University of Houston-Clear Lake

Year in Review

A Year in Review

With this annual report, we begin a new tradition. We highlight stories and events from fall 2018 to fall 2019, showcasing fresh content about our students, alumni, partners, faculty and staff who not only impact our university, but our communities, nation and world.


We are Hawks: We fearlessly embrace change and celebrate innovation. We believe challenges are simply cloaked opportunities.

And while there are innumerable paths to success, we are united in our common goal: that each of us be a positive influence in the world.

From the President

As the University of Houston-Clear Lake enters its 45th year – founded for the purpose of training generations of scientists, engineers, managers and astronauts for NASA – we celebrate the partnerships and community friends who made us successful. While we look back at the year with pride, the anniversary of our inception serves to remind us to always look forward with clarity and purpose. 

Those who will inherit the responsibility of navigating mid-century opportunities are already on our campuses. Will the professional and personal skills that they acquire by 2024 still be relevant to the lives they will have in 2050? What sorts of economic, environmental and societal changes will have taken place? 

While it is impossible to predict the future, it is still prudent to prepare for it, which makes our imperative clear: In addition to preparing students for the current workforce, we must equip them with the abilities and aptitudes they will need to adapt, embrace and pilot inevitable changes in their lives, workplaces, communities, and in the world they will inherit. 

Working with internal and external stakeholders, we revised the university’s vision, values and mission. Our intent is to graduate leaders who will be agents of change in their fields, and who will foster the growth and wellbeing of the communities they serve. 

We expanded our partnership with NASA to collaborate on joint research, technology development, educational initiatives and more for the purpose of furthering humankind’s exploration of the cosmos. 

And importantly, we laid the foundation for the creation of our strategic plan – a foundation which instills sustainability and accountability in the execution of future strategies. 

The pages in this report highlight accomplishments of our students, alumni, faculty and staff. Thank you for sharing in our continuing story. 

Ira K. Blake, Ph.D., President

Ira K. Blake, Ph.D., President


UHCL places its highest priority on serving a diverse body of students in every aspect of their university experience. Undergraduate and graduate programs prepare students to make meaningful contributions to their communities.

Bayou Theater: The Golden Ticket

Willy Wonka

Willy Wonka

For the first time in over 20 years, Bayou Theater produced a fully staged musical in collaboration with Bay Area Houston Ballet and Theatre. The whimsical “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka” cast performers from UHCL and the local community. Gunnar Tietge, a choir teacher at Santa Fe High School, took the lead role. It delighted theatergoers for two weeks in April. Last season, Bayou Theater brought 18 entertainment performances to the community and planned 26 for the 2019-20 season. 

Recognition, Reputation Rising 

UHCL tied for 43rd in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 rankings of Best Regional Universities-West, up from 61st in 2019. UHCL debuted on the 2016 list in 81st place. It climbed to 74th in 2017, 63rd in 2018, 61st in 2019 and 43rd for 2020. Narrowing the field to public schools only in the Regional-West category, UHCL placed 18th in the 13-state region and first in Texas. The magazine ranked approximately 130 private and public institutions in a region that includes Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Washington. 

State-of-the-Art Facility Racks Up Accolades

UHCL’s Recreation and Wellness Center was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Facilities of Merit by Athletic Business, a national magazine for sports facilities architecture. This is the third major award for the 80,000 square-foot center since its opening in fall 2018. It features dozens of amenities for students, faculty, staff, retirees, alumni and community members. The center is more than a gym: It’s a place where you can enhance and maintain your physical and mental health, challenge yourself and spend time with friends. 

From Day One, UHCL Has Been the Solution

Forty-five years ago, UH-Clear Lake opened its doors to serve the educational and research needs of NASA, which brought many new families into the area, spawned new businesses and created economic engines that fueled our communities, our state and nation. UHCL’s vital role has been to train engineers, scientists, astronauts, educators, counselors, accountants, managers, civic leaders and others who helped build this thriving, diverse corner of America. With more than 90 degree programs, including business, healthcare, human sciences and STEM, UHCL continues to equip our city, region and the world with innovative leaders. 

