UCF Alumni Building A More Sustainable Orlando

Alumni Chris Castro and Brittany Sellers
UCF alumni Chris Castro and Brittany Sellers lead the Green Works initiatives for City of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. Photo courtesy of City of Orlando

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (April 19, 2018) — The sounds of construction can be heard on the third floor of Orlando City Hall. The building is being retrofitted with energy efficient technology as part of the City of Orlando’s sustainability initiatives.

It’s one of the many projects currently underway and supervised by sustainability director Chris Castro ’10 and sustainability project manager Brittany Sellers ’13MA ’16PhD. From the moment the UCF alumni step in their offices, they are literally surrounded by the results of their labor of love.

Their daily mission, especially on April 22’s Earth Day, is to transform Orlando into one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the country. That’s not exactly easy to do when one of the world’s top tourist destinations is also Forbes’ fourth-fastest growing city in America for 2018.

“When you look at Orlando from a long-term sustainability standpoint, 30-40-50-plus years from now, the amount of energy, the amount of water we’re consuming, the amount of waste that we are generating, is unsustainable,” Castro says. “At a certain point, our economy could become impacted negatively if we don’t start proactively paying attention to that.”

Easy Being Green
Castro and Sellers have been paying attention for quite a while.

Castro, the son of palm tree farmers in Miami, arrived at UCF in 2007 as an undeclared major. In his first year, he enrolled in a class taught by Penelope Canan, a nationally recognized professor for her environmental and sociology research. After taking her environmental sociology course, he knew he wanted to dedicate his life and career to sustainability.

He jumped in immediately by starting IDEAS for UCF, a sustainability-focused student organization. The group welcomes students of all majors and interests, and it focuses on originating solutions to make UCF’s campus more sustainable.

One of its first major achievements was receiving a commitment from President John C. Hitt and UCF to become a carbon neutral campus by 2050. IDEAS worked on programming and policies to help make strides toward that goal.

“I saw UCF as this unbelievable opportunity. For me, it was the best Petri dish that any student could ever imagine,” Castro says. “Everything I was doing through campus, I’ve now tried to expand it and take it to real life and the municipal government.”

One of the group’s programs, the Kill-A-Watt energy conservation competition, challenged students living in dorms to compete against each other in energy consumption reduction.

Sellers heard about the project as a human factors psychology doctoral student and wanted to study the challenge Castro helped implement as part of her dissertation.

She examined the project with a behavioral lens. How were students living in older dorms competing against students in newly constructed dorms? What if students couldn’t easily access sockets to unplug electronics? Did they know what the challenge on campus meant in the bigger picture of impacting climate change globally?

“Information does not equal action. People can know to do the right thing but there are all these other factors, and we need to look at what that means. What are the elements that can make it more possible?” Sellers says. “My transition to the department of sustainability at the city was pretty seamless even though I had come in as a psychology researcher. It might not seem like the most logical jump. But from the interdisciplinary approach I had in my education, it all made sense. A lot of that was fostered at UCF.”

People, Planet and Prosperity
Castro joined City of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s sustainability department full time in 2014, and Sellers joined soon after in 2015 before graduating with her doctorate a year later.

The two have brought their expertise to Dyer’s Green Works initiative, which began in 2007. Every day, these Knights and their team – which includes energy project manager Ian LaHiff ’09, sustainability associate Joe England ’09 ’12MA and public outreach coordinator Daniel Friedline ’13 – are shaping the policies and actions that make Orlando and Central Florida a more livable, vibrant and sustainable place to live.

“Sustainability is about changing that mindset to get people looking at people, planet and prosperity. It’s about the triple-bottom line: social, economic and environment,” Castro says. “The fact is, we won’t have an economy if our people are dying and are sick. We won’t have an economy if the natural resources in our environment that we depend on aren’t there. So what cities are positioning to do in our office and our roles is to figure out how we can change our operations internally, and externally, how we can change our culture to embrace the triple-bottom line.”

The first phase of the Green Works program focused internally on city operations. The city knew it needed to buy in to what it was asking of its residents, so it began upgrading municipal building features to minimize energy consumption. It lowered water usage, diverted waste and transitioned its fleet vehicles to alternative fuels.

In 2013, Green Works took what it learned from its internal changes and applied its success outward to the community to foster a culture that embraced sustainability.

To keep from getting overwhelmed, Castro and Sellers focus on making progress in six key areas: energy and green buildings; local food systems; solid waste; livability (planting trees, pedestrian and bicycle trails, expanding parks); transportation; and water. Within each area are policies and actions needed to make their goals happen by 2040.

