Class Acts: Elizabeth Saliba

Engineering senior served as key player on university track, Solar Decathlon teams

Elizabeth Saliba, a member of the Class of 2022, is committed to sustainable building design. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

Elizabeth Saliba’s journey toward designing a more sustainable future began during her first year at Washington University in St. Louis, when she learned about the Solar Decathlon.

She was struck by a picture of the Lotus House — an energy-efficient residence shaped like a lotus flower that served as Team WashU’s 2018 project — and instantly knew she wanted to become involved. The Solar Decathlon, started by the U.S. Department of Energy, challenges students across the globe to design low-carbon buildings powered by renewable energy.

After declaring her major in mechanical engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering, she was ready to jump in.

“I reached out to Professor Hongxi Yin, who leads the Solar Decathlon, and he immediately took me under his wing,” Saliba said.

Her first experience in Yin’s class was working alongside graduate architecture students designing modular classroom prototypes for an elementary school south of St. Louis. This semester, she is part of the group designing a net-zero energy occupational therapy clinic to be built on Delmar Boulevard. Her team’s focus is designing the mechanical system and solar rooftop array, she said.

Saliba is also a researcher on yet another project, this one funded by the National Science Foundation, which aims to develop thermoelectric concrete modules.

“My research focuses on the interior thermal comfort that can be achieved through radiant heating from the thermoelectric modules,” Saliba said. “The goal is to develop a cleaner form of heating that creates a comfortable indoor environment.”

It seems only fitting that someone working so hard to save the planet should also be so community oriented. Alongside her involvement with sustainable design, Saliba has spent her time at Washington University as part of the top-ranking track and field and cross country teams. As part of that community, she had the opportunity to support her teammates at cross country nationals last fall.

“It was one of the best feelings to be out there as part of such a tight group,” Saliba said. “One of my favorite parts of the sport is watching my teammates succeed in competition. Seeing them smile mid-race brings me so much joy.”

Saliba credits her coach, Jeff Stiles, with creating a nurturing atmosphere.

“He cares about you as not just an athlete, but first and foremost as a person. He’s an advocate for both mental and physical health,” Saliba said.

Mental health is something she has centered in her roles as a tutor and teaching assistant for other undergraduate students.

“I get the opportunity to help people and have conversations that remind them that things will be OK,” Saliba said. “And that even if school is important, it is also important to occasionally take a step back.”

Last semester, Saliba took a trip to Chicago with her Solar Decathlon class. There, she was introduced to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, an architectural, urban planning and engineering firm known for sustainable design. She will begin her career with the firm after she graduates in May. For some, dedicating your life to creating a sustainable future might seem a daunting task. But Saliba is optimistic about this next step in her journey.

“It has been eye opening to meet so many people that are passionate about the environmental impact of buildings,” Saliba said. “ I look forward to joining them.”

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