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PEI Class Day honors newest graduates of Princeton's environmental studies program

Publish Date: 
Tuesday, June 6, 2017 - 1:30pm

Class Day 2017

By Morgan Kelly, Princeton Environmental Institute

Thirty-one Princeton University seniors emerged from Guyot Hall on June 5 as the latest recipients of certificates in environmental studies from the Princeton Environmental Institute. The certificates and prizes for notable undergraduate research — including three inaugural book prizes — were presented during PEI Class Day.

"This is a terrific bunch of students," said Director of the Program in Environmental Studies Dan Rubenstein, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "They've been engaged, asking each other tough questions, giving advice, and, again, they've produced some amazing theses."

Before the certificates were awarded, select seniors received prizes for outstanding thesis research, or their exceptional engagement with environmental studies. (See our related story on PEI Discovery Day.) Full descriptions of the prizes are below.

The inaugural PEI Environmental Studies Book Prizes were presented to students in three categories who conducted exceptional research and demonstrated an ability to communicate about it. Janice Sung of art and archaeology received the prize in Environmental Humanities; Christian Gray of chemistry was honored with the prize in Environmental Science; and the prize in Environmental Policy went to Brett Usinger in the Woodrow Wilson School.

Class Day 2017

Zoe Sims received the Environmental Studies Senior Thesis Prize for her work studying the effect of groundwater pollution from sewage on coral reefs in Bermuda. (Related story on Sims.)

"All over of the world, corals, beautiful coral reefs are at war with algae — and the algae are winning. Reef after reef after reef is flipping from the kind of place you want to visit on vacation to an algal barren, which is the kind of place that you don't," said Sims' adviser Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who presented her with the prize.

"She proved [her thesis] with a series of ingenious and complicated and cutting-edge measurements and experiments and showed that that input of nutrients [from sewage] is harming the corals' capacity to build their skeletons, and it's also being taken up by marine algae," Pacala said. "This is cutting-edge research, it's important, it's graduate-level. I expect great things from Zoe in the future."

Class Day 2017

The Peter W. Stroh '51 Environmental Senior Thesis Prize went to Marcus Spiegel in civil and environmental engineering, who used machine learning to create a map of groundwater resources in Zambia, and geosciences student Adrian Tasistro-Hart, who worked in Bolivia to study the record of the climatic influence of orbital forcing found in warm-weather lakes.

Class Day 2017

"It's a new contribution not only for Zambia, but it's also a new contribution to the literature," said Spiegel's adviser, Lyndon Estes, an associate research scholar in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "It's an excellent piece of work that represents very well what I know Marcus can do, which is figure out complex methods on his own, present them to me in a tractable and understandable way and do something that's useful for society."

In presenting the Stroh Prize to Tasistro-Hart, his co-adviser Blair Schoene, an associate professor of geosciences, said: "It became very clear to me early on working with Adrian that you need to, or maybe it's just inevitable, that you treat him more like a colleague than an advisee. The rigor that he brings to a project, the sophistication with which he both reads the literature and thinks about his problems creatively are beyond most if not all undergraduates that I've seen at Princeton."

Shannon Osaka, an independent major focusing on environmental science and environmental studies, received the T. A. Barron Environmental Leadership Prize from Erika Milam, an associate professor of history, and François Morel, director of the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Albert G. Blanke, Jr., Professor of Geosciences and the Princeton Environmental Institute.

Osaka studied the development of scientists' perception of the function and effect of climate, and also has worked for environmental non-profit organizations and government agencies, is active in student government, and is a creative and editorial writer.

"Shannon Osaka is one of those delightful students who immediately charms you with her dedication, her research and her tendency to go above and beyond simply because she wanted to know more," Milam said. "[Her] commitment to Princeton and environmental issues has extended far beyond the classroom."

Class Day 2017

PEI Class Day Awards and Prizes

Environmental Studies Book Prizes

Presented this year for the first time, the Environmental Studies Book Prizes recognize one student in each of three categories for outstanding senior thesis research and the ability to communicate the results and significance of their work. Candidates are interviewed by PEI faculty and members of the institute's executive committee, who then select the winners. This year's honorees received a copy of "The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis," by geographer Ruth DeFries.

Environmental Humanities

Janice SungJanice Sung, Art and Archaeology
Thesis title
: Place, Performance, and Possibility: Interconnectivity in William Sidney Mount's "The Power of Music"
Thesis adviser: Rachel DeLue, associate professor of art and archaeology

Environmental Science

Christian GrayChristian Gray, Chemistry
Thesis title
: Lock-and-Key Model Incompatible with Tropical Panamanian Legumes
Thesis adviser: Lars Hedin, George M. Moffett Professor of Biology professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the Princeton Environmental Institute

Environmental Policy

Brett UsingerBrett Usinger, Woodrow Wilson School
Thesis title
: Beyond the Pale Blue Dot: Sustainability in Space Resource Policy
Thesis adviser: Christopher Chyba, professor of astrophysical sciences and international affairs


Environmental Studies Senior Thesis Prize

The Environmental Studies Senior Thesis Prize is awarded annually to one senior in the Environmental Studies Certificate Program who has produced the best thesis in the broad area of environmental studies. Student nominations are made by departmental thesis advisers and the winner receives $1,000.

Zoe SimsZoe Sims, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Thesis title: Where the Groundwater Meets the Sea: Ecological Impacts of Nutrient-Enriched Groundwater Discharge on Bermuda's Near-Shore Coral Reefs
Thesis adviser: Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


Peter W. Stroh '51 Environmental Thesis Prize

The Peter W. Stroh '51 Environmental Senior Thesis Prize was established in 2003 as a memorial to Peter W. Stroh '51, an active member of PEI's Advisory Council and an enthusiastic supporter of the Environmental Studies Program. The $2,000 prize is awarded annually to the student who has produced the best thesis on an environmental topic.

Marcus SpiegelMarcus Spiegel, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Thesis title: A Machine Learning Approach to Predicting Groundwater Potential in Zambia From Geologic and Remotely Sensed Variables
Thesis advisersJames Smith, William and Edna Macaleer Professor of Engineering and Applied Science and professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Lyndon Estes, associate research scholar, Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Adrian Tasistro-HartAdrian Tasistro-Hart, Geosciences
Thesis title: Astronomically Forced Hydrology of the Late Cretaceous Sub-Tropical Potosí Basin
Thesis advisers: Adam Maloof and Blair Schoene, associate professors of geosciences


T. A. Barron Environmental Leadership Prize

The Thomas A. Barron Environmental Leadership Prize recognizes a member of the graduating class who has distinguished himself or herself by showing exceptional dedication to environmental concerns, not only in formal classes and independent academic work, but also by leading and encouraging activities among fellow students and in the community at large. A $5,000 prize is included.

Shannon OsakaShannon Osaka, Independent major
Thesis title: Modeling the Anthropocene: Agency in a Climate-Changed World
Thesis adviser: Emmanual Kreike, professor of history


Download Class Day 2017 brochureEach year, one or two rising seniors are selected to receive the Becky Colvin ’95 Memorial Award. This award is presented by the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in support of field research projects critical to the senior thesis. The recipient of the 2017 award was Alana Reynolds '18, who is majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology and is advised by Robert Pringle, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Reynolds will look to construct, improve upon and evaluate different methods to deter African elephants from raiding the crops of subsistence farmers bordering Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

Posted by: 
Morgan Kelly