There are measures like developing plans for solar generation on rooftops in support of Orlando’s 100 percent renewable energy commitment – one of 50 cities in the country to undertake such a monumental task. Or transforming all downtown LYMMO buses into all electric zero-metric buses. Or adding electric motorcycles for the Orlando Police Department. Or addressing food insecurity with farmers markets that accept SNAP benefits. Or fleet farming, exactly like the food being grown in plant beds outside of UCF’s Student Union.

“We could be here all day,” Sellers says as Castro and she list one example after another.

Castro and Sellers estimate their office juggles 40-50 projects simultaneously at any given time, and even though the work is demanding, Sellers says she is excited to be part of the team and takes prides in the work they accomplish every day, especially in the city where her alma mater is located.

While some may say they’re ‘saving the world,’ she prefers to look at it from a slightly different perspective.

“I like when we go out and do good things, you see that light spark in other people. You ignite that desire to do the right thing, the good thing. So I like to frame that as ‘amplifying the good that already exists in the world,’” she says. “Sometimes we’re changing hearts and minds and there’s an evolution, but at the same time, for a lot of people, this already lies within them, and we’re just kind of empowering and enabling that in them.”

Power of One
While they are certainly leading the charge, they want everyone to understand the role each individual can play in helping the city’s progress toward a better future for Orlando.

Castro points to a phone call he received recently from a concerned citizen about an oak tree that was scheduled to be cut down because of development. The individual asked if something could be done to stop trees like the oak from being cut down in the future.

Now, Castro’s team along with the parks and planning teams will collaborate on exploring ways to improve tree ordinances and protect Orlando’s urban forest.

“That all happened because of one individual. That voice goes an extremely long way,” Castro says.

They’ve made it a priority to provide tools and information to the public on their website www.cityoforlando.net/greenworks as well as host community forums to encourage others to use their voices.

Castro and Sellers both agree that the single biggest aspect about sustainability that people do not realize is the effect one individual can have in making a difference.

“Changing out your light bulbs, changing one degree in your home [thermostat], unplugging appliances, changing your diet, carpooling or ride sharing or alternative modes of transit,” Castro says, “little by little, these actions in a collective sense, make a huge global impact.”

Hannah and Her Horses

Photo by Chris Tully

By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (Aug. 14, 2017) – Hannah Miller ’14 made her way back to the grandstand in Naples, Italy, after checking off another completed amateur harness racing event when to her surprise, the Springfield, Illinois, native heard someone shouting her name.

The interdisciplinary studies alumna turned to find two young girls eagerly waiting to talk to her. The older of the two explained that her younger sister followed all of Miller’s races and wanted to be just like her when she grew up.

“I almost got teary-eyed. This is what I do it for,” Miller said. “When I started racing, I didn’t realize that girls hadn’t really won Amateur Driver of the Year or competed overseas for the United States. If people can see a girl getting out there and doing it, I hope I can inspire at least one person.”

Harness racing is a form of horse racing in which the horses race at a specific gait (a trot or a pace). They usually pull a two-wheeled cart called a sulky where the driver – in this case, Miller – sits.

It’s a male dominated sport, which is part of what makes the 25-year-old remarkable. More so, she’s just really good at what she does.

Miller became the first woman to earn National Amateur Driver of the Year in 2015 after setting the amateur racing record for victories in a single season (32). She matched that record in 2016 and was chosen to represent the United States last September in the amateur World Cup in Budapest, Hungary, again becoming the first female to earn the opportunity.

She finished runner-up by a point, marking the best performance ever by a U.S. competitor in the international event.

“I barely race against any other girls. Sometimes I get comments from people who think ‘maybe she can’t handle a horse.’ I have had to prove myself, which I think I’ve done now, and people realize I can,” she said.

As Miller tells it, as soon as she came out of the womb she was at the barn or racetrack. She is the daughter of Erv Miller, a renowned horse trainer, and sister of professional driver Marcus Miller. Her aunt and uncle own a stable as does her boyfriend, where she works at from time to time.

Her parents used to skip Illinois winters to train horses outside of Orlando, so when Miller graduated from high school, she was thrilled she was accepted into her “dream school,” UCF, where she could pursue her bachelor’s degree while still train on her family’s horses.

“I had such an amazing experience at UCF. Any time I can talk about it, I do,” she said. “It’s just a great school, and I am proud to say I am a UCF Knight.”

Now, she is stationed in Jackson, New Jersey, and spends her time racing three to four events a week. Races are typically a mile long and involve 10 horses and drivers who reach speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour.

