooling systems across the City of Pittsburgh and has seen impressive results. Not only will this benefit our local environment, but it can also save these partners money and may reduce grid demand.”

Snyder attended the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Shaler. 

NaTisha Washington

Green Initiative Coordinator, Operation Better Block Inc.

🧳 LinkedIn

📸 Instagram  

Age 28 

NaTisha Washington is the green initiative coordinator at Operation Better Block in Pittsburgh, where she works on improving the green spaces in Homewood with groups of community-minded teens. Washington also serves as a teacher to those teens, focusing on horticulture, vacant lot restoration, and job readiness.

In her two years with Operation Better Block, Washington has partnered with local environmental organizations on rain garden projects, greenhouse building, mass tree plantings, soil testing, and the bi-annual Redd Up cleaning days. In 2019, Washington started her own consulting company called Washington’s Green Solutions LLC and strives to “help other people and communities solve their environmental issues” in a similar way. Washington told The Incline she hopes to be able to solve sustainability issues for groups big and small, and for people in all kinds of communities.

Washington attended Penn State University and lives in Wilkinsburg. 

Sarah Yeager

Climate and Energy Planner, City of Pittsburgh Office of Sustainability

🐦 Twitter

🔗 LinkedIn 

Age 26

Meet Sarah Yeager, the City of Pittsburgh’s first climate and energy planner. In this position, Yeager developed the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan 3.0 and compiled the third Greenhouse Gas Inventory for the city.

Following City Council’s adoption of the Climate Action Plan in 2018, Yeager transitioned to overseeing its implementation. And as the city strives to achieve ambitious carbon reduction goals, much of Yeager’s work is focused on getting to 100 percent renewable electricity, improving energy efficiency in city facilities, promoting district scale solutions, and achieving a fossil fuel-free city fleet.

Yeager attended Saint Francis University and lives in Bloomfield.