Green Griffin

 

Q&A WITH ELLIE SANGREE ’20



Green Griffin

Ellie Sangree is working to make the world a more sustainable place — one lake at a time.

Growing up in rural Connecticut, not far from the Hilltop, Sangree spent most of her time outdoors. But it wasn’t until Pomfret that her love for biology really began to bloom. Now a senior at Hamilton College, Sangree has already turned her research into a company, securing her first patent. Next up? Sangree is headed to UC Santa Cruz to earn a PhD in environmental studies. “The innovative program will allow me to conduct scientific research surrounding ecological issues while connecting that science to real policy work,” she says.

 

Ellie has a passion for environmental science and biology.

Where does your interest in nature come from?
Nature has always seemed so complex to me. We're all living beings whose existences are tied inextricably to the ecosystems around us. There are endless questions to ask and explore about nature. I spend a lot of time reading books and articles to help answer my questions. I love finding experts and learning more about the things I'm curious about. Pomfret Science Teacher Bill Martin was one of these people. While hiking during Outdoor Adventure, I would ask him question after question about how different biological and ecological systems worked. I am just fascinated by how different living and nonliving things are connected meaningfully.

I am impassioned by the degradation of nature in the form of pollution. While most see nature as having intrinsic worth, our actions go against that belief. Modern life has put so many people out of touch with where things come from and where things go, and that can make our actions ambiguous. As the amount of pollution and our impact on the planet worsen, we are affecting our ability to survive in the future. This problem has many components, including science, human behavior, and politics. Understanding these things together — not separately — is essential to establish strategies and approaches to address the issue and make a difference.

In what ways did you explore and study nature and sustainability on the Hilltop?
Pomfret helped me realize my passion for environmental science and biology, solving ecological problems. I completed an independent study in conservation science and led the environmental club, the Green Griffins. I founded the Outing Club and did Outdoor Adventure. I was a Helios Greenhouse intern and took the aquaponics class. The aquaponics greenhouse represented my own little scientific paradise. In the aquaponics class, I was exposed to some novel research on bioremediation, that is, using living things to remove pollution from water. I remember thinking I wanted to pursue this kind of research when I made it to college.

Ellie begins her research project at Hamilton College. 

Tell us about your college experience.
I chose to attend Hamilton College because its website advertised an aquaponics club. In my freshman year, I became the president of the aquaponics club. After cleaning up some stinky sludge, transplanting some lettuce, and doing some nitrogen water tests, I wondered how plants could remove nitrogen from water. I began working on a research project on bioremediation—something that was generally reserved for senior-year thesis projects.

Tell us about your project. 
Through my research on bioremediation, I read nearly a hundred studies and became especially interested in nitrogen pollution, a kind of nutrient pollution. These papers all pointed to a similar thing: an invention that didn't exist yet. I drew up plans for this invention, an inexpensive floating biofilter that grows special bacteria to turn dissolved nitrogen pollution into a harmless gas. These bacteria exist naturally in all bodies of water, but we have decimated these ecosystems by destroying our wetlands and ponds through property and agricultural developments. My invention aimed to create a new habitat for these bacteria that provide this vital water filtration service. 

Ellie and her business partner work to establish Eutrobac.

How has the project evolved?
A friend of mine, who has significant business experience, and I formed a company called Eutrobac. We are taking advantage of all of the small business development opportunities that we can, including working with a pro bono attorney to help us file for a patent. One of our strategies has been working with several engineering schools to help us design, build, and manufacture the next iteration of the biofilters for their senior capstone project. We have also been researching the market to understand where the technology is needed and applicable. We are seeing some interest from homeowners, golf courses, hotels, and parks who primarily use chemical herbicides to address their pond algae and other harmful pollutants and would like to find a more natural solution. 

Another industry we are working with is the agricultural industry. Growing up in Northeastern Connecticut, I saw how farming can affect the water supply. Our system can help treat water in rural areas with limited access to large-scale water treatment facilities. 

Ellie presents her research at the American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting. 

You're graduating from Hamilton in May. What is next?
I was accepted into an excellent environmental studies PhD program at UC Santa Cruz. The innovative program will allow me to conduct scientific research surrounding ecological issues while connecting that science to real policy work. For example, I could work with farmers to understand their soil practices while researching solutions to their challenges. It will help me explore science for the sake of action rather than science for the sake of science. 

What do you do when not exploring solutions to the world's problems?
While on the Hilltop, I discovered my passion for pottery. I still create today and lead Hamiliton's pottery club. I also do a lot of yoga and meditation. Through the sports I did, Pomfret also instilled in me a desire to be active. I love learning about plants and want a big garden one day. I am already getting a head start by spending my summers on my family's blueberry farm. 

What would you say if you were to give an alumni Chapel Talk?
The mainstream media perpetuates doomsday ideas about the environment and climate change, claiming that our actions have no impact on the future. This belief can make people feel anxious and hopeless, and a lot of it isn't true. I think one person's actions can make a difference.
 

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