Senior’s pursuit of a degree heats up

Mason environmental science major Eran O'Keefe has always been interested in working with the environment. Photo provided.

Eran O’Keefe, 38 years old and a George Mason University senior, has been picking away at her bachelor’s degree for about six years, taking one or two classes a semester as her full-time job will allow.

She has four classes left, she said, that will put her at the finish line after the 2021 summer semester with a degree in environmental science.

“I’m not sure,” O’Keefe said when asked her feelings about graduation. “Getting my bachelor’s, it still seems a little unrealistic, but I’m very much looking forward to it.”

O’Keefe will be the first in her family to earn a university degree. She also will finally have the credentials to work in a field that has lured her since she grew up on the Maine coast.

“It’s what I love,” she said, “and what my eventual dream job will be in.”

A transfer student from Northern Virginia Community College, O’Keefe said her education has been delayed by several two- and three-year breaks because of financial concerns and family obligations.

Eran O'Keefe

That delay has led to jobs in food service, retail and her current position as a division security specialist for an analytics and engineering company for which she has worked from the ground up.

“I’m impressed with her perseverance. I know she’s juggling a lot of different things,” said Cynthia Smith, an associate professor in the Environmental Science and Policy Department, who knows O’Keefe well.

“She doesn’t just finish assignments,” Smith added. “She thinks critically about it, takes it to a higher level. She takes an opportunity and runs with it.”

Take the recent remote lab activity in which Smith’s students in EVPP 302 Biomes and Human Dimensions measured surface temperatures on Mason’s Fairfax Campus or locations near their homes for heat islands—areas of human-built surfaces that absorb and emit heat more than natural landscapes.

O’Keefe expanded the assignment, researching how heat islands relate to income levels. What she found in exploring three communities in Arlington, Virginia, was that the poorer neighborhood had surface temperatures 8 to 10 degrees warmer than the more affluent communities.

The reasons? Housing in the poorer neighborhood tended to be built with bricks, which hold heat, as does the black tarmac used on the driving and parking surfaces, O’Keefe said. The housing stock was also generally the same height, which limited air circulation. The more affluent neighborhoods also had more green space and tree canopies that reduced temperatures.

Why is this important to know?

“It helps inform people when they are deciding what to build, where to build, what materials to use,” O’Keefe said. “The concentration of heat in different areas can have a lot of impact on the environment and the people who live in them.”

Smith said she had several students who expanded the original assignment. She attributes that to the remote learning forced by the pandemic.

“They have to locate their own study sites,” Smith said, “and because they set up their own, they have to think more critically about how they collect their data and what their results might mean for human and environmental health.”

“Dr. Smith and [teaching assistant and Mason PhD student] Chelsea Gray have been incredible throughout this whole thing,” O’Keefe said. “They’re involved, supportive and proactive, and they connect to their class.”

The same way O’Keefe connected to the subject.