UI Engineering Alumnus Named to Environmental Post in Chile

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A University of Iowa College of Engineering alumnus has been named to a cabinet post in the administration of Chile’s president-elect Michelle Bachelet.

Marcelo Mena-Carrasco, who earned his master’s degree and doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from the UI in 2003 and 2007, respectively, will become undersecretary of the environment when Bachelet takes office March 11. (Bachelet previously served as president from 2006-2010.)

The Chilean native says he was on his way to the Santiago airport when he received a call from Chile’s president-elect.

"I was very thankful and told her, 'I've been working all my life in making policy-relevant science so that policy makers can make decisions. Being a decision-maker is a shortcut,'” says Mena-Carrasco.

Mena-Carrasco will serve with Minister of the Environment Pablo Badenier, who has served as regional minister for Santiago and is one of the designers of Santiago's current pollution attainment plan.

During the past several years, Mena-Carrasco joined forces with UI colleagues as well as officials of the city of Santiago, Chile, to implement a dramatically improved pollution-forecasting model for the city of Santiago. Armed with accurate forecasts, the government has been able to reduce automobile usage and other pollution-causing activities during certain weather events and enable millions of people to avoid exposure to pollution-fouled air.

For that and other achievements, UI President Sally Mason presented Mena-Carrasco, currently a research center director at Universidad Nacional Andres' Bello, Santiago, Chile, with the UI’s 2013 International Impact Award Nov. 8, in ceremonies at the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum.

Read a related story, Marcelo Mena-Carrasco helps clear the air.

To view the WorldCanvass program when Mena-Carrasco received the 2013 International Impact Award, visit here.

He says that his UI education was a great influence in preparing him for his current position, and he notes that he, as well as his UI classmates, went on to make a difference in the world.

“I was part of a batch of students who are doing exactly what we promised. We were Engineers for a Sustainable World—we were the five founding members—and all have made outstanding contributions in their fields,” he says. "When I was graduating with my doctorate, a friend from the University of Hawaii asked me what I was going to do upon returning to Chile. I said that I would become a leader in environmental stewardship using the voice I will get since I have a Ph.D.”

Since returning to Chile several years ago, Mena-Carrasco has done just that, having written some 50 op-ed pieces in national circulation newspapers or magazines and having appeared on TV over 100 times. His messages have focused on such issues as kerosene space heater usage, support for the tobacco law, the effects of second-hand smoke, and the excessive pollution that cyclists and bus riders experience.

He sums up the results of his messages in this way: “Government can either take a regulatory approach and try to control their emissions, or I can do a five-minute report on national TV that shows that living in a place that has a space heater is worse than living in the tailpipe of a car. That last report caused sales of space heaters to drop by 50 percent—faster than any government mandated measure, I think.“

When asked how he would like his term of service to be remembered after it ends four years from now, he says, “That our ministry was one that overcame the false dilemma of choosing environmental progress versus economic progress, and that we used economic growth as a means of environmental progress.”