A New and Immersive College Experience

Hunter Hall

Hunter Hall

Beautifully appointed and located in the heart of the campus, UHCL’s Hunter Hall opened in fall 2019, giving students a new on-campus living experience. Hunter Hall offers a full-service front desk, laundry facilities and study lounges on each floor, a community lounge and kitchen – and secure, electronic swipe access to the building, rooms and suites. Trained resident advisers live on each floor. “Our team is here to help students thrive academically and socially, build relationships, and connect to campus life,” says Matthew Perry, director of Student Housing and Residential Life. 


UHCL is dedicated to transformative education grounded in creative activities, innovative research and partnerships that serve regional, state, and global locations.

Helping Educators Further Their Careers

Beginning fall 2019, UHCL extended its Doctorate in Educational Leadership to UHCL Pearland in order to give Greater Houston educators more access to the program. Configured in a cohort model, the first half of the semesters are in class; the second half online, with students working in groups to complete assignments. The program offers nine specializations, including Superintendent, Higher Education, Curriculum and Instruction and Special Populations, among others. 

Specialized Training to Keep Workers and Communities Safe

As more industries sharpen focus on protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities, UHCL’s Specialization in Industrial Hygiene trains sought-after professionals ready to meet this growing international need. Taught by highly experienced professors, students learn how to recognize, evaluate and control workplace hazards and related concerns in the surrounding community. The specialization is offered in the Occupational Safety and Health bachelor’s and Environmental Science master’s programs. 

Elite Standing Among Business Schools

The College of Business is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, meaning it meets or exceeds the highest standards for business schools worldwide. Fewer than 5% of business schools worldwide have earned AACSB accreditation – the gold standard for quality business education. UHCL is also only one of 168 institutions in the world with AACSB International accreditation for its accounting program. AACSB accreditation assures that students are receiving excellent instruction through a relevant curriculum delivered by the most qualified faculty. 

Answering the Call for More
Mechanical Engineers 

When UHCL launched its Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in fall 2018, its inaugural enrollment doubled expectations with 102 students, and the program expanded to add faculty. Spring 2019 enrollment increased to 124 students. In fall 2019, 197 prospective future mechanical engineers were enrolled. Classes and labs are held in the university’s state-of-the-art STEM and Classroom Building. Mechanical engineers are in high demand – especially in the Houston area, where starting salaries trend higher than national averages. 

In Case of Emergency, Break Glass Ceiling

Catherine Besmar (left)  and Megan Ansari (right) – both pursuing a Master of Science in Occupational Safety and Health – are making names for themselves in a male-dominated field. Both were awarded scholarships from the Gulf Coast Chapter of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

For her own use, Besmar compared commercial phone apps that provide heat-stress analysis. The apps report current wet bulb globe temperatures closest to the the user's location, and use that to help gauge the safety risk to workers under those conditions.

Besmar noticed minor discrepancies with her own findings of the apps' results, so she began digging into data trends between them. She showed her results to Associate Professor of Occupational Safety and Health Robert Phalen, with whom she works as a research assistant. It snowballed into a larger project than she had anticipated, she said.

Under Phalen's guidance, Besmar turned her project into formal research and a presentation. Tapping into Phalen's network of industry professionals, she shared her findings in a presentation to the Greater Houston Industrial Hygiene Council in February 2019. That led to an invitation to present before the association's 7,000-member national convention in Minneapolis.

Besmar, who completed her coursework and was eligible to graduate in December, decided to extend her educational pursuits in spring 2021 for an additional certification track.

Ansari, who was selected by the university as the 2019 outstanding Occupational Safety and Health Graduate Student, conducted research to evaluate the effects of environmental conditions on woven fall-protection equipment. She is a professional member of the AIHA Protective Clothing and Equipment Committee and a member of the association's Gulf Coast chapter.

She spent her final semester of grad school working full time in a co-op program at LyondellBasell in Channelview. There, she designed a custom application for documenting and tracking existing safety issues for the petrochemical company’s on-site personnel, among other tasks.

Ansari interned at SGS, an international verification and certification company for a wide variety of industries, including oil and gas, agriculture and food, mining construction and more. She worked with the Global Operation Integrity Team to perform inspections in order to anticipate, recognize, eliminate, and control occupational health hazards and diseases.

