Ph.D. Research at CSS

Ph.D. students studying sustainable systems with the Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) faculty at the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) receive interdisciplinary training as they develop the knowledge and analytical skills to become subject matter experts. In our rigorous program, you'll learn from distinguished faculty along side other top students. Previous graduates have been successful in getting prominent placements in academia, national labs, and industry.

Why Earn your Ph.D. with CSS?

More Sustainability Experts Compare us to other Ph.D. programs. Few other schools have the number of faculty who are recognized sustainability experts. CSS provides an intellectual community that combines academic rigor with passionate yet practical training of change agents.

Collaboration Across Academic Fields Finding sustainable solutions often requires considering problems from many different perspectives. For SEAS doctoral students, having a multidisciplinary committee is expected, not exceptional. Faculty from business, economics, engineering, and urban planning are among those who will guide you in your research.

Coupling Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Training Some doctoral students choose to couple a traditional disciplinary Ph.D., often in an engineering field, with the interdisciplinary education obtained through SEAS. Such students craft their curriculum to meet the needs of both programs and conduct their research under a single research committee.

Extensive University Expertise The University of Michigan has a wide array of Centers and Institutes that can enrich your academic and research experience, including:

A Community Enthusiastic about Sustainability Studying with CSS in the School for Environment and Sustainability, you will be part of a vibrant body of graduate students from a broad set of backgrounds and diverse career goals with a common goal of making a sustainable difference in the world. At SEAS and across the campus, Ph.D. students are key contributors to sustainability groups across campus including the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program, Sustainability without Borders, and The Michigan Energy Club.

Examples of Past Ph.D. Research

Research Area Research Example Collaborators and Contributors
Energy Systems Biofuel from algae: Algae can be grown and used as potential feedstock for the production of biofuel, which can be used to displace petroleum. Using a life-cycle based model that incorporated upstream (algae production) and downstream (nutrient/water reclamation) processes, this research evaluated the system sustainability performance in order to optimize the design of integrated hydrothermal-catalytic-microbial processes for the production of biofuel from algae, and compared this system to conventional and other bio-based hydrocarbon production systems.
  • U-M Chemical Engineering
  • U-M Chemistry
Mobility Systems Vehicle lightweighting by powertrain: Reducing an automobile's mass through the use of lighter or stronger materials (vehicle lightweighting) can improve fuel economy, while utilizing hybrid and electric vehicles powertrains also has the potential to yield environmental benefits. This work assessed the potential of electrified vehicles and mass reduction to reduce life cycle energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Life cycle assessment (LCA) was used to account for processes upstream and downstream of the vehicle operation, thereby incorporating regional variation of energy and GHG emissions due to conventional and lightweight materials. Design harmonization methods developed in previous work were applied to create baseline and lightweight vehicle models of an internal combustion vehicle (lCV), hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) and plug-in-hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).
  • U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center for Clean Vehicles (CERC-CVC)
  • General Motors
Urban Systems & Built Environment Sustainability of 'bendable concrete': While traditional concrete is very brittle, an engineered cementitious composite (ECC) was developed at the University of Michigan with the ability to withstand far more strain. A significant application for this material is in roadway infrastructure. An integrated life cycle assessment and life cycle cost analysis model was developed to calculate the environmental impacts and costs of rigid pavement overlay systems resulting from material production and distribution, overlay construction and maintenance, construction-related traffic congestion, overlay usage, and end of life management. An unbonded concrete overlay system, a hot mix asphalt overlay system, and the alternative ECC overlay system were compared.
  • C.A. Hull
  • Holcim
  • Michigan Dept. of Transportation
  • NIST
  • Portland Cement Association
  • USGS
  • World Business Council for Sustainable Development



SEAS and the University of Michigan have a wide array of courses to develop skill and expertise in sustainability analysis as well as a further your subject area knowledge. The program is very flexible, so you can tailor your course-load to help advance your goals. Some of the examples of key courses include:

ALUMNI Placements

Jose Alfaro
Assistant Professor of Environmental Practice and Director of Global Engagement
School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Ph.D. SNRE, 2014

