Obtaining Expert Perspectives on Bio-Digesters

February 11, 2016

By Wusi Fan, Duke MEM graduate student

While working on the Campus Digester team, one of the challenges we faced was reaching out to experts from different areas to interview them. In order to make a decision about whether to build a bio-digester on campus, we needed to learn about the technology, the economics of the system, related permitting and policy stuff, environmental and social impacts, etc. While we already had a diverse group, consisting of students and faculty concentrating on engineering, environment and economics, we still required inputs from experts outside our group.


I can’t count the number of emails we sent out to ask for informational interview opportunities. During the early stage of the project, we decided to first learn from the experience of other on-campus bio-digesters in the US. To acquire additional first-hand information and data, each of us reached out to other universities that have a bio-digester or companies involved in on-campus digester projects. Although we were only able to conduct a few interviews, we collected some useful information through email communications.  

When we started to build a Duke waste profile, we reached out to Arwen Buchholz, Duke's Recycling and Waste Reduction Coordinator. Arwen was friendly and helpful. She scheduled two meetings with us. These meetings gave us a much clearer concept about the waste collection and treatment in the Duke area. Arwen also provided us with the Duke waste stream data, which was extremely important in helping us choose the right scale and type of digester.

Another significant interview was done with Professor Ryke Longest, Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. We were initially confused by the permit process for building an on-campus bio-digester, and asked Professor Longest a number of questions on the topic. He was able to answer some of our questions and helped us identify contacts for the policy experts. Following Professor Longest’s advice, we reached out to David S. Lee from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, who kindly provided us with most of the information on permit issues that we used in our final scoping document.

Reaching out to experts and conducting interviews played an important role throughout our information collection process in the first semester. It’s a wonderful experience when people are willing to help you out with their own time. We are very grateful to everyone who communicated with us either by email or through interviews. In the coming semester, we will be collecting primary data and conducting fewer interviews. Nevertheless, it has been an important part of our process.

Learn more about this project team and how to get involved in Bass Connections.