Mary-Ann Ibeziako is the assistant vice president for infrastructure and chief sustainability officer for the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities at Virginia Tech. Born in the Niger Deltas of Nigeria, a petroleum-rich region no stranger to the inefficiencies of fossil fuel extraction, Ibeziako said sustainability has always been in her DNA.

“I remember my first real exposure as an intern with Shell Petroleum Development Company was witnessing gas flaring and seeing the degradation and impact on the environment,” Ibeziako said. “This really opened my mind in terms of thinking, ‘Why are we not capturing the gas? Why are we flaring it?’ Even then, I earnestly wanted to change operations in ways that are more environmentally friendly and minimize waste. I think I took that quest with me when I migrated to the United States years later.”

Ibeziako obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Cleveland State University. She later went on to earn a Master of Business Administration from Case Western Reserve University. She recently completed coursework and passed the qualifying exam for her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park. Ibeziako has worked in many industries throughout her career, and her role with Virginia Tech allows her to do what she loves while making a difference in the world.

“My goal really is to embed the sustainability principles that have guided me through all my years into every facet of the university — to only create what we use and then eliminate as much waste as possible,” Ibeziako said. “And it's important to remember that the people are really the linchpin in all the gains that we're making.”

When asked what her favorite part about her role at Virginia Tech is, Ibeziako said it’s the people, the energy, and the commitment that she has seen from students, faculty, staff, and the Blacksburg community.

“The collaboration that I have seen is phenomenal, and everyone realizes that the issues and challenges we're facing today cannot be solved by one entity. There's really not enough dollars to solve it all,” Ibeziako said. “But the collective actions and partnerships and coalitions are what's needed to truly transform our campus and our region. This role touches upon every fabric of our life, from the physical infrastructure to operations to business processes.”

Ibeziako is a strong proponent of Virginia Tech’s 2020 Climate Action Commitment, with her favorite tenet being goal 10: Integrate the Climate Action Commitment into Virginia Tech’s educational mission through the Climate Action Living Laboratory beginning in 2021.

“We cannot teach what we don't practice. How can we teach about electricity if we don't generate electricity? How can we teach about steam production if we don't generate steam?” Ibeziako said.

The university emphasizes experiential learning, so it's important for students to see processes such as electricity and steam generation to enrich their classroom learning experiences. “We're building out our campus — our physical facilities, transportation, waste management, and business processes — to really reflect the principles that we teach.”

Going forward, Ibeziako and the climate action, sustainability, and energy team have many projects on the horizon designed to advance the Climate Action Commitment. Ibeziako believes students have been at the forefront of Virginia Tech’s sustainability efforts since the first Climate Action Commitment of 2009.

“While implementing the 2020 Climate Action Commitment is going to be a big challenge for us, we rise to challenges, especially when they're in service to others. We encourage collaboration, and we need everyone's help to make sure these policies and programs are a success,” Ibeziako said. “From the students who have been vital from the very beginning to the faculty whose expertise will let us stay at the cutting edge and the community whose support will extend climate action across the New River Valley.”

Ibeziako lives out the Climate Action Commitment in her everyday life and strives to create substantial, sustainable change.

“I grew up in the Niger Delta, and when I left the country I kind of made a promise to myself that someday I will come back, and I hope to correct some of the environmental damages that have been done to that area,” Ibeziako said.

Ibeziako is heavily involved in what she calls phytoremediation, which is using local plants to remediate contaminants that can be found in water, soil, and air. Working together with her son, Ibeziako travels and positions sensors that can capture the air quality of certain areas. The results can then be used to design plant-based systems that can help mitigate waste.

Ibeziako has brought phytoremediation to her own farm in Blacksburg.

“I'm still working on it, but I think probably in the next few years I’ll have what I like to call a living pharmacy with different types of herbs and foods that are beneficial, and people can actually go there based on how they feel and pick what they need,” Ibeziako said. “I'm really excited about it, and hopefully when it's constructed, I can share that with the community or even partner with some students and faculty to really create something in line with the Climate Action Commitment.”

Written by Grace Hobson

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