Making a Difference: a profile of an environmentalist


Perhaps due to my immersion in an engineering culture that is only recently starting to focus on sustainable solutions, I tend to be quite cynical of corporate culture and quick to pinpoint their largely irresponsible (and often dangerous) approach to environmental and social protection. It’s a rare occasion that I stop to applaud the efforts of people that are fighting the same fight I am- and often making very real and tangible impacts in the community.

If you wander onto the McMaster University campus you are likely to see several things surprising for a typical university: a community garden bursting with colourful peppers and fresh herbs in the summer, a local farmstand, waste diversion campaigns, and innovative paving initiatives.

The driving force behind these initiatives is Kate Whalen, manager of McMaster’s Office of Sustainability, spearheading projects such as revamping McMaster’s cycling infrastructure, creating a facility to recycle electronics and offering exciting sustainability-based internship programs for undergrads, thereby reducing campus carbon emissions, minimizing waste and most importantly encouraging students to participate in making McMaster University a sustainable campus.

Holding a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in geography, specializing in transportation systems, Kate was responsible for the initial start up of University Sustainability that eventually morphed into the Office of Sustainability. One of the most significant contributions she has made is to create an avenue for students to be directly involved in sustainability projects, through an undergraduate level course. In this course, students choose projects such as efficient lighting, energy conservation or improving biking infrastructure and have the opportunity to apply skills they have acquired in the classroom to address real environmental and social issues.

While many activists draw a sharp divide between their professional work and personal life, Kate is the epitome of “walking the talk,” growing her own vegetables, walking or biking wherever possible and even going so far as to make her own soap. After a lifetime of environmental interest and involvement, she is grateful for the chance to finally make the kind of impact she has always wanted to.  

Centering these conversations and initiatives on campus, surrounded by some of the most influential researchers and passionate students will surely help to develop the mindsets that will create a much bigger environmental impact some day: thank you Kate, for your work in creating a sustainable university!