Catalysts for a nature-based future

Nick Heier smiling with mountains and water in the background

Photo courtesy Nick Heier


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

When you spend most of your time as a child in the same city, you become more aware of shifts in the landscape over time that aren’t always for the better. On one of a few trips home to Philadelphia after 20 years in the Marine Corps, Nick Heier noticed the anaerobic state of the creeks he used to spend time in. This was an initial spark that eventually brought him to Arizona State University for biomimicry and construction management.

“I had this compelling need to do something and make it worthwhile,” he said. “This isn’t too far gone. We can reverse some of these negative impacts and make better places to live.”

He looked into various career fields, such as landscape architecture and civil engineering, but most of them didn’t offer remote opportunities or the flexibility he was seeking. After a period of introspection and extensive research, Nick found Arizona State University and hasn’t looked back. As an online student, he found the flexibility he sought but still felt deeply connected to the ASU community. He was able to connect with researchers and professors in his field, work collaboratively and even had the opportunity to conduct research overseas in Norway to advance his understanding of nature-inspired innovation in existing urban environments. 

Heier compared his experience at ASU to catalysts and enzymes, where catalysts make the chance of a chemical reaction more likely.

“It’s really important to understand that function in a huge school like ASU. What are the chances you’re going to run into people in that ecosystem? If I’m walking around campus carrying a bunch of ideas in my hand, then I bump into somebody else carrying a bunch of ideas and the papers fly, we’ll sit down and reshuffle those ideas. That’s what I felt was going on. They could see what you were doing, and they would hand you a paper and say, ‘Hey, did you read this?’ or ‘Would you like to meet this person?’ I’m meeting people that are basically superheroes in this arena, and it’s a very cool experience.”

Nick Heier is graduating with two master’s degrees — a Master of Science in biomimicry from the School of Complex Adaptive Systems within the College of Global Futures, and a Master of construction management and technology from the Del E. Webb School of Construction within the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. With the skills and tools obtained from these programs, Heier hopes to build nature-inspired solutions to modern infrastructure issues. After graduation, Heier plans to research biomimicry and nature-inspired solutions for the built environment in relation to the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane, Australia. Additionally, he will be working with Biomimicry 3.8, continuing his work with Dayna Baumeister. 

Read on to learn more about his ASU journey. 

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: Right now, I’m going through the process of refining my education portfolio and looking at all the work I’ve submitted. My work, from what I posted very early on and what I thought I would be doing in comparison to what I am doing now, didn’t have a massive pivot by any means. Rather, the amount I was able to develop these ideas at ASU is profound. It sounds patronizing almost, but I was able to ask questions, bounce ideas off people and grow mature ideas based on my earlier work. I know that I can help advance frontiers in this manner, and that’s 100% because of the faculty I had here like Janine Benyus, Dayna Baumeister and Kristen Parrish. They were ready to take a very rough form of what was going on in my mind and helped me to advance it, which says a lot about them. I give them a lot of credit. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school? 

A: Reach out and make those connections. You have to do your part to be the substrate or enzyme in that reaction. If you’re present, if you show up and knock on doors, then these connections will happen. You’re going to do a lot more because we do a lot more together with the right people than we’re ever going to do on our own. I think that a lot of people, especially in the online environment, perceive that there’s a barrier there, and maybe they don’t allow themselves to seek out these connections. But I’m telling you, I have met superheroes that are changing the world because of this program. I would read a paper and then I would call that person, or I would go down to campus and I would meet them and they would walk me around. I got a lot out of it. That’s what I would say to people. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? For online students, what was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: In Colorado, I had three or four cafes near my house that I would rotate around. When I had the ability and really wanted to power study something, I would go to the Denver Botanic Gardens. They have a really nice library there. I’d be able to go and walk around the gardens and look at things while having a little bit of nature, to check the box that I went outside and wasn’t just stuck in my room at home. Here in Norway, I’ve mostly worked in their libraries — they have incredible public spaces, so I’ll just post up there and get work done.  

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I thought about this one. What I would tackle is the problem that $40 million is not enough to solve a problem. Not any of the big ones, anyway. The way to do that is to take the $40 million and empower as many people as possible to be solving problems. So what I would do with it is probably turn around and endow it.

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