Environmental Studies and Computer Science
As a young student in Shanghai, Sola Zheng ’17 wanted a college experience that would bring her closer to nature. She found it on Mayflower Hill, but one aspect of rural America jolted her.
“Lifestyle-wise it’s very different,” Zheng said. “I take subways, buses, or bikes everywhere in Shanghai. In Maine, it’s like you have to drive everywhere. That’s a really huge shift.”
Both aspects of Colby—the beautiful setting and Maine’s dependence on cars—informed the path she is on today as a graduate student focused on climate change adaptation and mitigation at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She is especially interested in how we can reduce our dependence on planet-warming fossil fuels by improving the way we get around.
Zheng had come to Colby for its renowned environmental studies program, but her education took on an unexpected dimension in the spring of her first year. “To be honest, I had no idea I would do computer science,” she said. An introductory class with Professor of Computer Science Dale Skrien caught her interest; in subsequent work with Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Program Director Philip Nyhus using GIS (Geographical Information Systems), she realized she enjoyed applying spatial analysis to real-world environmental problems—mapping deforestation in Indonesia, for example.
She began pursuing classes in both environmental studies and computer science, “trying to think about ways the two can go together.” The result: Zheng was the first student at Colby to graduate with the interdisciplinary ES-computation major.
For her senior thesis, she worked with Loren McClenachan, Colby’s Elizabeth and Lee Ainslie Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, to track the impact of climate change on lobster distribution in the Gulf of Maine. Using remote-sensing data and GIS, they found lobsters were likely to move northward and also farther offshore to seek colder waters as the ocean warms.
“Lobsters move easily, but fishermen don’t,” Zheng said. So lobster fishermen on the southern coastline may eventually need to decide “whether they’re going to move with the lobsters, or whether they are going to find a new livelihood.”
Aside from her mother’s love of plants, Zheng said, her megacity upbringing (Shanghai is home to more than 23 million people) was fairly detached from nature. The Colby campus was an introduction to the natural world, and a Jan Plan field trip to Belize—her first experience of the tropics—was “transformative,” she said. “You feel the magic of nature around you,” she recalled. “[Colby] exposed me to the real damage that humans can do to these magical things.”
Now back in a more urban setting in New Haven, Conn., Zhang is focusing her academic work on climate change topics such as energy and transportation, with a goal of working on climate-related analytics. One independent study has looked at improving sustainable transportation metrics for a statewide certification program. For an extracurricular project she worked with an NGO, Center on Climate and Energy Solutions, to look at challenges to implementing 100 percent renewable energy policies in small- and medium-sized cities.
Though she is likely to remain a city person, Zheng says she gained an appreciation of the natural world through Colby that she wouldn’t have gotten somewhere else. It’s a connection that will be important to establish in a world where two-thirds of the population will be living in cities by 2050.
“I’m a fan of the urban lifestyle,” she said, “but I really want to know how we can make it more environmentally friendly.”
Portrait by Heather Perry ‘93