UF alumnus who helped international airport go carbon neutral shares career advice with students

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — During a recent visit to the University of Florida campus, alumnus Robert Horton, vice president of environmental affairs at Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport, encouraged students to focus on more than technical expertise when preparing for their careers.

“My main message to students was to pay attention to the essential skills you’re learning at UF — how to identify the problem, frame the problem and find solutions,” Horton said. “These are skills you will use throughout your career.”

Horton knows a thing or two about understanding and solving problems. Under Horton’s leadership, the DFW has become the first carbon neutral airport in North America and the largest airport in the world to achieve this status to date.

Robert Horton, right, with graduate school adviser Pierce Jones.

Making the airport more sustainable required a holistic, systems-based approach that Horton first encountered as an undergraduate and later graduate student in the UF department of agricultural and biological engineering, part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“Pierce Jones, my graduate adviser, saw that I had a keen interest in climate change science, and in his program, I got hands on
experience, installing sensors in buildings to measure humidity, temperature and all the external climate impacts on a building’s structure,” Horton said. “I view him as one of the pioneers in energy sustainability — he was doing that work way before it was cool.”

During his visit, Horton urged faculty members to never underestimate the power of inspiring just one student in the way that Jones had.

Agricultural and biological engineering faculty also exposed Horton to a variety of science and engineering topics. “One of the selling points of the program was the diverse portfolio of skills I knew I would learn,” he said.

This versatility meant that Horton was less limited when he graduated and began looking for a job. Before his position at the airport, he worked as an environmental engineer and civil engineer, using business, leadership and communications skills he honed as a student to rise up the corporate ladder.

Horton didn’t always envision a career in sustainability. Born and raised in Guyana, he would often go with his siblings and father to the Guyana International Airport to watch planes land and take off. He was fascinated with flight and dreamed of going into aviation.

However, after eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served as a unit dispatcher during Operation Desert Storm, he returned to the U.S. with a different outlook on his career path.

“In Saudi Arabia, I saw the air pollution that came from the burning oil wells that created this thick black smoke,” Horton said. “I saw the impact that humans can have on the environment.”

When he returned to the U.S. as a student at UF, he knew he wanted to pursue a career that would help communities and businesses operate more sustainably and conserve natural resources.

As Horton gained experience in the field, he also found that sustainability made good business sense. “At the airport, we’ve reduced our electricity bill by nearly half. We’re saving money while also lowering our carbon footprint,” he said.

But sustainability is about more than the bottom line, especially for a massive airport that’s flanked by two large cities, Horton explained.

“At DFW we adopted a decision-making approach called EONS: economic viability, operational efficiency, natural resource conservation and social responsibility. If you focus on just one, everything else will suffer,” he said. “We have to make sure that we are taking care of the resources the community depends on. We are showing that we are a good neighbor.”

Young people who want to get into sustainability careers need to think about what kind of impact they hope to make, Horton said. “You have to focus in on what motivates and interests you, and how you can play a role in the field. Visualize how you can make a difference in the area for which you have a passion.”

In honor of his accomplishments, Horton received the 2017 Agricultural and Biological Engineering Distinguished Alumnus Award.

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By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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