Protecting people as well as the environment

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April 19, 2021

Aparna Dial approaches sustainability with a view through three lenses: She immigrated to the United States from India. She’s a woman in a male-dominated field. And she’s been an eyewitness to the ways environmental impacts do not affect everyone equally.

That perspective leads her to propel discussion and action when it comes to issues such as the inequities of environmental impacts and the barriers faced by women in STEM.

“The biggest driver for me was to give a voice for people who didn’t have a voice,” Dial, senior director of sustainability and strategic services in Ohio State’s Office of Administration and Planning, says of her career path. “I felt at the same time the environment didn’t have a voice.”

Dial was 19 when she arrived from India to the United States to pursue graduate school. What she saw here was in stark contrast to her homeland.

“In the U.S. we are very good about separating the rich from the poor,” she says. “In India you could live in a mansion and see people struggling. No matter how isolated you may be, you are going to find people struggling to find food, clothing and shelter. So I’ve always wanted to find a way to solve problems for people and make things better for people.”

She was accustomed to sharing food with those who had little, fixing rather than replacing things that broke, and eating according to the season because that was the available food supply.

“Sustainability was a way of life in India; I just didn’t know it had names for it until I came to the United States. When I explained to my mother what I do, she said, ‘It sounds like common sense,’” Dial says.

As a field engineer for Ohio EPA, her first job after obtaining her graduate degree, she was assigned to check that sewage treatment and rendering plants, paint manufacturing facilities, paper pulping companies and other facilities met regulation requirements. That gave her a view of industrialized areas.

“The connections between sustainability and social justice are very evident. I saw the impacts on people who lived where these factories and industries are located,” she says. To articulate the business case for finding solutions, she obtained an MBA with a focus in finance from Ohio State.

Ohio State was one of the facilities she monitored for the Ohio EPA, and eventually the university recruited her to help manage its environmental health and safety.

“It became evident we needed to do more than just meet the rules and regulations. As an educational institution, we had a larger responsibility,” she says. She established Energy Services and Sustainability within Facilities Operations and Development (FOD) at Ohio State in 2005; now sustainability is intertwined in every aspect of FOD.

“The goal in creating that was to make sure we were thinking about sustainability and how we minimize our impact from our day-to-day operations and how to have programs like conservation, recycling and living lab projects for students,” Dial says. “It was not just our opportunity but our responsibility to look at the example we set from the environmental impact of our campus. Generations of students pass through our corridors, and their future experience is impacted by their campus experience and actions of university leaders. Above everything, it’s the right thing to do.”

Universities, she says, are the most creative forces for finding solutions and talking about sustainability holistically.

“I’m just trying to broaden the conversation,” she says. “Instead of just fixing leaky pipes, are there water equity issues beyond the university? How can we go beyond saying, ‘Let’s purchase local foods’ to see what opportunities exist? Where are those food deserts, and how can we make that better for people living in those areas? Or, sure, we can get renewable energy, but are there opportunities to create wireless access? If I can’t afford the internet, do I care where my energy is coming from?”

Dial took a break in her time at Ohio State to lead the team that won the Smart City Challenge for Columbus in 2016; she also led the implementation team. The resulting $40 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $10 million from Vulcan Inc., a Paul G. Allen Company, support the city’s efforts to improve people’s quality of life, drive growth in the economy, provide better access to jobs and ladders of opportunity, become a world-class logistics leader and foster sustainability.

“I think mainly it was because of the lens through which we approached the project,” she says. “It was not just about the technology; it was how we use the technology to make things better for people.”

As she completed her academic degrees, and throughout her career, she found another opportunity to give a voice to the unheard. Dial obtained her undergraduate degree in civil engineering at Osmania University in India and her master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering — as the only woman in all of her graduate engineering classes — at Utah State University.

“When I first came here, I had a vision of America as westernized, as people who would be very enlightened, but they were not aware of world affairs,” she says. “I was very surprised at the lack of women in STEM and also the cultural pressures placed on women.”

She saw a systemic lack of support for women: barriers that discouraged them from pursuing STEM careers, low retention rate for women who enter the engineering workforce and pay disparities between women and men.

Now Dial amplifies the voice of women by mentoring peers and students. She has been involved in the mentoring program AWARES, Aspiration for Women’s Advancement and Retention in Engineering and Sciences, since its inception. The College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences program for women engineering students equips them with necessary social skills for a smooth transition to the workplace and a successful career in the engineering professions.

Outside of work she also leans toward action over talk. As a member of the PTO for her children’s schools, she is a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. In addition, she serves on the Grange Insurance Audubon Center board, the Women for Economic and Leadership Development board and the Upper Arlington Cultural Arts Commission.

Dial sees diversity, equity and inclusion from the perspective of women, the haves and the have-nots, and first-generation immigrants.

“It’s very complicated,” she says. “It’s the lens through which you see the world you look at. If you are fortunate enough, you can ask, ‘How do I make that world a little more just, a little more equitable?’”

By Joan Slattery Wall, editor, Sustainability Institute at Ohio State