North Dakota State’s Iskander Inspires Future Environmental Engineers

In this Q&A interview, Dr. Syeed Md Iskander, a 40 Under 40 award winner, speaks with Waste360 about the courses he teaches, his research into the role of plastics in pollution, and how he brings real world issues into the classroom.

Willona Sloan, Freelance writer

May 23, 2024

6 Min Read

At North Dakota State University, Dr. Syeed Md Iskander, Assistant Professor in the Civil Construction and Environmental Engineering department, teaches several courses fusing together environmental engineering principles with an understanding of plastics pollution and waste management.

He earned his PhD in civil engineering at Virginia Tech, and now teaches undergraduate and graduate students. In this Q&A interview, Iskander, a 40 Under 40 award winner, speaks with Waste360 about the courses he teaches, his research into the role of plastics in pollution, and how he brings real world issues into the classroom.

Waste360: What courses are you currently teaching or have you taught recently? What are some of the learning objectives of your courses?

Syeed Iskander: I’m teaching a course called Solid and Hazardous Waste Management. There are two components. In the solid waste management component, we go over the measure management processes for solid waste, like landfilling, composting, recycling, and thermal treatment.

We go over the processes for landfill designing, and then we also work on designing recycling facilities. The students also visit a local recycling facility and composting plant. They get the theoretical knowledge in the class and get hands-on experience in the field. In the hazardous waste management part, we work on different laws and regulations related to hazardous waste management, hazardous waste properties and remediation.

I am teaching Plastics: Pollution to Solution. I developed this class in North Dakota. It is an overview of plastics, such as plastic production, to pollution and pollution control.

I’m teaching two introductory level classes, one is Intro to Environmental Engineering, so this is a mandatory class for all civil engineering undergraduate students here. We talk about basic environmental principles, studying everything from mass balance to water treatment, wastewater treatment, air pollution, global atmospheric change and climate change.

In Microbiology for Environmental Engineers, this is a science class. We talk about microbial kinetics and then the application of microbes in different built environments, like for instance, wastewater treatment, drinking water treatment, remediation of contaminated soil and groundwater.

Waste360:  How do you take your students out into the field in your local area and do field work experiences?

Syeed Iskander: I live in a small college town, not that it’s small, it’s medium sized, the population is around 130,000. The municipality’s landfill and compost site are within 10 minutes driving distance from my campus. During their trip, the students talk with the site managers and learn about challenges at the site. The students are also tasked with taking notes and writing a report. They take pictures of the site. They also do some testing, for instance, when they go to the compost site. They determine the temperature of different compost piles, and collect samples. They analyze the samples in the lab to see whether the compost is mature or not, and things like that.

Waste360: What do you enjoy about teaching?

Syeed Iskander: The most important thing for my teaching is that I kind of try to make it easy and enjoyable for my students so that they can feel included and safe in the classroom.

I also try to explain the real-world application, and I feel like the students are more included when they can connect it to real-world problems. When I teach a solid waste class or plastics pollution class, the students are encouraged to bring real problems for discussion in the class.

For instance, in my plastics pollution class, I had a class project, where the students had to post on social media about plastics pollution, and then get involved with their friends in a discussion, and then present that in the classroom. I’ve found that having those activities where the students get involved with other people, and then they can explain things in their own language, those are more helpful.

I kind of love teaching because I can incorporate my findings from research, and I can also train the next generation of engineers.

Waste360: What is the focus of your research?

Syeed Iskander: My research broadly falls in the area of solid waste management. I started working with landfill leachate treatment during my doctoral research at Virginia Tech. That research was on treating landfill leachate for recovering different resources and removing different contaminants.

Right now, we are working on PFAS and plastics pollution in landfills. We are trying to see how PFAS is distributed within the landfill, how we can reduce PFAS concentration in leachate, how to effectively treat leachate for PFAS removal, how plastics are degraded in landfills, how plastics interact with PFAS in landfills, and we are also interested in the whole lifecycle of landfilling. We recently published a paper on PFAS in yard waste compost. [The co-authored study is titled “PFAS occurrence and distribution in yard waste compost indicate potential volatile loss, downward migration, and transformation,” published in Environmental Science Processes & Impacts.]

We recently published another article on the ecological footprint of landfilling. We looked into different components of landfills and saw which component is the most contributable to the footprint of it.

Waste360: What professional or educational path brought you to this interest in plastics or waste management? What sort of inspired that in you?

Syeed Iskander: The inspiration came when I started my PhD. That was on landfill leachate. My realization was that we don’t have enough researchers in this field, in the field of solid waste management. Most of the researchers in the United States are in the water field, drinking water and municipal wastewater. I felt that this field of solid waste management is kind of overlooked. I tried to dig deeper in this area and do research in different aspects of solid waste management.

Waste360: How do you keep abreast of the latest issues and trends in the industry?

Syeed Iskander: I go to conferences. I regularly go to the Global Solid Waste Management Conference. Then also there is a conference called ICLRS, Intercontinental Landfill Research Symposium. I also read news articles from Waste360, and I read peer-reviewed articles from different journals like Waste Management.

I keep my eyes open. I also collaborate within the waste management industry. I know other professors in my discipline, so we talk. There are different things that I do.

Waste360: What advice would you or do you give to students wanting to pursue work addressing these types of environmental issues?

Syeed Iskander: My advice would be to have a solid foundation in this area, like having a theoretical understanding of what’s going on. I feel like once someone is theoretically equipped, then the real job becomes easy.

Having a college degree and then knowing the discipline, knowing the problems that are happening in this area, are crucial to being successful. Once you know the problems, once you have the tools to address those problems, I think then it's easy to learn and grow.

About the Author(s)

Willona Sloan

Freelance writer, Waste360

Willona Sloan is a freelance writer for Waste360 covering the collection and transfer beat.

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