The STEPS Center has awarded Christopher Oates with the 2023 Director’s Fellowship. Christopher Oates is a senior at NC State dual majoring in Biological & Agricultural Engineering Technology and Environmental Sciences. In the Fall, he starts a Master of Science degree program in Biological and Agricultural Systems Analysis. He will be co-advised by STEPS faculty members, Dr. Natalie Nelson and Dr. Khara Grieger.
More information about the program is available on the STEPS Center Director’s Fellowship Awards page.
Learn about Christopher and his planned research and career aspirations in the Q&A below!
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: My name is Christopher Oates, and I’m a senior at NC State. In May, I will graduate with degrees in Biological & Agricultural Engineering Technology and Environmental Sciences. In the Fall, I will be starting my Master’s of Science in Biological and Agricultural Engineering with a concentration in Systems Analysis. My STEPS research will center around phosphorus’ environmental and societal impacts on watersheds; I will be advised by Dr. Natalie Nelson and Dr. Khara Grieger.
I began my undergraduate journey as an Architecture major. It wasn’t quite the right fit for me, but I learned a lot from my first semester in the College of Design. Design school and architecture taught me the importance of people’s interactions with both natural and built environments. I used this lesson to guide me through the process of changing my major. I chose Biological & Agricultural Engineering Technology because I felt the degree provided me with the best opportunity to learn about ecology and biology’s relation to the environment, while also incorporating technical engineering concepts to solve real-world issues. My decision to add on the Environmental Sciences degree stemmed from a desire to understand broader systems and the roles other academic disciplines can play in decision-making processes.
I am from Clinton, NC, which is in the southeastern part of the state. Hurricanes are a commonality back home, and they often cause damage that is very costly to residents in neighboring counties. Many of those counties like Duplin, Bladen, and Pender are hit hard by both the environmental and economic impacts of these storms. Water quality and environmental health are some of the most heavily impacted sectors of well-being from storms and the flooding associated with them, but such issues are sometimes overlooked and placed on the back burner. Many of these rural and agricultural-dependent areas are vital sources of food and produce for the rest of the state and country. Since phosphorus is an integral part of agricultural systems, the work STEPS is doing strikes close to home for me. I was very excited when I learned that there were potential avenues to combine my interest in water quality and agricultural/natural systems within the STEPS Center.
Q: What attracted you to consider pursuing a graduate degree through the STEPS Center?
A: The interdisciplinary nature of STEPS is what really attracted me to the Center. In undergraduate curriculums, it’s so common to take courses that only incorporate one viewpoint or a singular school of thought into their approach to problem-solving. I feel that in order to make lasting and meaningful change, one must incorporate many different perspectives and disciplines. Many modern problems are multifaceted; they require many different people to work together to find solutions.
Environmental issues have always been important to me, and they have become increasingly important on the current world stage. I am interested in implementing knowledge from various fields across multiple disciplines to create innovative solutions to problems relating to natural resource management that plague today’s societies. STEPS has a similar mission. I think that my interests and background will provide me with a solid foundation to explore STEPS and its different research themes.
I want to use my experiences and passion for learning to research and create solutions that result in a more sustainable and healthier world. I believe that putting yourself into new situations and environments is the best way to discover something new; STEPS is the perfect place to facilitate this discovery process.
Q: How did you go about deciding what advisors to work with and what type of research to propose?
A: I had been in talks with Dr. Nelson about graduate school for over a year now; her work revolving modeling to support and inform decision-making processes is really interesting to me. Environmental phenomena can be hard to track and predict. Using well-informed and designed models can help ease some of the stress placed on those in the natural resources management field. My interest in water quality, especially when it concerns rural and agrarian areas, aligns well with the research her lab is conducting. From a STEPS perspective, being able to track the flow of phosphorus as it moves through watersheds is invaluable information. If we can identify major sources of phosphorus losses, we will better be able to focus our attention on those areas. Water quality is not strictly an environmental and economic issue; it is also a social and humanitarian issue. Dr. Grieger’s work focuses on how to translate research into language that is accessible and helpful to the communities said research is designed to help. Some people may not even know that their water is experiencing eutrophication. We want to explore the human component associated with phosphorus losses and use this data to inform future decisions and research.
I wanted to work on a project that combined both their skillsets and backgrounds. I think their research complements the others very well. I have already learned a lot from them, and I have no doubt that I’ll learn a lot more over the course of the next two years. Their combined expertise has provided me with the opportunity to work in a space that is not currently being explored in STEPS. I am excited to get started.
Q: What do you know about what you want to do professionally at this stage in your career?
A: I think my career aspirations have changed every year that I’ve been a student here at NC State. Each of my experiences, whether it be professional, academic, or personal, has shaped me into the person I am today. I am someone who loves to learn new things and figure out the “how” and the “why” behind the things I find interesting.
While I don’t know exactly what I want to do professionally, I do know that I want to use my interests and knowledge to help people. A lot of amazing research is conducted across colleges and universities around the globe, but none of that research does any good if it isn’t utilized to benefit the lives of people in applicable situations and scenarios. I like to view science and technology as instruments of change. However, change does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in a vacuum. I believe that scientists and engineers should work to make knowledge from scientific research available and accessible to everyone, not just people in academic circles. If we know more, we can do better.
Regardless of my job title(s), when I retire, I want to be able to say that I helped make the world a more sustainable, equitable, healthier, and happier place. I believe that my future research with STEPS aims to achieve those goals. Half of my work will be focused on a technical approach to tracking environmental issues, and the other half will focus on how the first half’s data and results can be used to benefit target environments and the people living in those environments.
Q: What is one of the most interesting things you learned about STEPS during the past several months?
A: I think the most interesting thing that I have learned about STEPS is just how collaborative it is. When I first heard about STEPS, during my junior year, I thought it was just a program on Centennial. I had no idea it was such a large, inter-collegiate, multidisciplinary, and wide-reaching initiative. It’s hard enough to get nine people working together on a singular group project, so I can’t imagine the amount of coordination and effort required for collaboration across nine different institutions. I believe that says a lot about the dedication and commitment of the researchers and administrators that make STEPS possible. I am very honored and excited to join such a great team of people.