Outstanding graduates: Hele Epstein, class of 2022

Hele Epstein will be among the first to graduate from the McKelvey School of Engineering with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering

Danielle Lacey 

Hele Epstein admits that her path to graduation wasn’t always clear.

Originally enrolled in the College of Arts & Sciences, she was undecided about her major for the first year of her studies. What’s more, engineering did not seem an obvious choice considering her background before coming to Washington University in St. Louis.

“I was coming from a very, very underfunded high school,” she said. “I hadn't used a pipette until I got to college, let alone seen a real lab. There were so many opportunities where I could have given up and done something easier to take the load off.”

But she didn’t, and this May, Epstein will be among the first to graduate from the McKelvey School of Engineering with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering.

It was after a presentation by Daniel Giammar, the Walter E. Browne Professor of Environmental Engineering, that she began to find her direction.

“He came to lecture in one of my classes about climate change and its impact on his research,” Epstein said. “I was really attracted to the idea that public health and climate change could go hand in hand.”

She admits that she had a lot of catching up to do but was encouraged by the help she received from both faculty and her advisers.

“I wasn’t necessarily on the right track to be an engineer when I came to college, but everyone was telling me that I could do it, and there were resources if I ever needed help,” she said.

There were many semesters where Epstein carried a heavy course load — sometimes up to 21 credit hours a semester — but she says she was always supported by the department.

“The amazing thing was that no one ever told me ‘no’ or ‘don’t do that,’” she said. “Every time I sat with Dr. Brennan, she never tried to dissuade me from anything. The department appreciates people who like to challenge themselves.”

Janie Brennan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering and Epstein’s faculty adviser.

Epstein said graduating is one of her proudest moments, and she’s excited about how far she’s progressed. As for her next step, she plans to become a business consultant and help organizations make more sustainable decisions.

“I’m really interested in the intersection of climate change and public justice,” Epstein said. “There are so many companies that say they do good things, but they lack the metric to track it. It’s really one of the best industries to be in right now.”

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