Professional Symbiosis

Over the past three decades Marian Chertow has advanced the growing field of industrial ecology across the world — and inspired generations of Yale students to assert themselves as leaders of the field.
Industrial symbiosis. Sounds a bit intimidating.

The idea, however, is anything but. Industrial symbiosis, a subfield of industrial ecology, describes what happens when clusters of companies collaborate to improve the use and reuse of materials, water, and energy so that one firm’s waste becomes another’s source of raw materials. The system is pragmatic, ingenious, and innovative.
marian chertow
Marian Chertow
The same might be said of Marian Chertow ’81 M.P.P.M., ‘00 Ph.D. As associate professor of industrial environmental management at Yale, Chertow has helped grow the field of industrial ecology, particularly through her research and teaching on industrial symbiosis, helping to establish it as a subfield and profession — especially in the developing world.

She has written seminal papers on how symbiotic systems might achieve energy and resource savings in places like China and India. And she is now working to establish a program in Rwanda, a nation that is eager to recycle and reuse all of its clothing.

“I’ve always wanted to be part of a useful field, and I’ve always believed industrial ecology has that as part of its basic mission,” Chertow says. “Not only to theorize change but to be part of the solutions in a tangible way.”

At Yale, Chertow is also known for providing mentorship that has advanced the careers of generations of students, including well after graduation. She’s been described as that rare teacher who is equally interested in theory and real-world application, the leader who always has time to talk shop (or anything else) with industrial ecology up-and-comers.

For these accomplishments, this fall Chertow was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, an educational outreach organization that celebrates and honors the achievements of women to inspire continued success throughout the state. Over the summer, in Beijing, she also received the International Society for Industrial Ecology’s Society Prize, the organization’s highest recognition of professional achievement, for her contributions to the field.

Before she was a pioneer in the field of industrial ecology, Marian Chertow worked in another emerging field: recycling. After graduating from Barnard, she got a job at a startup recycling company in Connecticut owned by a friend’s father. She soon understood that truly improving waste systems required a better understanding of the business side, so she enrolled in Yale’s School of Management (SOM).
Fall 2019 Canopy cover image
This article was originally published in the fall 2019 edition of Canopy magazine
In 1990 Chertow was hired to teach waste management at Yale. Within a decade Yale would become ground zero for research into the growing field of industrial ecology, which examines the flow of energy and materials through industrial systems and how those systems might be improved to reduce environmental impacts. After earning her Ph.D. from F&ES, she helped create both the Journal of Industrial Ecology and the International Society of Industrial Ecology in the early 2000s.

“Marian really understands what’s going on on the ground and knows how to make sense of it in a systematic way, building a platform for progress,” says Reid Lifset, a research scholar and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, who met Chertow in 1988.

She practices the same down-to-earth philosophy with her students and teaching. “She cares really deeply about the kind of students we graduate, making sure they get the education they need and can go to the places they need to go,” Lifset says.

Weslynne Ashton ’08 Ph.D. agrees. Ashton, who is now an associate professor of environmental management and sustainability at Illinois Institute of Technology, was Chertow’s first Ph.D. student. She describes her former mentor as not only an “intellectual giant,” but someone who always has time to get to know everyone in her sphere.

“She has this fantastic ability to connect with a diverse, wide range of people on a personal as well as professional level,” Ashton says. “Relationships are really important to her, and she cultivates them in a way that helps students feel confident.”
She’s been going there for over a decade and is ahead of us all. Her research is right where society is heading.
— Bryan Garcia ’00 M.E.M., Connecticut Green Bank
“She also makes space for her family, and the fact that she was able to do both things was a really great example for me,” she says. “And a really great example not only for young women but everyone.”

Another one of Chertow’s former advisees is Bryan Garcia, who earned a Master of Environmental Management degree from F&ES in 2000, with a focus on industrial ecology. Today he is president and CEO of the Connecticut Green Bank, an innovative organization that aims to bring investment to the clean energy space. She helped Garcia land his first job and continues to offer guidance.

“Marian has just been a lifetime mentor,” Garcia says. “Every time I have an important decision in life or my career, she’s the first person I call. She always helps me think about opportunities and challenges from different perspectives.”

Her work over the years has served as a guidepost for others in the field, says Garcia. “She’s been going there for over a decade and is ahead of us all,” he says. “Her research is right where society is heading.”

For Chertow, the work provides such a rewarding symbiosis of intriguing ideas and personalities that — to hear her talk — it doesn’t sound like work at all.

“One of the things I’ve loved about the industrial ecology program is how varied it is,” she says. “You can’t really understand it unless you understand the cultural and political factors in other countries. And when you work in depth with students, you get to the root of the issues that we are trying to manage. Not only have I gained valuable friendships, but I’ve gained a treasure trove of insight.”
PUBLISHED: January 1, 2020
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.