Prior, she interned at Ad Astra Rocket Company, where she created protocols for the company's safety and health plan to meet regulatory requirement. She also initiated and executed the development of a chemical inventory system. She also held positions at the university as a research assistant and teaching assistant.

Ansari says her grandfather, whom she lost last year, taught her that education was everything, and would open any doors one desired. She dedicated her December graduation in tribute to him.

Like Besmar, Ansari credited Phalen for his mentorship, as well as Professor of Occupational Safety and Health Magdy Akladios, department chair of Physical and Applied Sciences.


Faculty and students alike work together to push the boundaries of innovation. Together they are finding solutions that benefit our region and the world.

Roberta Leal, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.

Empowering Students and Communities through Social Justice

As a child, Assistant Professor of Social Work Roberta Leal and her family found themselves in dire need of social services during the economic downturn in the 1980s. By connecting with community social workers, she discovered how social justice can empower an entire community. As a mentor and an educator in UHCL’s social work program, she advocates for students and colleagues to learn, grow and belong. For her efforts, the Latino Social Workers of Greater Houston Network declared her Social Worker of the Year in 2019. 

Doing All it Takes to Keep STEM Students in School

A $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation is funding a five-year initiative to work out what it takes to keep academically challenged students in the College of Science and Engineering on the path to a degree and career. The grant funds development of sweeping new support structures for students by deepening partnerships with transfer institutions, creating academic and professional mentorships, internships and more co-op opportunities with community partners. Each component of the program will be measured against expected outcomes in order to inform changes that are needed to optimize student success. 

Innovative Approaches to Tackling Opioid Addiction

Professors of Psychology and Neuroscience David Malin and Chris Ward, with a team of student researchers, have been conducting novel research into treating opioid addiction – not by manipulating or substituting the drug, but rather by manipulating the body’s biochemical reactions that cause dependence and tolerance to the drug. The research demonstrates a potential strategy for combating the habit-forming effects of opiate narcotics. 

Helping Houston Stay Strong After Hurricane Harvey

Four UHCL professors and a doctoral student co-authored the first major published study on the mental health effects related to Hurricane Harvey. “Surviving the Storm: Avoidant Coping, Helping Behavior, Resilience and Affective Symptoms Around a Major Hurricane-Flood,” is in the October 2019 edition of the Journal of Affective Disorders. The authors are Professor of Clinical Psychology Steven Bistricky, Professor of Clinical Psychology Mary Short, Associate Professor of Social Work Heather Kanenberg, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology Sara Elkins, and Kristina Harper, a UHCL health service psychology doctoral student. Three professors from other universities also co-authored. 

Giving Offenders a Second Chance

UH System Board of Regents and Chancellor Khator with UHCL faculty

UH System Board of Regents and Chancellor Khator with UHCL faculty

In December, the University of Houston System Board of Regents presented the Regents’ Academic Excellence Award to UHCL’s Texas Department of Criminal Justice Academics for Offenders Program. The award recognizes UH System institutions’ programs and initiatives that exemplify excellence in teaching, research and/or public service. Since 1974, the program has offered classes to incarcerated individuals through the College of Human Sciences and Humanities. Incarcerated students pay their own tuition and can work toward degrees in humanities, behavioral sciences and literature. The Department of Justice and the Department of Education report that recidivism rates are markedly lower for offenders who receive education. 

Promising Results with Sustainable
Silk Composite

The demand for natural fiber-reinforced composite materials is expected to surge through 2023, market research firm Modor Intelligence reported, a demand driven by the automotive industry as it races to meet U.S. government standards for more fuel-efficient vehicles by 2025. It will require composites that are more lightweight, recyclable, tougher and cost-effective to produce. University of Houston-Clear Lake Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Youssef Hamidi’s ongoing research into this field shows promising results.

Traditionally, composites consist of resins reinforced with carbon or glass fibers. In recent years, manufacturers have worked with plant fibers — cotton, jute, hemp and others — in attempts to create composites from sustainable and biodegradable materials. Those attempts have come with trade-offs in either manufacturing costs or in the materials’ “mechanical properties” — hardness, impact resistance, the ability to withstand stress, strain, deformation and other factors.

