Recent alum educates youth about STEM, plastics, and sustainability
Evan Morton’s passion for research, teaching and sustainability shaped his time at MSU and his career trajectory.
Participating in after-school science programs since sixth grade, Evan Morton’s childhood interest in science and research inspired his desire to learn and teach others about sustainability.
He came to Michigan State University knowing he wanted to teach, with a focus on environmental sustainability. Over his five years at MSU, Morton researched plastic bag consumption and sustainable lumber, explored extracurriculars and jobs to learn more about what he liked to do, and took internships to gain the skills he needed to kickstart his career.
Morton recently completed his B.S. in Sustainable Parks, Recreation and Tourism from Michigan State University in August 2021.
He currently works as the Programs and Sustainability Coordinator and an educator for the PlastiVan Program at the Society of Plastic Engineers Foundation, a professional organization supporting the plastics industry and professionals. Morton is the first Black male educator in the program’s history. He teaches young students a range of STEM topics, from battery technology and ions, to bioplastics and more.
“The really rewarding aspect of my work is being able to have students, especially from my hometown Detroit, have the experiences that I did as a kid,” he said. “Being able to come back full circle and be a part of that experience for them is really fulfilling for me.”
Read on to learn about Evan Morton’s experiences at MSU and the work he’s done in his early career in the following interview.
What inspired your interest in sustainability?
Back in sixth grade, I became part of a group called Ecotek based in Detroit. Basically, I was in an after-school program where we would go every Saturday to perform different experiments for different research projects. I was able to focus on biofuel, bioplastic, wind turbines and different sources of alternative energy, and that's where I really got that interest from sixth grade until eleventh grade.
I was able to have opportunities to go to the United Nations; to Sarasota, Florida, for mobile marine research; and to the Green Schools Conference in Denver, Colorado, to provide bioplastics and biofuels technology and information.
More recently, I've been inspired by being able to have the experience of going to college and unlocking more doors by participating in the MSU Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) focusing on sustainable wood and domicology. That really opened my eyes to more sustainability concepts. Sustainability isn’t just environmental sustainability; it’s a sense of equilibrium.
When I wasn't in school back in 2018 to 2019, I was able to work a job with Clean Water Action [an organization supporting water protections and public policy]. In Clean Water Action, I spoke to over 1,000 Michigan residents on water quality and created a lead safety guideline. I also worked with downtown East Lansing on their Climate Action Plan for the City Council.
A lot of outside experiences when I was a kid and outside experiences while I was at Michigan State really unlocked my mind to more opportunities around the concept of sustainability, and what it meant to different people.
Why did you choose your major and why MSU?
I wanted to go to MSU since I was a kid. It is the only college that I applied to because it was the only one that I wanted to attend.
Coming to Michigan State, I started off in the College of Education. For two years I learned the ins and outs of teaching K-12 while also still taking environmental classes. I realized I want to be able to teach where I can choose the students that I get to interact with. Not every student is going to have an interest within environmental sustainability, so it’s better when you get to pick and choose the students that really do have a passion and focus on those students.
That's when I decided I wanted to go full-time into the Sustainable Parks, Recreation and Tourism major. I transitioned over to the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and focused more on sustainability classes. Being able to do that really did change what I thought was possible as far as this major.
Tell me about the undergraduate research you did at MSU.
I did research at Michigan State University with Dr. Julie Libarkin. Funny story about how we met: I was working for MSU Greenline calling alumni and friends, and I called her. We were just having a phone conversation and she was really interested in having me come down to her lab to have a conversation. And after that conversation, it just magically flowed until I graduated. I believe I truly wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for her kindness and that first phone call.
Every single week in the lab, I was focusing on a graduate student’s research, whether it be on flooding in Lansing, putting together Excel spreadsheets or grading papers, all the way into doing my own research in my final year on the effectiveness of grocery bags. It was basically the grocery bag dilemma of whether paper or plastic is better in the consumer’s mind. In that research project, I was able to win first place for the spring symposium at Michigan State University for CANR.
I'm just very thankful to the Geocognition Research Lab, Dr. Julie Libarkin, Dr. Patty Jaimes and Eleanor Rappolee. Having that community really propelled me and pushed me forward.
I worked as an undergraduate researcher for two years, and the main thing I would say is give students a chance to do research.
I can't speak for every student at Michigan State University, but I know Detroit students in general didn't know what it meant to do research, and they didn't know who to talk to. For anybody reading this, whether it be a professor or whether it be a student doing research, be willing to give out information about research so students can start to be a part of it.
What is your current work?
Right now, I work for the Society of Plastic Engineers (SPE) Foundation. I've been working for PlastiVan ever since the winter of 2020. I go school-to-school teaching about the history of plastics and the chemistry of polymers that make plastics.
