Pete Marra sets up bird nets in front of mountains
Category: Spirit of Georgetown

Title: A Bird Researcher and a Business Alumna Innovate Environmental Solutions — and Find Hope

Date Published: April 6, 2022
Pete Marra holds binoculars with the text

Peter P. Marra is the founding director of The Earth Commons, a new institute at Georgetown that accelerates action, research and education on the most pressing environmental and sustainability challenges locally and globally. He is also the Laudato Si’ Professor in Biology and the Environment.

Georgetown’s newest Spirit of Georgetown value, “Care for Our Common Home,” is inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’, which calls humanity to responsibility and care for the environment and is subtitled “on care for our common home.”

Marra joined Georgetown in 2019 after 20 years at the Smithsonian, where he served as the director of its Migratory Bird Center and studied migratory bird patterns across the Western Hemisphere. After witnessing multiple species decline, Marra realized he could do more for the environment by training the next generation of leaders.

“Coming to Georgetown provided the opportunity to build the institutional strengths to train the next generation to take on those challenges and make the world a better place — for wildlife, for the birds that I love and for humans,” he says.

Marra stands surrounded by trees talking to an attentive group of people
Marra discusses habitat structures used by bird species in coffee plantations in Colombia with students. Photo courtesy of Ken Rosenberg.

Empowering the Next Generation to Care for Our Common Home

At Georgetown, Marra has developed a master’s degree in environmental and sustainability management in collaboration with the McDonough School of Business and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences as well as a postdoctoral fellowship. In the coming years, the Earth Commons will develop additional master’s programs, undergraduate offerings and a Ph.D. program in the environment. 

In his role as a professor and director, Marra is building interdisciplinary collaborations with faculty, staff, outside organizations and researchers to create a robust research and education hub for students and faculty and develop scalable solutions for Georgetown’s campus and for the planet. 

“The Earth Commons is going to provide critical opportunities for students from all over the world to come to Washington, DC, and learn how they can learn and contribute to our future around protecting the environment and living more sustainably,” says Marra. “In so many ways, we’re helping people be more hopeful and optimistic about the future of our common home.” 

Pete Marra stands with binoculars with a rainbow in the background
Marra pictured on a research trip to Nome, Alaska in 2018. Photo by Tim Romano, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

*

Alumna Spotlight:

Air Pollution in Her Hometown Spurred This Business Student To Make Waves

“I want to apply the knowledge I’ve gained through my studies and experiences in a way that’s impactful to others.”

— Anna Giaquinto (B’21)
Anna Giaquinto stands in front of a brick wall
Giaquinto aimed to address the inaccessibility of air quality monitors after growing up in an area afflicted by air pollution.

Anna Giaquinto (B’21) grew up in Buffalo, New York, near a 129-acre coal plant that chugged out bogs of smoke along the Niagara River. 

Giaquinto was in her first year at Georgetown when the plant shut down, spurred in large part by community activists who had installed their own air quality monitors and pushed for the plant’s closure. While she wasn’t on the ground at the time, her hometown’s coal plant still left its mark on her next steps.

“My community was fortunate to be able to purchase air quality monitors, but they’re inaccessible in a lot of communities around the world,” she says. “I wanted to provide people around the world with similar tools and avoid this problem before it’s too late.” 

Incubating Solutions in the Maker Hub

Giaquinto joined the Maker Hub at Georgetown, a collaborative space for Georgetown entrepreneurs, researchers and creatives in Lauinger Library. She noticed how unaffordable and inaccessible air quality devices were and met fellow students who had experienced similar conditions, including her co-founder, Neal Singal (B’22), in his hometown of New Delhi, India.

Small, white, accordion-like device on a wood dresser
Giaquinto and Singal designed their prototype in Georgetown’s Maker Hub, which promotes innovation and hands-on learning through workshops, curricular engagement and one-on-one project mentorship.

Giaquinto and her co-founders created a prototype of a commercial grade air quality monitor that could be installed in schools, offices and homes to detect changes in air quality alongside a phone application that generated updates and reports.

She and Singal pitched the product at Georgetown’s Bark Tank competition, an annual event that supports Georgetown students launching business ventures that address the world around them. They took home $20,000 in prize money, incorporated as Globally Unified Air Quality (GUAQ) and began building their business.

Startup Life Post-College

Today, Giaquinto lives and works at Halcyon House in the Georgetown neighborhood, which provides a year-long entrepreneurial program. Her product is being manufactured and will be deployed in the U.S. over the next few months. Startup life is hard, she says, filled with legal, manufacturing, supply chain and fundraising nuances and challenges. Still, she’s glad she chose this path.

“I want to apply the knowledge I’ve gained through my studies and experiences in a way that’s impactful to others,” she says. “There’s something different about knowing the work you do every day is changing and bettering the lives of people based on their health. I wasn’t able to help in my own community, but I have this newfound opportunity to help other communities.”

Editor’s Note: The featured photo is by Tim Romano, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Follow the work of Marra and the Earth Commons by subscribing to the ECo Newsletter.