Hamidi is experimenting with using silk to reinforce composites. He explained the process and his progress in an article published recently in Materials, a renowned scientific journal on materials science.

Carbon or glass fibers in traditional advanced composites give the material strength and are sometimes costly to produce, depending on usage, Hamidi explained. But the fibers are often shatterable, which contribute to the composites’ brittleness. In contrast, he said, silk fibers are ductile, which by their nature would make composites more resilient to impact and stress. It raises the possibility of creating load-bearing, silk-fiber composites that could replace much of the steel used not only in cars, but in other manufactured goods.

Hamidi, who joined UHCL’s mechanical engineering faculty in 2018, has been researching composite materials since 2000, mainly working out ways to reduce process-induced defects. He and research colleagues at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering in Norman, Okla., started working with silk about a year ago.

“I was thinking about what would be a good fit,” he said. “In most (bio-based) applications, people are using short, plant-based fibers. But silk has higher properties. It’s readily available. There’s no shortage of it.”

Among silk’s notable properties, Hamidi says, are its tensile strength and the amount of elongation it allows before it breaks, which would make silk-fiber composites far less brittle than those made with glass, carbon or other natural fibers. “That’s a nice feature if you are using the composite in some application where impact is expected,” he said, using car bumpers or fenders as examples.

In composite materials, before resin is applied, untwisted bundles of continuous filaments, called “tows,” are woven or knit into “preforms” — three-dimensional fabric forms designed to conform to a specific shape. Hamidi first worked with silk filaments, straight from silkworm cocoons, but found it cumbersome. He soon discovered that silk fabric — straight off the shelves — worked best.

However, he found that once the resin dried, it left tiny voids, or bubbles within the resin. Furthermore, the resin didn’t adhere fully to the fabric. He added that it’s a common problem in composites manufacturing, one that diminishes the finished molding’s integrity. Manufacturers solve the problem by using large, expensive autoclaves to apply intense compression to the composite during the molding process to remove the defects.

“Autoclaves cost an arm and a leg,” Hamidi said. Since the idea is to create a low-cost alternative to high-cost manufacturing processes, Hamidi is committed to finding a solution that would deliver “a decent composite at a fraction of the price.”

Understanding how these voids form and how to remove them was the theme of Hamidi’s doctoral dissertation. He is currently tackling the resin/fiber adherence problem. For that, he turned to a solution known to tailors, seamstresses and others who work with textiles: sizing.

In textiles, sizing is a plastic-based mixture that adds stiffness and finish to synthetic fibers, like starch does to natural fibers. The principle is similar for composite materials, although the chemistry is different. Hamidi expects that applying the right sizing first to the silk fabric will improve the resin adherence and reduce voids, which would result in silk composites with significantly improved performance.

He’s currently working with UHCL chemistry professors on coming up with a better sizing compound. “We need to find the right sizing, one that improves the bonding. Normally, the mechanical properties of the composite are defined by that bonding. We can change the bulk of mechanical properties of the composite by changing the chemical composition of the sizing and how it is applied.”

Hamidi said he is currently seeking funding to continue his research. For more information on UHCL’s mechanical engineering program, visit

Youseff Hamidi, Ph.D.


UHCL is committed to community values, partnerships and collaboration.

Paying it Forward With Gifts to UHCL Pearland

Pearland residents Nizam and Jesmin Meah pledged $200,000 to equip the nursing simulation lab at UHCL Pearland. An additional gift of $100,000 benefits the expansion of UHCL’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities onto the Pearland campus. Both emigrated from Bangladesh, became U.S. citizens, and say they are “living the American Dream.” Nizam is a gastroenterologist. Jesmin, an electrical engineer by education, is a stay-at-home mom and community volunteer. 

Fostering Strategic Partnerships

Created under the Office of the President, Strategic Partnerships identifies and builds mutually beneficial relationships through outreach activities for faculty, staff, students, alumni and the university community. Strategic Partnerships works to identify applied research opportunities, internship/co-op opportunities, facility-usage and other university-based resources that would be of value to corporations, organizations and the surrounding community.

