PEI Hosts Fifth Annual Discovery Day

Holly P. Welles ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

The Princeton Environmental Institute hosted its 5th Annual Discovery Day on Thursday, May 4th. Discovery Day is a multidisciplinary poster session celebrating undergraduate senior thesis research on environmental issues. Sixty-five (65) students from 16 academic departments showcased their work, which was mentored by 47 faculty advisers.

Discovery Day is a culminating event for students participating in the Program in Environmental Studies and for students receiving research support from PEI. It is an opportunity for students to display and discuss their senior thesis research methodologies and results, to showcase environmental studies projects, to exchange perspectives, and to propose solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. This year, the projects were categorized into several focal themes: climate and energy, energy technology and policy, oceans and the Arctic environment, water and health, biodiversity and land, urban sustainability, and culture and the environment.

Below, several students pictured next to their Discovery Day posters reflect on their senior thesis experience.


Reka Zempleni, Economics

Réka Zempléni ’16, Economics
Adviser: Kelly Caylor
“The S.M.A.R.T.! Game”

I took an environmental course where we played a fisheries game about the “Tragedy of the Commons.” This sparked my interest in producing a game focused on sustainable development —a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time. I had not seen a game on this issue, particularly one that was geared at a fairly basic introductory level. So, as part of my Environmental Studies Certificate, I decided to design one about sustainable development in a resource constrained world, it’s called “Sustainably Manage the Available Resources and Technology! (S.M.A.R.T.!). In the game, the players have to decide how to allocate their resources to the best possible use. They must take care of the needs of their existing population and level of technology while striving to develop without exceeding dangerous pollution levels. The player who is the smartest in managing the trade-offs between outputs and pollution and between present and future needs, wins.

After graduation, I will spend the first half of this summer volunteering at a Buddhist Temple in Sri Lanka on a social and sustainable development project. The second half of the summer, thanks to the the Davies Peace Project, I will be organizing an educational camp for underprivileged children in Hungary, where — among other things — I hope to introduce my S.M.A.R.T.! game. In the fall, I am attending Stanford to pursue a Ph.D. in economics where I plan to do research at the intersection of economics and sustainability and maybe education.


Kathryn Little, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Kathryn Little ’16, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Adviser: Eric Wood
“The Water-Energy-Food Nexus in the United States”

My thesis is about the water-energy-food nexus and its manifestation in the United States. The world already faces a global water shortage that is predicted to intensify over the next few decades due to climate change. The goals of my senior thesis are two-fold: 1) to quantify the water availability or shortages the U.S. will face in the water, energy, and food sectors; and 2) to account for the potential shortages in each sector due to increased production or resource use in another. Among my conclusions, I found that the energy sector places much higher water demands on the country than do the agricultural sector and other industrial and domestic uses. I also found there is sufficient water available to meet U.S. needs.

My interest in food sustainability was sparked by a PEI internship I had with Princeton Campus Dining after my freshman year. I want to continue studying this topic and to become more experienced conducting research. Therefore, next year I am headed to Virginia Tech where I will pursue a master’s degree in environmental engineering with a focus on water resources.


Sindiso Nyathi, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Sindiso Nyathi ’16, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Advisor: Stephen Pacala
“The Reef, the Fish, and the Urchin: Examining the Impact of the Long-Spined Sea Urchin and Herbivorous Fish on Coral Reef Health”

My senior thesis examined the impact of the long-spined sea urchin, Diadema antillarum, and herbivorous fish populations on the health of a coral reef system off the coast of Tela, Honduras. Sea urchins and fish regulate algae biomasses on reef systems through grazing. Unfortunately in the 1980’s, the sea urchin experienced a severe disease-induced mortality. Over time, overfishing has also reduced herbivorous fish populations. The urchin mortality and overfishing resulted in an increase in algae biomasses on reefs, and is endangering reef health throughout the Caribbean.

Last summer, PEI supported my senior thesis research in Honduras. I assessed the health of the coral reefs in the Tela Reef system and compared the role of herbivorous fish and the Long-spined sea urchin in maintaining coral reef health. In this particular location, I found unusually high coral cover and large sea urchin populations and determined that the long-spined sea urchin has had a greater positive impact on reef health than herbivorous fish.This effect is likely a result of the lower overall fish populations in the reef systems examined.

This was the second of two research experiences supported by PEI. I also spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in Professor Kelly Caylor’s lab, studying water usage in trees. Both of these internship experiences have been extremely valuable in helping me to better understand the process of research. Next year, I am going to study epidemiology at Brown University with a focus on how environmental changes are impacting diseases in developing countries.


Ali Campion, Geosciences

Ali Campion ’16, Geosciences
Adviser: Adam Maloof
“A Uniquely Continuous Carbonate Record though the Mid-Carboniferous in Spain: Constraining the Timing and Amplitude of Proposed Glacioeustasy”

Looking at patterns and trends of past climate change can help us better understand climate change today and make predictions into the future. I focused my research on a period of glaciation that happened 330 million years ago during a period called the Carboniferous. This was last time the earth had stable polar ice sheets that caused sea level change by growing and shrinking like we see today with the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. My research focused on using the global carbon cycle as it is preserved in the rock record to estimate sea level change during this “ice house” period and to better understand the ocean’s geochemical response to glaciation. We estimate a sea level change of about 30 meters over 4.5 million years during the onset of this glaciation.

Every summer I’ve worked with PEI in some capacity doing research. I did a PEI internship my first summer and the last two years I’ve been doing research through the PEI Environmental Scholars program. I enjoy doing research, but before I go to graduate school, I want to work in a non-academic setting. I have accepted a position at a social enterprise firm in Denver, Colorado called Kimetrica, where I will work at the interface of climate change and sociological issues.


Elliot Chang, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Elliot Chang ’16, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Adviser: Kelly Caylor
“Improved Removal of VOCs for Lazer-Based Spectroscopy of Water Isotopes”

My work is focused on the removal of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mainly methanol and ethanol, from water samples taken from tree stems, leaves and soils. These compounds are considered organic contaminants. I wanted to remove them so I could better trace water isotopes under various scenarios like drought conditions. These VOC’s make it harder to do this. My senior thesis proposes a new, more effective process for removing these organic contaminants from water samples. The ultimate objective is to improve instrumentation in order to better gauge which trees are more resilient to drought.

I’ve been studying this issue since my first PEI internship during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. After this experience, I applied for a two-year scholarship through the PEI Environmental Scholarship Program which I was fortunate to receive. This funding enabled me to continue to try to solve this problem. All this led to my senior theses. I am now going to pursue a PhD program at University of California, Berkeley in the Environmental Science and Policy Program.

Congratulations to the students and a heartfelt appreciation to all who supported these research initiatives.

To learn more about this year’s other senior thesis projects, please refer to the 2016 Discovery Day Program