Jose Alfaro was born in San Jose, Costa Rica. He first came to the US with a two year scholarship from the Methodist Church to Hiwassee Junior College. Two years turned into 16 and counting! After Hiwassee, Jose got a B.S. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. During his time there he participated in the coop program working with Mitsubishi PET Films. After graduation he went to work for Mitsubishi full-time, first as a Process Engineer and later as Research and Development Engineer with responsibilities for marketing and technical service as well. During his tenure in R&D, Jose had global responsibilities for several products and filed a patent resulting in a multi-million dollar market. Because of his passion for global engagement and in particular developing countries, he decided to return to school to engage in the environmental field. He obtained an M.S. in Environmental Engineering from Clemson University and a Ph.D. in Natural Resource Management and Policy at the University of Michigan. His research developed Agent-Based Models that can be used by policy makers to create master plans of renewable energy deployment. His field work and case study were based on the country of Liberia where Jose has been working in several manners since 2008. This included volunteering, consulting, research, and his extensive participation in the USAID sponsored project, Excellence in Higher Education for Liberian Development at the University of Michigan. At U-M He also launched the student organization Sustainability Without Borders (SWB), with the mission to create a network of sustainability practitioners through education, capacity building, and small development projects. SWB is now an officially sponsored organization of the Center for Sustainable Systems.  Jose is now an Assistant Professor of Environmental Practice and Director of Global Engagement at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He continues to focus his research on developing countries, appropriate technology, and the best ways for sustainability to be used as part of a development agenda.


Kevin Bolon
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Ann Arbor
Ph.D. SNRE, 2011

At EPA, Kevin works for the EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality Assessment. His current projects include greenhouse gas regulation development for 2017-2025 model year cars and trucks, trends in the adoption of emissions-reducing technology for vehicles, vehicle mass reduction technologies and applications, travel behavior and survey methods. In addition to graduating with a Ph.D. from SNRE in 2011, Kevin graduated with a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1996 before joining Nissan Technical Center as a senior project engineer where he worked for body structural components for 8 years.



Andres Clarens
Assistant Professor
Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Virginia
Ph.D. Civil & Environmental Engineering, 2007

Andres Clarens is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Virginia and the Director of the Virginia Environmentally Sustainable Technologies Laboratory. His research focuses of pollution prevention and green engineering with an emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, power and transportation systems. He has more than eight years of experience applying his formal training in surface chemistry to problems in metalworking, coal-fired power production and carbon sequestration. At present, he is engaged in several projects looking at carbon cycling on a variety of scales from the micrometer scale where is exploring the geophysics of deep underground storage of carbon dioxide to the kilometer scale where he is studying systems level sequestration of carbon dioxide in engineered algae facilities. He has also served in the United States Peace Corps developing drinking water systems for rural villages on the Dominican/Haitian border. In addition to his PhD, Andres holds a M.S.E. in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.S.E. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia.


Alissa Kendall
Associate Professor
Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Davis
Ph.D. SNRE/Civil & Environmental Engineering, 2007

Alissa Kendall is an Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis. Before joining U-C Davis in 2007, she earned a multi-disciplinary Ph.D. in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her research uses life cycle assessment, along with other industrial ecology tools, to assess the sustainability of transportation systems, energy systems and the built environment. In parallel, she also works to develop improved methods for life cycle assessment practice, focusing particularly on the treatment of long-lived systems and climate forcing emissions. In addition to her Ph.D., Alissa received an M.S. from the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and holds a B.S.E. in Environmental Engineering from Duke University.



Marc Melaina
Senior Engineer
National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colorado
Ph.D. SNRE, 2005

Marc Melaina's research involves modeling alternative fuel infrastructure development, market barriers, stakeholder decisions, and low-carbon transportation scenarios. Before joining NREL in 2007, Marc worked as a research track director within the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis. Additional work experience includes consulting for Argonne National Laboratory, the Defense Logistics Agency, the National Academy of Sciences, an internship at the National Transportation Research Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and support staff within the City of Ann Arbor Energy Office. Marc completed his Ph.D. in Resource, Policy, and Behavior through the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. He also completed an M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Michigan, and a B.A. in Physics at the University of Utah.


Nolan Orfield
Intermittent Lecturer, School of Natural Resources and Environment
Tech Entrepreneur & Product Design Engineer at Aquaro Biosystems, Clear Estimates Inc, Ann Arbor
Ph.D. SNRE, 2013

Nolan is a lecturer at the University of Michigan where he developed and teaches the course “Advanced LCA Methods and Software Tools”. His research focuses on product design and the role that life cycle modeling can play in the creation of products that serve rather than deplete the planet. His background in both entrepreneurship and academic research position him to understand not only the complex interaction between goods and the natural world, but also the design constraints required for commercialization. Nolan also co-founded and serves as Engineering Manager for Aquaro Biosystems where he designs innovative cancer research technologies. Prior to enrolling at Michigan, he founded the software company Clear Estimates and obtained a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame.



Deepak Sivaraman
Energy Economist and Analyst
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland/Kennewick/Pasco, Washington
Ph.D. SNRE, 2010

Deepak works as an Energy Economist in the Appliance and Commercial Equipment Standards (ACES) division of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. His work involves rule making for increasing energy efficiency of various commercial appliances, and conducting technical analysis of resultant energy and economic implications of such potential DOE legislation. In his time as a student, Deepak worked on energy economics with a focus on photovoltaic technologies, his research was very interdisciplinary involving life cycle engineering, renewable energy systems, applied economics and regulatory policy analysis. In addition to a Ph.D. from SNRE, Deepak graduated with M.A. in applied economics from the University of Michigan and a Master of Environmental Engineering from the University of Florida. Deepak was also a research fellow and lecturer at UCLA between 2012 and 2014, where he taught classes such as "Environmental Politics and Governance" and "Life Cycle Engineering and Systems." While at UCLA, Deepak worked with Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Southern California Gas Company where he led the team to establish baseline estimates for electricity demand at the census block group level in LA.


Han Zhang
Lead EHS & Sustainability Manager
Dow Chemical Company, Midland, Michigan
Ph.D. SNRE, 2009

Han is responsible for Dow’s Chemical's Sustainability Reporting, including annual sustainability report, quarterly reporting on 2015 Sustainability Goals, and Dow’s annual submission to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Han conducts the annual updates of Dow’s Sustainable Chemistry Index, which measures each of the company's business units and their progress toward the 2015 Sustainable Chemistry Goal. He also conducts life cycle assessment projects and assists in Dow's efforts to define next-generation approaches to sustainable chemistry. Han holds a bachelor and masters degree in thermal engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing City, China. Han also worked as a life cycle analyst for ConocoPhillips in Houston between 2011 and 2012. In 2009, Han worked for ExxonMobil as an engineer, where he conducted environmental impact assessment for a range of products and processes across the company's chemical and petroleum business areas, including film products, refining process, and unconventional hydrocarbon resources.


Julie Zimmerman
Associate Professor
School of Engineering and Applied Science/School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale
Ph.D. SNRE/Civil & Environmental Engineering, 2003

Julie is an Associate Professor of Green Engineering jointly appointed in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering) and the School of Forestry and Environment at Yale University. Dr. Zimmerman also serves as the Acting Director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale. Her research interests include green chemistry and engineering, systems dynamics modeling of natural and engineered water systems, environmentally benign design and manufacturing, the fate and impacts of anthropogenic compounds in the environment as well as appropriate water treatment technologies for the developing world. She also conducts research on corporate environmental behavior and governance interventions to enhance the integration of sustainability in industry and academia. She previously served as an Engineer in the Office of Research and Development at the United States Environmental Protection Agency where she managed grants to academia and small businesses in the areas of pollution prevention and sustainability and launched EPA’s P3 (People, Prosperity, and the Planet) Award Program: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability. In addition to her joint Ph.D., Julie received an M.S. in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering at the University of Michigan, and she holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Virginia.