Partnering With Our Communities

UHCL was founded on the premise of partnership as a core value. It drives the university to seek out relationships with those who believe purposeful collaboration makes communities stronger. All of the entities shown to the right work with the university to provide experiential learning (i.e. internships, job tours and job shadowing), research opportunities and facility usage. Many have also sponsored programs through monetary donations and/or in-kind gifts. 

Alumna Supports STEM Students and Teachers

From solving math and science equations in high school to developing business operations for NASA with her own company, Denise Navarro says her education has been a crucial factor to her success and her life.

Navarro began at College of the Mainland but knew in order to go further in her education she would have to find a university that aligned with her career and academic goals. She found that place at University of Houston-Clear Lake.

“UHCL was the next logical step for me,” she said. “I knew it was close by and that it was a place where I could build my education and my career at the same time.”

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in computer information systems, Navarro went straight to work developing code and building software for government agencies and businesses. However, she soon realized that something was missing.

“I loved my work, but I realized I also loved working with people and making sure that the technology I was building would work for them. I wanted my career to be something that combined technology with working with people.”

Again, Navarro turned to UHCL to help elevate her career. This time, she shifted her focus to enter the MBA program in the College of Business.

“As a working mom with two kids, I already knew UHCL was so conveniently located,” she said. “UHCL allowed me flexibility to continue my education parallel to my career. The program was in line with the goals I had for my future, and my need to balance my work and school life with my family life.”

While in pursuit of her education, Navarro’s career was gaining momentum. She was working as a NASA contractor developing business infrastructure and operations for several different companies of various sizes, including the federal government, when she realized she could start a company of her own. She incorporated Logical Innovations in 1999 and the company became fully operation in 2006. The company offers a wide range of support services such as financial services, information technology, strategic communications, outreach, and program management to clients such as NASA, across the agency and country.

Soon, Navarro found herself working alongside her children, Michael and Erica. Both followed their mother’s example, transitioning from community college to UHCL to each earn two degrees and then to work at Logical Innovations. The company has grown to more than 250 employees with offices in Texas, California, Washington, D.C., Florida and New Mexico.

“I always say that your kids are watching you, so you have to practice what you preach,” Navarro said with a laugh. “They saw the path I took and decided it would work for them too. The university has been instrumental in making us who we are today with a solid education and excellent training.”

Knowing firsthand the impact of the UHCL education, Navarro is helping to put the dream of higher education within reach for students by giving back to student scholarships. In 2015, Logical Innovations, Inc. contributed $100,000 to create an endowment in UHCL’s Hawk Advantage Scholarship program. The award provides financial aid for freshmen through all four years of their undergraduate education.

“No one is self-made,” Navarro said. “I don’t know where I’d be without the strong support from family and friends. I know there are many students who have strong desire and ability to continue their education, but don’t have the means. So, we wanted to offer that support for them.”

Navarro is also doing her part to support STEM education at UHCL. She currently serves as a member of the industry advisory board for UHCL’s College of Science and Engineering to provide valuable insight on developing curriculum to meet the evolving needs of the STEM industry. Additionally, she has given another $25,000 to the college to support students pursuing degrees in STEM.

“No matter what path someone takes, a STEM education helps build a foundation to see things in a different way and learn about the world,” she said. “It taught me real problem-solving skills that I use in my career and in my daily life, and that think it is important for students to learn.”

For Navarro, giving back represents her aspiration to support others like her and building a stronger community for future generations.

“I believe those who have the ability to give to others should pay it forward,” she said. “There are students who could take the wrong path in life without support, so we have to do our part to steer them in the right direction and positively impact others. It’s my hope that when they look back on their journey, they will want to continue this trend.”

Denise Navarro


UHCL empowers individuals to learn, grow, and develop as leaders and contributors.

First African-American to Lead South Texas Law Review

Kenesha Starling

Kenesha Starling

Kenesha Starling began her third year at South Texas College of Law Houston in August 2019 as the first African-American to be named editor-in-chief of the prestigious South Texas Law Review. Membership to the South Texas Law Review is by invitation only, with stringent GPA and prerequisite course requirements. Starling, who earned her MBA from UHCL in 2005, credits supportive professors for helping her build strong professional interpersonal skills. She hopes to pursue a career in legal malpractice and labor and employment law. 

