From her green childhood to our sustainable future: Adrienn Sánta ‘18

Champion swimmer Adrienn Sánta blends her family’s green living experience with “Evie” research to find her future.

Story by Kim Cobb

Championship swimming skills and a certain fearlessness brought Adrienn Sánta from a small town in Hungary to Dallas and SMU, but it’s a little mobile greenhouse called “Evie” that has helped her find her passion.

Adrienn grew up in the 2000-year-old town of Pecs in southwest Hungary, near the border with Croatia.  She started swimming at 4, and was doing so competitively by the time she was 8. And she was good – very good – ultimately winning both Hungarian and Croatian national championships.

“Honestly, I didn’t even think about going to college in the United States until almost my last year of high school,” she recalls. But it flipped a mental switch for the young swimmer after a friend on her club swim team was accepted at an American university and showed her how to navigate the application process. She reached out to universities with swimming programs and started getting offers.

SMU Swim Coach Steven Collins impressed her, giving her the facts and the space to choose for herself – no pressure, and no hard sell. And he offered her a full athletic scholarship that was renewed for each of the four years she swam and studied at SMU.

“I’m really grateful for him,” Adrienn said. “This is probably the best thing that has happened to me, and the best decision I could make in my life – so far!”

“My parents always encouraged me to make my own decisions, even when I was a kid. Obviously, I had some guidance from my Mom, but they encouraged me to come here to SMU because they knew it was a really great opportunity. It went by really fast!”

It worked out well for SMU, too.  Adrienn, now 23, swam on SMU women’s teams that won the conference championship each of her first two years on the Hilltop. But while she spent an awful lot of time in chlorine, including working as a swim instructor at Dedman Center, she knew swimming would not be her life. She was pursuing degrees in both mechanical engineering and math, but wasn’t sure where that would take her.

“I am a swimming instructor at Dedman Center – have been since I was a freshman.   That’s a great environment and I love working there. I teach, kids, adults, faculty members, students as well – whoever signs up!”

So what about Evie?

Adrienn stumbled onto a project already underway in the Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity in the Lyle School of Engineering, where students and faculty combine research with practical, marketable applications to counter the effects of local and global poverty. The project is “Evie,” a mobile greenhouse built into the shell of an old Shasta camping trailer. The greenhouse serves as a laboratory for researching healthy food production for people living in food deserts – places that lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The Hunt Institute points to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that identified half of South Dallas as a food desert because large, well-stocked grocery stores are not readily accessible by public transportation.

Evie arrived at SMU in 2017 and got a quick, exterior facelift. But Hunt Institute planners knew from the start that it would take design work and elbow grease to create reliable climate control for Evie and to maintain soil conditions for growing plants – particularly in the Texas heat. That’s where Adrienn began to find her focus, working as an undergraduate research assistant and an Engaged Learning fellow to collect data on heating and cooling systems in greenhouses.

Then, Adrienn and a team of students worked throughout this last year to analyze the impact of heat absorption on the small, metal trailer, the potential for using solar power, and the refrigeration cycle for this “greenhouse for good.” The goal has been to find a sustainable (and that means affordable) solution for cooling small greenhouses, retrofitting tiny Evie for current use, and providing a climate control template for other small, mobile greenhouse solutions in communities looking to grow their own healthy foods.

“When I started working at the Hunt Institute, Evie’s Phase 1 was done,” Adrienn said. “The senior design project was about going through the processes to fix Evie’s heating and cooling challenges. This is very important because Evie is small. To size this system is not easy – and that was great!”

Adrienn knows exactly why Evie has given her so much joy:

“This goes back to my childhood in Hungary – I grew up in a very sustainable environment. My Dad was all about sustainability, getting better insulation, making the house shadier. We didn’t have an air conditioner at home, so making the house cooler in the summer is hard – but not impossible.  We also have solar panels on our house at home. So we have a zero electricity bill.  And my Mom – we produce our own vegetables and fruits in my grandma’s garden, and my great grandparents’ garden.

“So when I started working at the Hunt Institute, and I learned about food deserts, I realized, Oh my God – I grew up in this awesome place!” Adrienn said.

“If I could help people to walk that sustainability path, that would be amazing. I might not have the money to help people, but maybe with knowledge I can help them reduce their living costs and produce their own vegetables – which is really important.

“Definitely the Hunt Institute helped me to figure this out,” Adrienn said.

“I think Evie is a wonderful idea and I believe it has a future. I hope that urban famers can use it later on, and that low-income communities can benefit from it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a trailer – it’s a guide for other people, to show ways they might approach the problem.”

The Future is Here

“Honestly, I am super excited about graduation,” said Adrienn, who left SMU with two bachelor’s degrees – one in mechanical engineering from the Lyle School of Engineering and another in math from Dedman College of Humanities and Science. “I feel like it’s a big deal for me, because I’m the first one in the family to study abroad. It’s also a really big deal for my family to come here. This is their first visit, and I hope they are going to enjoy it.”

When her family returns to Hungary, Adrienn’s life will continue in Dallas: She has landed a job she is excited about with Brandt, an engineering company that spells out its mission as “building a sustainable future for the communities we serve.”

As far as competitive swimming goes, she says she is fully retired, but the athlete inside her is not. Watch for her on Dallas hike-and-bike trails as Adrienn begins training for Iron Man competitions.

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