For that first winter, all the way up until summer 2021, I was focusing on educating students about plastics virtually, including Detroit students and students in Dakar, Senegal. I really enjoyed that experience, so as soon as I graduated, they extended the opportunity to come into a newly created position. I am now the Programs and Sustainability Coordinator. They offered me this full-time position after understanding that I love sustainability, and they were wanting to get more into that aspect of sustainable plastics. Now I am working on their curriculum for plastics education as it pertains to sustainability and recycling.
I've been really focusing on creating SPE STEM clubs. Right now, we have a STEM Club launching at Detroit Edison Public School Academy. It's a way for students to be able to come to an after-school program, learn more about what research is, and learn about the opportunities in the industry. I'm specifically focused on that sustainability side: that idea of bioplastics and reduce, reuse, and recycle, and being able to enlighten students’ experiences by having opportunities for them to gain scholarships, grants, and be able to learn about what we're doing in the industry.
As you think about your career and the paths that lie ahead, what do you hope to do or achieve?
In my three-year plan, I’m making sure that I am capable of completing the tasks set forward in my job description as far as what I want to achieve and what the foundation wants to achieve. When the next person comes along and takes this position, they'll be able to travel seamlessly through and see everything that has happened so they can build up even more opportunities for students.
Hopefully in five years, I'll be able to see myself in a position of power where I can hire people, I can make decisions, and sit in on those conversations that need to be talked about. For example, we're talking about what diversity, equity, and inclusion means right now in the Society of Plastic Engineers. Being able to have that experience was great, but we’re sitting in a room and there's only one person that looks like me and that's me. We don't have equal representation for women. We don't have proper representation for LGBTQ people. There are so many different aspects of what we can change within the society, and the first change comes with understanding.
If I can continue that path of not only representing my community, but also making sure the representation is getting through to the Society of Plastic Engineers as it pertains to jobs, the board of directors, or different technical divisions, then that's what I would want to continue to work on. The society is representative of the plastics industry, and that’s what programs like the ones we have in Detroit are aiming to change.
What is your favorite memory from your experience at MSU?
My favorite memory is when I got dismissed from Michigan State University. That's my favorite memory because I don't want to imagine what would happen if I didn't get dismissed.
During that year when I was not attending MSU, I was able to work for the MSU Student Housing Cooperative as their sustainability intern, able to work for Clean Water Action advocating for water rights in Michigan, and then being able to work for the East Lansing City Council on their Climate Action Plan. All those experiences are what built me to be able to come back in 2019 and do what I set out to do.
Before that, I didn't have a clear, level head. I just knew I was here to get a degree. Being able to come back with a stronger mindset, to be able to have these different experiences under my belt, and say, “I know why I'm here. We're doing exactly what we need to do.” That was my favorite experience because it teaches you a lot, especially since most people don't get to come back.
Being able to come back with a resume of experiences and especially with the support of Steven Thomas, Dr. George Berghorn, Stratton Lee, and all these different people saying, “Let him back in because he proved himself, even when he wasn't here.” That was my favorite memory – and then of course, being able to come back and get that degree!
What do you want others to know about the CSUS majors?
I want them to know that they're very open, very accepting and that you meet people from all different backgrounds. It’s a small group of students that are dedicated to what they want to do, whether it be agriculture, parks and recreation, or tourism. Everybody is their own individual, and you shouldn't think of everybody as a collective or monolith.
I lived in a co-op and mainly it was with environmental studies people. You meet so many different people. I met my best friend, Max, in environmental studies, and we still talk and hang out to this day.
The professors are cool, and they also have discipline in their area of study. I mean, you can ask them any question and they'll be able to tell you the answer in less than 10 seconds, and if they don't know, then they'll be able to give you a resource that will further educate.
What advice would you share with current or prospective students?
Keep trying to find the dreams and find the possibilities because they're out there. Nobody's going to give it to you. You have to go out there and get it for yourself and something will gravitate towards you. It’s all about networking. It's all about who you know and what you know, it's not one or the other. There is always a way to be able to get what you want as long as you put yourself out there.
"Appreciate all the aspects of what you've been able to gain because not many people can say that they graduated or they’re about to graduate in a pandemic. Use that experience to put yourself out on the market." Evan Morton, MSU alum
Appreciate what you have. When I was doing Zoom classes, I appreciated the fact that we had Zoom, that there was another outlet for education, but I also missed classroom time.
Appreciate all the aspects of what you've been able to gain because not many people can say that they graduated or they’re about to graduate in a pandemic. You had experiences of not being in the classroom because it was on Zoom. But you also have that traditional experience of being in the classroom and interacting with people. Use that experience to put yourself out on the market. You have a unique experience to be able to say, “I can work from home or I can work in the office or even do both as a hybrid.”
Any closing thoughts?
Mental health is a serious topic that needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed amongst multiple students in a safe space that doesn't make them feel like they're being challenged for the way that they feel or the way that they cope with their traumas. It's very important to be able to have that. The Geocognition Research Lab at MSU is something I still participate in just because it's a safe space.
Having those safe spaces on campus to be able to talk about how your day is going, how you are feeling, what opportunities or what resources can help you better feel like you're connected and grounded at Michigan State University is very important for students.