A Dream Come True For Best-Selling Alumnus

When the movie adaptation of author Kevin Kwan's "Crazy Rich Asians" was released in theaters, it became a global movie blockbuster. The UHCL alumnus said that it all seemed like a dream, but his first “dream experience” had been his years working toward his bachelor’s degree in media studies. The best-selling author said he honed his ability to write from his professors at UHCL. 

Honoring Those Who Bring Honor to UHCL

Alumni Celebration - 45 Years & Beyond

Alumni Celebration - 45 Years & Beyond

UHCL honored the accomplishments of two alumni and a longtime professor at the 45th Anniversary Alumni Celebration. Phyllis M. Saathoff-Oliver, ʼ85 BS, executive director/CEO of the Port of Freeport, received the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award, and Mary Anne Brelinsky, ʼ00 MBA, president of EDF Energy Services, received the Early Achievement Award. Associate Professor of Management Information Systems Vance Etnyre was honored as Outstanding Professor. He began teaching in the UHCL College of Business in 1978 and has been a tenured faculty member since 1984.

Landing After Graduation

Mitchell Jefferies

Mitchell Jefferies

After Mitchell Jefferies graduated in spring 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering, Intuitive Machines, the company where he interned, hired him as a full-time employee to work on building rocket engines, payload systems and robotic lunar landers. Intuitive Machines has contracts with NASA and SpaceX to put its vehicles on the moon as soon as late 2021. Its manufacturing facility is in Houston Spaceport, co-located at Ellington Airport. At left is Arturo Machuca, Ellington’s general manager and overseer of Houston Spaceport complex.

From Victim to Champion: Alumna Honored for Environment

University of Houston-Clear Lake alumna Jackie Young was a model, until poisoning by heavy metals in her home’s water supply changed her life’s course. Now she’s a model citizen: a vocal environmental activist, grass-roots organizer and clean-water advocate.

Young, who graduated the College of Science and Engineering in 2013 with a bachelor's in Environmental Science, founded Texas Health and Environment Alliance in 2015 — a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting water resources from toxic waste by educating and engaging the public, policymakers and media.Since her graduation, she has been quoted in dozens of news publications nationwide — and at least 22 times in the Houston Chronicle — for her mission of environmental justice.

“In Harris County there are over 20 Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund sites,” Young said. “I find it highly unacceptable that current and future generations have to be concerned about living next to one of these sites, or that their groundwater may be contaminated by one of these sites from contaminants that somebody dumped 40 or 50 years ago.”

For her community efforts, Houston’s Bayou Preservation Association recently awarded Young its annual stewardship award for the non-profit sector. “Her advocacy with the San Jacinto River Coalition dramatically impacted the Superfund process for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, resulting in the EPA’s commitment to fully remediate the toxic site along the San Jacinto River,” the association said.

In 2017, just weeks after the EPA discovered that stop-gap measures to cover the Superfund site had failed during Hurricane Harvey, the agency agreed to a $115 million plan to completely remove and relocate the toxic waste. Cleanup is scheduled to begin in September 2020.

“We submitted over 55,000 comments for strengthening of the remedy, to see that the pits were cleaned down to residential and recreational standards, rather than an industrial standard,” Young said. “And (former EPA Administrator Scott) Pruitt signed into record the decision to clean the site to residential standard. That was that was a huge victory for the organization.”

Young can add this award to a growing list of accolades:

  • 2018: Houston Business Journal’s 40 under 40.
  • 2016: Houston Peace and Justice Center’s Houston Peacemaker Award.
  • 2015: Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter’s Environmental Justice Award.
  • 2014: Citizens League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN Houston) choice for representation in Houston Chronicle’s series, “Houston Heroes: People Who Make a Difference.” In a full-page profile, the newspaper chronicled the events that turned Young from pollution victim to environmental champion.

Where her story begins

The first time the Chronicle quoted Young was in 2013, after she had been crowned Miss Houston Rodeo and before she graduated UH-Clear Lake. Young found corporate modeling as a means of supporting her education.

