Pitt Student Supports Environment, Equity, and Economy in That Order

Pitt Student Supports Environment, Equity, and Economy in That Order

If you talk to Kareem Rabbat (ENG ’20) for more than a few minutes, you will most likely hear the words “sustainability” and “equity” come out of his mouth in a very impassioned manner. Perhaps that’s why he was chosen to participate in this year’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation undergraduate summer research program.

“If the entire world develops like the first world did—with crazy emissions and not really taking into consideration environmental costs—that would be the tipping point for our planet,” said Kareem, who plans to join the Peace Corps upon graduation. “I want to be on the ground and help institute appropriate technology for developing countries so they can have access to clean water, electricity, roads, and other infrastructure without degrading the environment.”

After a short pause he adds, “And then after that, earn a PhD.”

Where Kareem is now in terms of life goals is very different than where he was just three years ago when he first came to Pitt.

“I was a business major and the only thing that really concerned me was making money. I wanted to have a yacht and a helicopter pad,” he says with only a touch of hyperbole. “I was in my first business class and realized that wasn’t really a fit for me.”

Kareem says he has always loved the environment and realized more recently it’s his passion. So he changed majors and began pursuing a degree in environmental engineering.

“Kareem is full of focused energy and curiosity. He’s always asking about how things work and looking for solutions to problems he’s identified,” said Leanne Gilbertson, Assistant Professor, Swanson School of Engineering, who works closely with Kareem as an advisor on an aquaponics project. “He’s passionate about helping the environment through engineering.”

I’m moved to make the world more equitable, which is part of sustainability. –Kareem Rabbat

In May 2018, Kareem was awarded a scholarship to travel to Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of Pitt’s Engineering Design for Social Change study abroad program where students investigated the social impact of business decisions made by South African companies. He says what he saw there “blew his mind.”

“People are living in tin houses and having to find places to dump their waste. I’m moved to make the world more equitable, which is part of sustainability,” Kareem said. “This profit over people thing has to change. We need to balance environment, equity, and economy and we need to prioritize it in that order.”


Kareem Rabbat prepares his lab to find and cultivate bacteria that feed on toxic chemicals.

This summer, as part of the grant-funded Mascaro Center program, Kareem is looking for bacteria and fungi that could solve persistent pollution problems. Specifically, he is looking at nonylphenol and bisphenol (BPA) that contaminate soil and water near old industrial facilities. His project involves collecting soil samples from contaminated locations and then harvesting and selectively breeding organisms that have naturally begun feeding on the contaminants.

If he is successful, those harvested and grown bacteria and fungi could be sown into contaminated soil around the world to eliminate the toxicity. Such a solution would be much more energy- and cost-efficient than current cleanup methods that often include removal and incineration of thousands of tons of soil.

“We want to let nature do the work rather than using an extremely expensive and disruptive process.” Kareem said.

In his spare time, Kareem is working on getting a small business off the ground. Ecotone Renewable LLC is the offshoot of a project funded through a competitive grant he and a group of students earned from the Ford College Community Challenge. The team converted a shipping container into an aquaponics system but later decided it would be better to feed the plants using food waste collected from local sources. The Ecotone team used resources at the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute to develop the business plan.

The roof of the shipping container has been converted into a greenhouse where Kareem and his team are growing basil and other greens.

With the help of additional grants, the students contracted with a Seattle company to custom build a small-scale biodigester and install it in the 28 X 8 X 8 foot structure. Bacteria in the reactor turn the food waste into methane (which is used to run a generator) and fertilizer (some of which is used to feed the plants growing in a hydroponic greenhouse on the roof).

“Nearly a quarter of the nation’s waste stream is food waste so we decided to incorporate that into the system to be even more sustainable,” said Kareem.

Kareem also served on the Pitt Green Fund Advisory Board, which finances and supports student-initiated projects that make Pitt operations more environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and energy efficient.

“The University of Pittsburgh has provided me opportunities to explore ecological engineering and bio systems engineering both inside and outside of the classroom in ways that help me understand how I can make a difference in the world,” Kareem said. “You just have to find what you’re passionate about and take advantage of all the University has to offer.”