Graduate student Wren Vogel challenges common perceptions on how we can use invasive plants to make good things

Student Experience

Julie Cooper | February 11, 2022, Updated Feb. 22, 2022

vogel headshot

Sustainability Studies student Wren Vogel has her two feet firmly planted in three colleges at Texas State University — the College of Liberal Arts, the Graduate College, and the College of Science and Engineering, where she is a graduate research assistant in engineering. 

She said it is not standard for a graduate student to be studying in one college and working as a grad assistant in another. Her boss is Dr. Sangchul ‘San’ Hwang, an associate professor of environmental engineering who joined the Ingram School of Engineering in 2020. He is also Vogel’s thesis advisor.

Vogel is a member of HEDGE (Hwang Eco-Friendly Development for Green Environment), a research team. The HEDGE team is harvesting water hyacinths from the San Marcos River and using the invasive plant parts in an eco-friendly menstrual pad. The working title of Vogel’s thesis is “Upcycling Invasive Species to Address Social Issues: Developing a Compostable Menstrual Pad from Water Hyacinth.”

Vogel, the vice president of the student organization Engineers for a Sustainable World, participated in the TEDxTXST event on Feb. 12 at Texas State’s Performing Arts Center. The event had a ‘green’ theme. “My Ted talk is in line with my research; however, I’m not talking about making menstrual pads, this is what the HEDGE team is doing. I’m really just trying to inspire people to look at nature differently. The title of my talk was ‘utility within the unwanted -- upcycling invasive species’ and something that I make sure to do is challenge people's perspectives.” Vogel introduced invasive species and discussed what’s so bad about them, then explained how some plants can be used for good things. I talked about the menstrual pad briefly and then what bamboo can be used for, what cedar trees can be used for, and other applications of water hyacinths.”

four people on bank of river
Vogel (left), Dr. Hwang, and the HEDGE research team extracting water hyacinth from river

The common water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes), native to the Amazon basin, was first introduced in this country in 1884 at the Cotton States Exposition in Louisiana. “People took it home to put it in their private ponds and then it just spread completely across the country. People didn't really realize the environmental impact of it in the beginning, which we usually never do with things like that. But now they have completely realized it's very invasive and very harmful,” Vogel said. The plant quickly spread throughout the Southeastern United States and as far away as California and Washington.

Strangely enough, Vogel said there is no water hyacinth visible in the Guadalupe River, which flows through her hometown of Kerrville.  “I always look every time I visit, but I don’t see it,” she said.

Vogel didn’t start out to study invasive plants and upcycling.  She earned her bachelor’s degree in Geography with a concentration in resource and environmental studies. “Originally my focus going into graduate school — and my ultimate goal — was to work in solid waste management, and planning and urban development. My focus switched more toward this social sustainability aspect, specifically women's rights, women's mobility, and health.”

The Sustainability Studies master’s degree is relatively new to the Department of Sociology, it began in 2016. There is also a minor in sustainability studies for undergraduates.

“My background is in environmentalism so when I heard about the opportunity to work with a group  addressing ‘period poverty’ I was really intrigued. That sounds right up my alley and then, lo and behold, they had this wonderful idea of upcycling the water hyacinth into a compostable menstrual pad that addresses environmental issues, social issues, and health issues,” Vogel said.

And what, exactly is ‘period poverty’?

“You know I can't give you a textbook definition, but here is my definition: it's a lack of either resources or ability. Whether it be fiscally or just physical limitations managing menstruation the most helpful way. It's not limited to just people who menstruate in developing countries — it can be something as common as pads are not provided free in schools,” she said.

So far, the raw cotton and water hyacinth pads are in the early stage of development. “We're having difficulty making the water hyacinth into a hydrogel, which is a type of polymer that's really absorptive. We are running into a little bit of a speed bump,” Vogel said.

Hwang is hopeful. “The project has so far produced proto-type results. We will keep improving them to make tangible products available any time soon. HEDGE would like to make close collaboration with the business and education sectors so that people in need of HEDGE products will have opportunities to get them and also they will be educated on the  importance of sustainable engineering toward the wellbeing of humans and the entire ecosystem,” he said.

 Vogel, who will graduate in May with her master’s degree, has applied to out-of-state doctoral programs. “I love doing research and I love doing research on women's rights, women's involvement, social mobility, and plants,” she said. She would like to continue making discoveries that she said are related to, “how we can take something harmful and use it to make something good.”  

On the Web: Visit the HEDGE Research Team's Facebook page

For more information, contact University Communications:

Jayme Blaschke, 512-245-2555

Sandy Pantlik, 512-245-2922