When he was a student at F&ES, Gerald Bright decided that he wanted to do work that made a difference on the ground level. Five years later, he's doing just that in his native Philadelphia.
By Geoffrey Giller
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Gerald Bright says he takes every opportunity to share his experience with students at Philadelphia's elementary, middle and high schools.
Hydrologist Gerald Bright M.E.Sc. ’08 has a special connection to the field sites where he works. Bright manages the Philadelphia Water Department’s Green Infrastructure Maintenance program, which is tasked with managing vegetation, concrete structures and pipes that help control stormwater runoff and streams across the city.
He also happened to play in some of those very same places when he was growing up.
“It’s surreal,” he says. “I’m modeling a creek that I skipped rocks on as a kid.”
Bright, who grew up in Philadelphia, has been interested in the sciences since high school. After studying aquatic ecology and restoration science as an undergraduate at Howard University, he enrolled in the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
While at F&ES, Professor David Skelly sat him down and asked, “Do you want to be a researcher or a practitioner?” At that moment, Bright recalls, he realized that he wanted his work to have real-world impact. “I want to go out, I want to be on the ground, I want to create change,” he says.
Also during that time, he worked with another professor, James Saiers, to create a two-dimensional hydrodynamic model for evaluating the success of stream restoration projects. Then, during the summer between his first and second years at F&ES, he worked with the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), collecting the data necessary for such a model. After graduating, he returned to the department to present his work. Not only did they hire him, they put him in charge of implementing the model for their own stream restoration work.
For Bright, it was “tremendously satisfying” to see his master’s research being put to real use. “This data is getting used,” he says. “It’s not going into a report that’s sitting on a shelf. We’re using this to either improve our methodologies moving forward or inform stream restoration designs… It’s not just science for the sake of science.”
Bright says he was motivated by what he saw as a basic issue of fiscal responsibility. While more than $1 million might be spent to restore a stream, there was rarely any scientific verification of success. A few pictures showing “Bambi” and “butterflies,” he says, didn’t prove that the restoration had provided ecological uplift, or confirm that the high-velocity flows stayed in the center of the stream and weren’t at the edges where they could erode the banks.
“You go and spend $300,000 to design a stream reach restoration, and you give a construction firm a million dollars to construct it, and then you come back with a picture,” he says.
It’s now standard practice at the PWD to conduct pre- and post-restoration modeling of streams.
In addition to his work with the water department, Bright takes every opportunity to share his experience with the community. He speaks at elementary, middle, and high schools and works with Philadelphia students at science fairs. While he says he’d never met many African-American scientists while he was growing up, that all changed in high school when he met an African-American biologist. “And he’s the one who did it for me … I think that’s where it all kind of stems from.”
Now, Bright says, he can be a role model for children in his hometown. It’s especially important for him to show those kids that it can be done. Having grown up in the same neighborhood as some of the students he talks to, Bright says, helps them identify with and trust him.
Similarly, his local knowledge helps earn Bright trust at the city’s field sites. Knowing the neighborhood, the community, and even many of the individuals, has helped him get past some initial distrust. “Oftentimes,” he said, “a lot of the folks who work in the green sector… they’re not from Philadelphia.” But once Bright has established his credibility as someone who grew up in the city and knows it intimately, it “provides that initial connection to draw them in.
“And then, you know, you drop the Yale bomb, and they say ‘Oh, wow. Really?’”
About the Author
Geoffrey Giller will graduate from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2014. The former editor of SAGE Magazine, his writing has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon Magazine and Amherst Magazine.