“When I’m in a race, there’s a horse breathing down my neck, there’s a horse to the outside and I’m surrounded the entire time by horses,” she said. “You have to make split second decisions. It’s dangerous. You have to be on high alert, look for things that could go wrong.”

She often rides horses that her family and she own, and thanks to her success, she gets more and more offers to ride horses owned by others in the racing world.

A couple years ago a friend nicknamed Miller “Hurricane Hannah,” and it seems to suit her. She is a force with no intention of letting up.

She has her sights set on breaking her single season record and wants another shot to compete at the World Cup.

“I love what I do and I love the horses. The adrenaline rush I get on the track, I’ve never had before,” she said. “It happens every time I race.”

Olympic Knights: Bronze or Bust

Aline team
UCF alumna Aline Reis (center, black jersey) has a chance at the bronze medal on Aug. 19.

By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (Aug. 18, 2016) – A chance at a bronze medal is on the line for one Knight at the Summer Olympics.

UCF alumna Aline Reis ’11 and her native Brazil will face Canada in Friday’s bronze-medal soccer match at noon. WATCH

If Brazil wins, Reis will join an elite group of UCF alumni who have stood on the podium at the Summer Olympics. Michelle Akers ’89 won gold with Team USA’s 1996 soccer team, and Phil Dalhausser ’02 brought home gold from the 2008 Beijing Games in beach volleyball.

Dalhausser, a three-time Olympian, was also competing at this year in Rio but unfortunately exited the games early with a loss to top-seeded Brazil on Monday’s quarterfinals. He thanked his fans, sponsors, family and friends via Instagram for the support he received. Dalhausser thanks

Reis, who earned her degree in interdisciplinary studies, was called up to Brazil’s National Team Camp in February with no guarantees of a spot on the Olympic roster. She secured a role as the reserve goalkeeper on the 18-member roster.

Her shining moment occurred on Aug. 9 when she received a starting nod, played all 90 minutes in goal and came up with two great saves to earn a shutout in a 0-0 tie against South Africa.

She was featured in an Aug. 16 article by Sports Illustrated  after Brazil lost a heartbreaking match in penalty kicks to Sweden that — had they won — would have advanced them to Friday’s gold medal game.

“The coolest thing is it’s not only the typical soccer fan that’s supporting us,” Aline said in the story by Grant Wahl. “We have senior citizens, women of all ages watching us and sending us messages, wanting to take pictures with us. So I think that’s the biggest accomplishment we can have, even more important than a gold medal. We want to change the face of women’s soccer in Brazil. And if we can continue to do that through the media and the soccer that we’re playing on the field, that’s our biggest accomplishment.”

During her career at UCF, Reis earned All-American, all-region and all-conference honors and helped UCF win two conference championships. She was also recognized as a scholar All-American.

Budding Partnership

Alumni best friends introduce high-efficiency water treatment technology to medical marijuana cultivation center

Michael Williamson, '07 (left), purchased a water treatment system from his best friend, Michael Boyd, '05,  to save and reuse water in his company's new 80,000-square-foot, hydroponic, medical marijuana cultivation center.
Michael Williamson, ’07 (left), purchased a water treatment system from his best friend, Michael Boyd, ’05 (right),
to create a more sustainable environment to hydroponically grow medical cannabis in his company’s new 80,000-square-foot facility.
Michael Boyd, ’05 | Senior Sales Manager, Desalitech
Michael Williamson, ’07 | Plant Manager, Kind Love

By Angie Lewis, ’03

Michael Boyd, ’05, doesn’t remember the first time he met Michael Williamson, ’07, but he knew they’d become great friends after a discussion about a soccer match on TV spilled out into the parking lot of the former Underground Bluz, near UCF, for a real game.

“Those impromptu games became late-night traditions throughout the remainder of our college years, and afterward,” says Boyd, who earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering technology.

The guys would eventually become the best of friends, even as their career opportunities later took them more than half a country apart.

Based in Newton, Mass., Boyd serves as the senior sales manager for Desalitech, a $20-million organization that manufactures high-efficiency water treatment and wastewater reuse products.

About six years ago, the company started in Israel, a country built on the outskirts of a desert, with limited access to available water resources, which is why it has become one of the leading water treatment hubs on the planet.

“Between 1930 and 2000, the world population tripled from two billion to six billion, and by 2050, it will reach nine billion,” Boyd explains. “Increased production of food and energy, along with rising economies and industrialization, are all increasing the demand for water. Yet, water resources are overwhelmed, and many are already depleted from overutilization, which leaves desalination and water reuse as the only available new sources of water.”

