Aaron Johnson ’17 was eight years old when he discovered there is an entire world in the earth beneath his feet. He and his sister had gone down to the pond by their house, scooped scum from the water’s murky surface, and toted it home for further examination. Through the transformative eye of a microscope, Aaron watched the greenish substance come to life as various organisms wiggled around on the glass slide.
When Aaron started school at The Mount, his childhood interest in science was nurtured into passion through classes like AP Biology with Mr. Greg McDivitt ’86. But it was Mrs. Terranova’s Spanish class that would concentrate Aaron’s passion into a clear career path during a discussion on the unsustainable sourcing of water from communities that have little to spare. With environmental equity heavy on his mind, Aaron went off to college at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned a degree in health and societies and geared much of his coursework toward the intersection of environments and public health.
He spent one summer as an intern in the aquacultural laboratory at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technologies in Baltimore. There, he helped grow Atlantic salmon, weighing the fish and observing their lifecycles. He also converted the solid waste produced into fuel through microbiological processes.
During his other three summers as an undergraduate student, Aaron worked for a local nonprofit called Howard EcoWorks. He started as a crew member, then crew leader, building raingardens and conservation landscapes, which help reduce flooding and runoff stormwater and diminish the amount of excess nutrients in streamways. He recently visited one of his favorite raingardens, a long stretch of beautiful, native plants in Columbia’s Sierra Villas community. A woman walking her dog said as she passed by, “Isn’t this place amazing?” Aaron smiled, knowing that his work contributed not only to the vital prevention of flooding in the neighborhood but also to increasing the land’s aesthetic value.
After graduating, Aaron was offered a position on the EcoWorks staff as an outreach and education specialist, which focuses on two of the organization’s initiatives: TREE HoCo and EcoAmbassadors. TREE HoCo provides free tree plantings and woodland stewardship services to areas that are close to Howard County’s Green Infrastructure Network, areas with low tree equity scores, and other qualified land.
Howard County is one of the 15 “turfiest” counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed with more than 66,000 acres of turf cover. TREE HoCo’s efforts in increasing the area’s tree canopy help to reduce stormwater runoff and greenhouse gases and lessen the impact of climate change, especially on vulnerable populations.
“Areas with low tree equity scores typically have higher heat indexes, higher minority populations, lower employment, and lower health outcomes, so we’re just trying to improve equity when it comes to green spaces,” Aaron explains.
The second program Aaron helps oversee, EcoAmbassadors, offers paid positions to local high school students who want to make an impact on their communities. The students assess the level of pollution in their communities, coordinate neighborhood clean-ups, and host educational events to inform the public on ecofriendly practices. “It allows them to develop grassroots connections with their community and sets them up for green careers if that’s something they are interested in,” Aaron says.
Aaron looks forward to the next step in his own career as he was recently accepted into a postgraduate degree program in sustainable architecture at Escola Superior Artística do Porto in Portugal. He will complete online coursework for three months before going to Portugal this spring to install sustainable architectural designs in collaboration with local populations.
After that, who knows? There’s a whole world out there, and Aaron is just seeking to keep it and its inhabitants healthy for generations to come. “My dream is to employ sustainable technologies to improve public health outcomes,” he says. Whether it’s pursuing a Master of Public Health, diving into a new field like environmental engineering, or hopping on a plane to aid developing countries in creating sustainable water purification and sanitation methods, Aaron has big dreams, and he’s ready to hit the ground running.Story from The Mount magazine.