Mount Alumna Pamela L. Sheehan Finalist for Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal
Riverdale, N.Y. – Mount Saint Vincent alumna Pamela L. Sheehan is a 2017 finalist for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, bestowed by Partnership for Public Service, for her work developing an environmentally friendly way to recycle aging, demilitarized munitions. A native of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Dr. Sheehan received her B.S. in biology from the Mount in 1978. By the time she reached high school, Dr. Sheehan had developed a passion for environmental justice, vividly recounting the nation’s first Earth Day in 1970. “I knew I wanted to be part of a solution, not just study the problem,” she said.
Dr. Sheehan was drawn to the Mount’s progressive science program in a time when women were virtually absent from the field. “As part of a strong curriculum, the Mount had a marine biology program in the Bahamas,” Dr. Sheehan said. “The College was hugely influential in my career as well as my personal development.” During her time at the Mount, Kathleen Tracey, S.C., a 1948 Mount alumna, served as chair of the department. “Sister Tracey made a great impact on my identity as a scientist committed to environmentalism,” Dr. Sheehan said. “She also exemplified the Catholic tradition of environmental activism, which continues today with Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, his encyclical on the environment and human ecology.”
Now a research environmental engineer in the U.S. Army’s Armament Research Development and Engineering Center, located at a military base in New Jersey, Dr. Sheehan has pioneered the first green method for demilitarizing one of the major items in the nation’s outdated weapons stockpile, the nitrogen-rich propellant used in M1119 howitzer artillery rounds. Dr. Sheehan’s solution is to extract the nitrogen from the propellant and use it to grow algae that will produce ethanol and an oil product that can be refined into diesel fuel. Dr. Sheehan believes the technique has the potential to work on other weapons that use nitrogen. “The key promise of the technology is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “The algae consume carbon dioxide, unlike the alternative method of burning propellants and explosives in the open. The process would reduce the military’s contribution to climate change.”
It is vital for individuals interested in environmental sustainability to think critically about the impact of everyday activities like driving, using a lawnmower, or firing up a grill, according to Dr. Sheehan. “Personal reduction in using charcoal fires and lawnmowers also decreases carbon dioxide emissions,” Dr. Sheehan said. “It’s important to understand how to combat pollution through making better choices, whether it’s using public transportation or working to ensure the growth of trees. Like algae, trees consume carbon dioxide and provide a natural defense against climate change. That’s why cutting them down is a bad idea.”
For Dr. Sheehan, the environmental activist journey is also a spiritual one. “Exploring the subject of ethics in terms of the environment as well as more broadly is integral to our survival,” she noted. “One of the many benefits of being on a Catholic campus was the ability to understand the connection between spirituality and the environment. I attribute much of my success, both personally and professionally, to my experiences at the Mount.”
The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America medal winner will be announced at a September 27 ceremony in Washington, D.C.
About the College of Mount Saint Vincent
Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, the College of Mount Saint Vincent offers nationally recognized liberal arts education and a select array of professional fields of study on a landmark campus overlooking the Hudson River. Committed to the education of the whole person, and enriched by the unparalleled cultural, educational, and career opportunities of New York City, the College equips students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences necessary for lives of professional accomplishment, service, and leadership in the 21st century.