Syracuse University Magazine


Gerardo Martinez

Wading into Wetlands Research

Gerardo Martinez ’15 arrived in Syracuse from his Inglewood, California, home with only one travel bag, an open mind, and a plan to explore whatever opportunities came his way. He didn’t know a single person, but was ready to make the most of his time here. “I figured if I wanted to actually go get a college experience, I should just go far,” says Martinez, a civil engineering major with a focus in environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “Now this is my second home. Every summer since I graduated from high school, I’ve been here. I really love it here—it’s just a different environment for me.”

So far, so good for Martinez’s exploration of life on the Hill. Like many students, he’s attended his share of Orange sports events, played intramural soccer, and joined a fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. But, most important, he’s discovered a deep interest in environmental research—and has found a home in the research laboratory of Charles T. Driscoll Jr., University Professor of Environmental Systems Engineering and Distinguished Professor. “It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had,” Martinez says. “Professor Driscoll has been lots of help and has always given me the proper guidance. Even when he knows the answers, he wants you to figure it out, and I feel that’s what research is all about. It’s great how he works.”

Under Driscoll’s guidance and with support from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program and the Syracuse Center of Excellence (COE), Martinez has conducted research since summer 2012 on a constructed wetland in nearby Madison County. The wetland is designed to naturally process waste runoff from an agricultural operation there, preventing contaminants from running into a stream that feeds into the Chenango River. To evaluate its effectiveness, Martinez has collected monthly samples from the wetlands’ four filter cells—similar to ponds—and analyzed them for contaminants, focusing on nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and trace metals like zinc. “Gerardo has found that, in general, the facility effectively removes contaminants from the waste stream, although the removal is better in the summer than the winter,” Driscoll says. “He is passionate about his research and does an effective job communicating his findings to audiences.”

Martinez collected second-place honors for research presentations he made at conferences hosted by the COE and the New York Water Environmental Association. In January, he was awarded third place for his presentation at the National Collegiate Research Conference, an annual event held at Harvard that draws top undergraduate researchers from around the country. “When I started here, I wanted to go into structural engineering and build bridges, buildings, and roads,” says Martinez, an Our Time Has Come Scholar. “But I was open minded and let myself go to see what else I was interested in and that has changed my whole outlook. Now I want to work with water resources and water filtration.”

For Martinez, this path of discovery has been well worth the effort. With a love for math and science, he credits his physics teacher at Mira Costa High School for initially pointing him toward engineering—and he plans to pursue graduate studies in environmental engineering. When he graduates from Syracuse, it will be a big moment for his family. His parents speak only Spanish, and he’s the first in the family to graduate high school and head off to college. “I’m trying to pave the road for my little brother and sister,” he says.

In the meantime, he wants to continue pursuing water-related research and see where it takes him in the future—perhaps to a developing country where he can make a difference. “There’s so much going on with water, so many water-borne diseases and problems, not just in the U.S., but in other countries,” Martinez says. “I want to fix water problems, and helping out in a third-world country is something I’ve always wanted to do.”     —Jay Cox

Photo by John Dowling