Digging Her Own Path to Success: How ENST Alum Karla Rosales Lobos ‘19 Overcame Career Challenges

December 9, 2022 Jonathan Stephanoff

A Bumpy, but Edifying Post-graduation Roadmap:

Looking back, Karla Rosales Lobos sees that graduating in 2019, one year before the COVID pandemic, offered just another pivot in her life’s journey. She knows there are more pivots on the way. For Rosales Lobos, the subsequent three years were marked by internships, job shifts, a lay-off and a satisfying landing at her current position where she is working to clean up the environment through state-of-the-art remediation technologies to clean contaminated soils.

Today, Rosales Lobos is an Environmental Compliance Specialist at Clean Earth, where she manages the compliance of materials coming into soil remediation facilities. To put it simply, she explained, “I tell them this soil is coming in, this is what it has in it, please treat it this way–it is this contaminated, you’re going to need to do this according to my calculations.”

Listening to Rosales Lobos discuss her job, it is clear that she enjoys what she is doing and finds motivation in cleaning contaminants from the environment. It is a problem-solving challenge to fully understand a contaminated site, segment out what her facilities can process, find solutions and identify Clean Earth locations that can remove the contaminants. She also values who she works with, noting “my team is really collaborative so it’s just really wonderful when we put all our heads together and solve the issue.”

Life and Career are a Journey, not an Event:

Getting to this point has been a journey for Karla Rosales Lobos that began long before her time at UMD. “I was born in El Salvador, and I grew up over there with my family, and my biggest influence was my grandfather.” He was a farmer, and Rosales Lobos shared some stories of him. “He refused to wear shoes because that was a Western thing, he refused to use modern technology–so he rode oxen everywhere in his carriage, including grocery shopping if he went, and farming.”

“He really taught me the value of the earth because that is what he did; that was his livelihood. And it was so interesting because once I started going to UMD, I realized that a lot of the things my grandfather was doing were things that professors said you needed to do. Like adding lime to the soil ... he was doing it too, and I was like, ‘How did he figure that out?’ There is this generational knowledge that they’ve been passing down, instead of educational knowledge. They have no terminology for it, they just do it. And then you go to school and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh there’s science behind it.’”

While a student in ENST Rosales Lobos focused on Ecological Technology Design and also emphasized soil science in her studies. As a senior she completed an internship with Dr. Ray Weil in his Soil Quality Lab. They ran an experiment looking to increase protein yields of black beans through adding varied amounts of sulfur.

At one point they were having a challenge with getting the beans out of the shell at scale. Dr. Weil suggested asking her family how they removed beans, and Rosales Lobos’ mother explained their traditional method for deshelling. Rosales Lobos made a few modifications to the method, like using a lab dryer instead of the sun to dry the crop, or running extension cords and fans outside of H.J. Patterson Hall for the winnowing instead of waiting for windy days, but the steps of the traditional process were the same, and it worked perfectly.

Rosales Lobos credits the academic internships she completed while at UMD with giving her an edge in the job market. A few weeks after graduation she started her first professional internship at an environmental consulting firm. She said they liked that she had experience with lab tools and large equipment, explaining, “I was using an x-ray machine for Dr. Weil to scan ground-up seeds to look at their sulfur and all of their mineral content, and they were like, ‘A lot of people don’t have access to [or experience with] these tools, because they are really expensive.’” 

“You use college in ways that you don’t think you will,” She said. “As an undergrad, you have those moments [when you think] ‘when am I ever going to use this class?’” She highlighted the usefulness of professional writing, or all the chemistry classes, explaining, “you might not need to know the shape of perchlorate but you need to know how it interacts with another chemical, and that is what chemistry will teach you.”

Surviving the Side-effects of COVID…Economically:

After three months in her internship, Rosales Lobos accepted a full-time position with the firm in August, 2019, working on environmental assessments. In April 2020, shortly after COVID hit, she was laid off. “The people who just graduated, [we] were the first on the chopping block, because [we] didn’t have the experience that everyone else in the companies do.”

Several months later she landed a new position with an engineering firm using AutoCAD, a tool she learned in Dr. Jose-Luis Izursa’s CAD in Ecology course. While she enjoyed aspects of the CAD design job, she missed the environmental science themes in her work, which led her to apply for an environmental compliance specialist position with Clean Earth, Inc. 

On the Job at Clean Earth:

Clean Earth is a multinational company specializing in environmentally sustainable solutions for specialty waste streams–providing remediation, disposal, recycling, and beneficial reuse solutions. It is one of the major divisions of the Harsco Corporation, a global manufacturing and transportation company.

Rosales Lobos works with three facilities in Maryland that are permitted to work with non-hazardous oil and gas contaminated soils. A simple project might involve a significant leak from a gas station’s underground storage tank. 

As Rosales Lobos explained it, Clean Earth will say, “bring [the contaminated waste] to us because we can treat it and then recycle it. And by recycling it, we mean you can use this soil … under a highway before you put the asphalt down, or things like that.” It is used for commercial or industrial projects, not houses or playgrounds. “At least it is recycled; at least it doesn’t end up in the landfill,” she said.

Rosales Lobos spends a lot of her days reading site reports and managing tasks related to the inflow and extraction of treated soil from the Maryland facilities. Having a full understanding of a site’s contamination history is key. It is also critical to follow her facilities’ permit limits.

“My favorite projects are the really complicated ones,” she said. “Baltimore has a rich history of manufacturing–it’s been great for the city, but it is also bad for it because it contaminated [parts] of the city. Usually, the really interesting ones come from places like that, that have a rich history of industrial manufacturing.”

One such project was a building site in Baltimore that contained oil and gas storage containers and contamination. Rosales Lobos began the remediation process with them. “Then this historical stuff came out of nowhere, such as PCE (perchloroethylene), which I cannot take–that is a no for me under the permit.”

The PCE and other historic materials started a process that involved Rosales Lobos working with other facility managers that ultimately lead to transporting large quantities of soil from Baltimore up to a facility in Canada that could process the contaminants. She said, “That was really exciting because it was my first [introduction into a] cross-continental project.” 

Sage Advice of an ENST Alum:

Rosales Lobos works in a male-dominated industry and has faced the gender issues that many women still confront in similar careers. “You don’t get as much respect as your counterparts do that are male, even if you have the same experience,” she said. “You just have to keep your head up and continue to work in a professional manner … they eventually listen to you and they eventually know that you know what you are talking about.”

“Our company is really focused on diversity and uplifting female employees, so that has been really great about Clean Earth–they are really trying to work on it. We have identified this issue as females, so the females in Clean Earth started their own [training and mentorship program] to help other females out.”

Unbeknownst to Rosales Lobos and other recent graduates, their entry into the job market came at a challenging time. No one would have predicted at graduation in 2019 that a year later significant portions of the national and global economy would come to a screeching halt due to the pandemic.

“You think as an undergrad, you’re just going to apply and get it–the perfect job or title. It’s a harsh reality to come to terms with that you probably won’t; it’s going to take a few years.” Rosales Lobos said. “We all have to start somewhere, and sometimes … you know you are not at the best company, but you buckle down until you can eventually get out and go to a better one.”

Rosales Lobos’ advice for current students centered on appreciating internships. “You have to get yourself in somehow, and [for me] that was through internships, until you build enough in your resume that [companies] will look at you.”