However, in 2010 Young developed a debilitating autoimmune disorder, developed skin lesions, experienced seizures and eventually lost use of her hands. Young lived in Highlands, 2 miles from the San Jacinto Waste Pits, where in the 1960s, paper mill waste was disposed in 14 acres dug along the west bank of the river.

Over years of flooding, subsidence, and erosion, the pits became partially submerged and forgotten, until they were rediscovered in 2005. In March 2008, the EPA put the Waste Pits on its National Priorities List of Superfund Sites. That September, Hurricane Ike “overwhelmed the Waste Pits and could have contributed to scouring and associated leakage of dioxins detected nearby,” analysts told the EPA six years later.

In 2011, Young transferred from Lee College in Baytown to UHCL, where she received important clues to as to what happened to her health. “In 2011, I was down to 90 pounds and I was having about an average seven seizures a week,” she said.

For a class assignment in her hydrogeology course, she brought water samples from home for testing. The water sample from her home’s well contained heavy metals. Ingestion of heavy metals – such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and others – can damage the brain, kidneys, liver, other organs and blood composition, the National Institute of Health says. Subsequently, Young had her blood tested. She tested positive for 19 of 21 heavy metals.

Also in 2011, and as a direct result of her discovery, Young began volunteering for the San Jacinto River Coalition, a citizen’s group determined to see the Waste Pits completely remediated.

In 2013, after multiple treatments and transfusions, a change in water supply — and eventually, a move — Young’s health slowly improved. In an assignment for an environmental management course, Young went door-to-door to gather residents’ health histories. She heard stories of rare, childhood brain cancers, eye cancers, blood cancers and lymphoma — all of which have long been linked to dioxin exposure.

Standing in the vortex — still

By 2014, fierce debates raged over whether the Waste Pits were the cause of dioxin-suspected cancers, the Chronicle reported, while environmentalists, fishermen, landowners and corporations battled over cleanup plans. Young and the coalition – and later, her non-profit alliance – remained in the center of these storms. She rallied citizens and pressed the EPA, as well as elected and appointed officials, for complete removal of the pits. She gained a reputation as a respected environmentalist and community activist.

These days, as executive director of the Texas Health and Environment Alliance, she is working closely with the EPA and with Harris County’s technical review team as they make their way through the Waste Pits cleanup design process.

When she started this journey, she reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency for help. Now, the EPA reaches out to her to help inform the public and policymakers about its work in the region, and to help organize their responses.

“One of the most important parts of my job is making sure everybody’s talking,” she said. “We’ve worked very hard over the years to get in the good graces of the agencies we work with. Often, when things happen, I’m the first one the EPA calls. So, then I need to call our local pollution control, our local congressman, our representative, our county attorney, and make sure that all the people here on the local level are aware of what’s going on.”

‘UHCL shaped me’

Despite her years as a model, Young says she had always intended to work in environmental science, and early on had thought she would pursue a career as a geologist. “I went to UH-Clear Lake with the intent of graduating with the degree that I did. I never would’ve dreamed I would found and run an environmental non-profit organization.”

She says she maintains close relationships with several professors whom she regards as her professional mentors. “My experience at UHCL shaped me as a person and undoubtedly led me to not only getting back on my feet with my health, but also to my career.”

UHCL offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental science, including an online master’s degree, a linked B.S.-M.S. degree and several specialization tracks. For more information, visit UHCL's Environmental Science Program.

We find strength and beauty in diversity. The many languages we hear is the music of our campuses.

We believe in the worth and success of every individual, inclusive of all racial and ethnic groups, genders, LGBTQ, first-generation, international and underrepresented students. It is who we are.


How You Make a Difference

Annual giving is the foundation of donor support that helps fulfill UHCL’s mission. Donors, who establish a tradition of annual giving, support scholarships and fund research, faculty development and vital campus improvements. Tax-deductible gifts may be designated to a priority of your choice – or be made unrestricted, to fund areas of greatest need. Corporate matching may help double or triple your donation, and, for convenience, you may set up a recurring gift. 

At UHCL, we are always aware that you have choices among many worthy causes. Your investment demonstrates your belief that this university improves our community and our world. Every year, every gift of every size impacts the lives of students, every day. To donate, or to learn more, visit