Ryan Duckett always knew his dream job would have something to do with the environment – whether as an environmental scientist or a natural resource conservationist.
Growing up, one of Duckett’s main chores at home was separating recyclables. But for him, it was more than that. It was a hands-on way to get involved and connect with the environment. As he got older, his personality and interests naturally aligned with environmental engineering, particularly the solid waste field.
Now, he’s a senior engineer at Geosyntec Consultants and serves as the Virginia Composting Council president and on Virginia’s Solid Waste Association Board.
ASCE has honored Duckett as a 2023 New Face of Civil Engineering.
“I’m a big advocate for bridging the gap between disparate groups that might not communicate that much, and trying to find the synergies between them,” said Duckett.
“By serving on multiple boards you get new and different perspectives. I think that's so valuable to promote change and advancement. Don’t just align yourself with one tribal group. Try to stay open-minded and serve as that liaison or communicator between organizations.”
Duckett recently spoke with Civil Engineering Source about his career.
Civil Engineering Source: What accomplishment or aspect of your career are you most proud of so far?
Ryan Duckett: I’m really proud of the ability to seize opportunities as far as industry involvement, technical responsibilities, and leadership. I'm appreciative of these opportunities I was given, especially by my former supervisor and mentor.
I started out on the U.S. Composting Council Virginia Chapter Board around four years ago. That served as a good basis to join the Solid Waste Association as a director for the Old Dominion Chapter. Later the Composting Council’s president resigned, and my peers thought I was the best fit for the job.
I feel good about being able to represent young professionals, an entire industry in Virginia, and other technical engineers trying to make a difference in the world through their work.
I’m also the first in my family to get an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree. I'm proud of that because being the first in your family to go to college is a big deal. My sister went too, so I like to think that I’m paving the way for my family. My parents were really supportive and that helped a lot.
Source: How do you hope to make an impact on the profession?
Duckett: I hope to inspire, as a servant leader, those whom I mentor to promote and instigate change and new ideas in the profession.
One thing I try to project is a lot of enthusiasm and passion in what I do. Part of that is just plain dumb luck and loving what I do. That has to do with whatever idiosyncrasy that makes me want to work in the solid waste engineering field. But I hope I can somewhat normalize that. Sometimes it can be kind of messy when we're not doing office work. But it's really a stimulating, enjoyable, and rewarding facet of the profession.
I want to make an impact by inspiring not only current engineers to specialize in environmental issues, but also those who might be deciding to enter the profession to follow that interest.
Source: How did you begin connecting your hobby of composting with your civil engineering work? In what ways can this contribute to the goal of building sustainable infrastructure for the future?
Duckett: Around 2015 or 2016, my work was doing a lot of engineering in the organics management space. Composting is probably one of the biggest areas of organics management. Compost really has a cascading effect in society or in the environments where it's applied. It helps build the health of the soil, which further helps control a lot of other environmental impacts.
I applied to an ASCE white paper competition for urban infrastructure. I was trying to make a case for source-separated food scraps collection and composting in high-density urban environments, which could also help economies scale.
I didn't win [the competition], but I learned a lot about the technical side. Little by little I became more of a specialist in composting. The more I learned, the more I realized how much it made sense.
As engineers, we’re not really agronomists or farmers. There’s our front-facing waste management side. We’re realizing that perhaps the organic material we generate as trash should be recycled back into beneficial use rather than incinerated or buried, and there’s a long way to go for that. But there's also that back end where we can benefit the agricultural sector by combining waste management with food production to have a more circular economy. Working in the civil industry there’s a lot of opportunity to bring together different systems to really benefit clients and society.
As engineers, sometimes we can be very theoretical. But I realized I'm going to do this: one, because I can learn a lot; and two, because it's just the right thing to do.