He says industry is responsible for nearly 60 percent of fresh water withdrawals in the U.S. and in other developed countries, with agriculture accounting for an additional 30 percent. He adds that while reverse osmosis is widely applied for water purification, traditional RO systems can create excess brine waste, do not use water supplies efficiently and consume too much energy.

In contrast, Desalitech’s ReFlex RO systems, featuring Closed Circuit Desalination™ technology, reduce brine waste by up to 75 percent and energy consumption by up to 35 percent, compared to traditional RO designs.

ReFlex RO System
ReFlex RO System

Based in Denver, Co., Williamson is the plant manager for Kind Love, a medical marijuana dispensary, which also includes an 80,000-square-foot hydroponic cultivation center.

Williamson, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis his freshman year of college.

“[The MS] caused me to be temporarily paralyzed from the waist down,” Williamson explains. “With the uncertainty of my future personal health, I changed my major to interdisciplinary studies with a focus on digital media. My thought process at the time was, if I was going to be in a wheelchair from time to time, or permanently, I wanted to make sure I could work, earn, create and contribute to an organization. Digital media gave me the ability to be able to work on a computer from anywhere.”

After many lackluster visits to medical dispensaries as a patient, he and his partners were inspired to create Kind Love in 2009. He says they saw much room for improvement and recognized an opportunity to help the underserved market of women and seniors.

“The cannabis plant is made up of chemical compounds called cannabinoids,” he explains. “Though scientists aren’t exactly sure, it’s estimated that there are at least 85 cannabinoids that make up the cannabis plant. The most well-known and popular cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Though THC has medicinal benefits, particularly with gastrointestinal issues and inflammation, it’s most commonly characterized by a psychoactive effect, which is described as a relaxing and cerebral high.

“Currently, most Colorado analytical labs have standards and are testing for four to 12 of the 85 cannabinoids. Thanks to legal access to these analytical labs, the medical community started to notice rare strains of cannabis that were extremely low in THC and elevated in cannabidiol, or CBD. Through selective breeding techniques, cannabis breeders have managed to create new varieties with high levels of CBD and little to no THC.

“After my first high-CBD discovery at our research and development cultivation facility, we started hunting for more high-CBD genetics through breeding and acquisitions with other medicinal breeders. Unlike THC, CBD has no high or mind-altering effects. It’s a non-psychoactive and has a huge range of medicinal benefits and properties, such as antiemetic, anticonvulsant, antipsychotic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, anti-cancer and antidepressant.”

In fact, Kind Love holds the record for the highest CBD ever recorded, and is helping to treat patients with cancer and MS, as well as children with seizures, and many more. Williamson is working with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta on many of these high-CBD projects, which should produce results later this year.

While he respects soil growing, Williamson says Kind Love grows its plants hydroponically because it offers more environmental control and sterilization for large-scale cannabis agriculture.

“People forget that organic soil is organic — meaning it’s full of beneficial and non-beneficial bacterias, molds, fungi, and various insects, which can cause serious damage to cannabis crops if not controlled appropriately,” he says.

When the company was in the process of building its new cultivation facility last year, Williamson researched reverse osmosis machines. The best one he could find on the market was recovering 75 percent good water, with 25 percent going to waste. His previous cultivation facilities were operating at 33 percent good water, with 67 percent waste.

Realizing he was looking at the wrong technology, he looked at Desalitech’s ReFlex reverse osmosis system with CCD technology, which would give him 93 percent good water recovery, with only 7 percent wastewater.

Williamson says his friend was originally doing him a favor, since Boyd thought Kind Love’s operation was probably too small to utilize his company’s system, but he flew to Denver anyway to calculate the numbers. To their delight, Kind Love’s new cultivation facility qualified for Desalitech’s smallest full-scale system, which is commonly used as a pilot for large power plants.

“Michael Boyd and I both demand the absolute best of the best when it comes to our projects, and where and with whom we invest our time and money,” Williamson says. “Of course, it was very cool to do business with a dear friend and colleague, but, more importantly, I knew that I had one of the best systems that money could buy, because I knew he wouldn’t associate with or be a part of anything less. I am very grateful for his friendship, his strong communication skills and ability to execute. His general demeanor and hard work ethic continue to inspire me every day to work harder, smarter and faster.”

More Info

Meet Kind Love medical marijuana dispensary’s plant manager, Michael Williamson, as he explains his decision to partner with best friend Michael Boyd’s water treatment company, Desalitech: