Jack Duncan: 2010 Outstanding Graduate in the College of Arts & Sciences

Seeking to connect the environmental and political dots

Jack Duncan grew up in Virginia learning never to waste anything, especially those two most precious human and natural treasures — time and resources.

“I get it from my mom, who grew up on a peach orchard,” says Duncan, who will graduate May 21 with a degree in environmental studies in Arts & Sciences. “A farm is a good place to observe the interconnectedness of things and to appreciate people’s roles as the stewards of the natural environment. As a farmer, you can’t get away with abusing things.”

Duncan attended high school in Yorktown, Va., and, without a clear idea of his future, felt the pull of military service and was encouraged by his father, a former Navy Seabee. Duncan saw the Army as a time to figure out his life and a way to pay for college.

After basic training in 2000, he trained as a machinist and was sent to Fort Stewart, Ga. He didn’t figure he’d see combat, but then came Sept. 11, 2001. Eventually his entire division was sent to Kuwait in January 2003.

During the invasion, Duncan drove a HEMTT wrecker — a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck. “It’s like a really big tow truck,” he says. During his second tour in 2005, he drove a gun truck providing protection for convoys around Baghdad.

He married his high school sweetheart between tours, and the couple now has an 11-month-old son, Gavin. They moved to St. Louis in 2006, and Duncan started taking mathematics courses at St. Louis Community College-Meramec that would prepare him for engineering school.

“After Iraq, I saw engineering as a way to help people,” says Duncan, who entered Washington University in 2008 as a transfer student and recipient of a prestigious Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholarship.

“I soon came to the realization that we don’t have the problems we have as a country and a planet because of a lack of technology,” he says. “More technology is not going to cure the societal ills that I was most interested in addressing, such as lifting people out poverty.”

Thoughts like this eventually led him to the study of the environment and geosciences. Duncan’s interests include the development of small-scale power generation as well as waste disposal and sustainable agriculture. Although he always has been environmentally conscious, it was his time in Iraq that brought many of these issues into focus.

“Iraq was a big eye-opener in a lot of ways,” he says. “Wind turbines and concentrated solar energy are pretty mature technologies. We know how to do this. If there’s one thing they have in impoverished countries, it’s a lot of sunlight.

“But I feel we don’t implement those solutions for reasons other than technological ones,” he says.

“You don’t have to talk to Jack very long to realize that he takes what he’s thinking about seriously,” says Jill Pasteris, PhD, professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences. “He may not know exactly what he wants to do after graduation, but he’s thinking very hard about it. I think the world would be a better place if we could clone him somehow.”

Indeed, Duncan has not yet solidified plans for life after graduation, but he continues to discern his future in terms of what he can do about the root causes of the problems the planet faces. Graduate or law school may be in his future, although not immediately. He hasn’t had much time to job hunt while he completes 20 hours of rigorous coursework in his final semester and cares for his son.

That he is thoughtful about his past and the earth’s future is obvious. And he is full of confidence and hope.

“The world’s population will continue to increase, and we’re going to have to learn to work together,” Duncan says. “I would like to be a part of a move away from intense individualism that we have in the West.

“If people were more interested in working together, there are practical solutions to the problems we face,” he says.