Environmental engineering PhD to use scholarship funding to answer fundamental questions on microplastics

By Peter Murphy

Published August 5, 2022

Brian Smist, PhD student in environmental and water resources engineering, won the Christiansen-Roller-White-Miles Founders’ Scholarship from the New York State Association for Solid Waste Management (NYSASWM). 

“We want to figure out where the plastics are coming from, what impact they're having on the environment, how we can solve them and how they're being transported through the environment. ”
Brian Smist, PhD student
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

“The primary goal is to make an impact – a more fundamental impact on the state of knowledge beyond the fact that there are microplastics present in bodies of water,” Smist says. “There’s been enough research to show that the answer to that question is almost always going to be ‘yes.’ I want to go beyond that.”

According to NYSASWM, the organization “strives for proper solid waste management by utilizing the hierarchy of reduction, reuse, recycling, energy recovery and engineered landfills. NYSASWM is an active group representing solid waste professionals across the state.”

Funding for most of Smist’s research and duration of the PhD program comes from the recently formed UB Initiative for Plastics Recycling Research and Innovation, funded by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, but Smist plans to use the $2,000 NYSASWM scholarship to upgrade equipment associated with his research. 

Brian Smist standing against a brick wall.

Brian Smist

Smist initially earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UB in 2016. After a few years in the field, he decided to enroll in the engineering science, focus in engineering sustainability MS program in order to make an impact in a specific area of interest.

“I had an established career as a mechanical engineer and I wanted to contribute more to something focused on sustainability and the environment without losing the technical skills I developed in the past,” Smist says. “That’s why I thought sustainability was a good fit initially.”

Smist joined the engineering sustainability MS degree where he was advised by program director and Scott and Coleen Stevens Chair in Engineering Sustainability, associate professor John D. Atkinson. Based on Smist’s academic success, both during his BS and while enrolled in the MS program, Atkinson quickly recruited Smist to work with him on a NYS Department of Environmental Conservation-funded Scrap Tire Recycling research project. Upon entering the PhD program, Smist earned funding from the UB Presidential Fellowship Program, a fund for “outstanding graduate students,” according to UB.

“Based on my experience working with Brian on the tire recycling project, I recruited him to stay at UB for his PhD,” Atkinson says. “He’s a strong student and an impactful researcher. I’m truly excited to see what he can accomplish, and I’m excited to learn from him as I mentor him in the space of Solid Waste Management research.”

Smist’s research focuses on microplastic pollution in New York State. Microplastics are small bits of plastics broken down from larger pieces of plastics in the environment. Smist aims to enhance current research methods typically associated with microplastic pollution in New York State. Researchers generally collect samples from nearby Lake Erie, filter the water, find microplastics and investigate their findings. Smist proposes going further, examining different aspects about the microplastics.

“We want to figure out where the plastics are coming from, what impact they’re having on the environment, how we can solve them, how they’re being transported through the environment,” Smist says. “If there are different types of microplastics or different materials, shapes or sizes, are they acting in different ways? We’re really just starting to get into the details of it and trying to solve the more fundamental questions about microplastic pollution.”

The Christiansen-Roller-White-Miles Founders’ Scholarship is named in honor of Howard Christiansen, Robert H. Roller, William White and Charles Miles Jr. According to NYSASWM, these men who ran solid waste systems in New York State were instrumental in starting the organization that now has over 300 members.