Featured Employee

Hannah Ashenafi

Hannah Ashenafi

As Hannah Ashenafi and her 70 classmates in the chemical engineering program at the University of Maryland neared graduation three years ago, they figured it was a slam dunk that there would be a multitude of entry level jobs waiting for them in the private sector.

But months came and went and few found employment in the petroleum refining industry. Fortunately, Hannah’s mother worked as an accountant in Maryland state government and knew the ins and outs of job seeking in the public sector. An air quality planning job showed up in the Air and Radiation Management Administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“I noted in the interview that this wasn’t my background but that I also was intrigued by it,” Hannah said.

Hannah was hired, starting a meteoric rise which culminated in the Towson native being selected last month as MDE Employee of the Year for 2015. Her work analyzing the effectiveness of NOx pollution control equipment on power plant units was pivotal in a larger effort to determine the effect that emissions from power plants both inside and outside Maryland have on the state’s air quality.

Hannah, who manages the State’s clean air plans, analyzed the overall effect of not operating NOx pollution controls optimally and did so in a way to counter any arguments about capacity changes. She developed updatable spreadsheets that calculate the additional NOx emissions emitted to the atmosphere on a daily basis and formulated graphs to easily see the effects of not optimizing controls.

The analysis has been presented to regional air quality organizations and several policy units within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hannah’s analysis is becoming a standard way of determining how effective NOx controls are being run. The emission rates and the later estimation of their effect on air quality help shape policy on combating ozone transported into Maryland.

“We were examining data from a 32-state area and in some states we found major discrepancies between actual and expected emission rates in many of the power plants where NOx control devices (catalytic converters) had been installed. Our research showed that the control devices aren’t being used to the best of their ability to control emissions,” Hannah said.

The nomination letter for the employee of the year award noted that Hannah’s efforts “demonstrate her creative problem solving instincts and attention to detail, which are much appreciated by the entire (ARMA) planning program.”

Hannah’s parents came to Maryland in the early 1980s from their native Ethiopia on student visas and later received asylum because of all the unrest in the country at the time. Her father, now retired, studied at the University of Baltimore and became a housing inspector for the City of Baltimore. Her mother attended Morgan State University before launching her career in state service.

“There are expectations in Ethiopian society, and in my household, to pursue higher education and become a doctor or lawyer,” Hannah said. “There aren’t any engineers in my family. But I loved physics and math. I want to thank my coworker Emily Bull, our supervisor Roger Thurnell and (ARMA Director) Tad Aburn. We’ve done this as a team.” ​