Walbridge Fund 2021 graduate researchers explore environmental topics from carbon capture to the social power of “sacred ecology”

Morgan Kelly ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

The High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) has selected 11 Princeton University graduate students as 2021 recipients of the Walbridge Fund Graduate Award for Environmental Research. The awardees are Maria Curria, Ipsita Dey, Yuki Haba, Shannon Hoffman, Xiaohan Li, Sayumi Miyano, José Montaño López, Devan Nisson, Don Noh, Michael Soskind, and Einara Zahn. They represent the departments of civil and environmental engineering, anthropology, ecology and evolutionary biology, chemical and biological engineering, politics, geosciences, economics, and electrical and computer engineering.

These most recent awardees will explore environmental topics such as an efficient, low-cost material for capturing carbon emissions at the source; how the “sacred ecology” of Indo-Fijians is being repurposed to revive Fiji’s sugar industry; the effect of climate change on the range of the northern house mosquito and the diseases it carries, including West Nile Virus; the development of new genetic tools that would use light to produce the proteins essential for making meat and dairy alternatives; the response of black-carbon particles to atmospheric moisture over time; the influence of institutional relationships on the energy and climate forecasts of international organizations; the expression of specific yeast genes to enable the industrial-scale production of a key biofuel; the characterization of microbial communities in high-temperature subsurface brine environments; the development of a supply-and-demand model for the Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) commodities market; the adaptation of a mobile laser-based detection system for detecting trace amounts of methane in urban-like environments; and the mechanisms by which plants contribute water to the atmosphere and balance carbon dioxide input/output across different ecosystems.

In its 13th year, the Walbridge Award program provides up to $10,000 in research funding to Princeton Ph.D. candidates pursuing innovative research on climate science, energy solutions, environmental policy or, more broadly, on other environmental topics. With the latest awards, nearly 60 Princeton graduate students have received research support from the program.

Brief descriptions of each recipient’s research proposal are below.

Maria Curria, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Headshot of Maria Curria

“Performance of Ca-based Layered Double Hydroxides as Sorbents for Low-Temperature Carbon Capture”

Adviser: Claire White, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

Curria will build on her work developing calcium-based layered double hydroxides (Ca-LDHs) as an efficient, low-cost material for capturing carbon emissions at the source. She will conduct lab experiments to understand how humidity and temperature influence the effectiveness of Ca-LDHs, with the goal of calibrating them to the characteristics of point-source flue gases.

Ipsita Dey, Anthropology

Headshot of Ipsita Dey

“Investigating Indo-Fijian Spiritual Relationships with Sugarcane Landscapes: Hindu ‘Eco-Bhakti’ Theologies in Practice”

Advisers: Rena Lederman, Professor of Anthropology; João Biehl, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology

Dey will investigate how the spiritual/devotional relationship with the landscape that Indo-Fijians developed through nearly a century of sugarcane farming is being repurposed to revive the country’s sugar industry. Dey will study how Indo-Fijians are increasingly using their “sacred ecology,” or eco-bhakti, to counteract the persecution they have faced since Fiji’s 1987 military coup, and assert themselves as critical components of the country’s economic future.

Yuki Haba, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Headshot of Yuki Haba“Predicting How Climate Change Will Shift the Distribution of Disease-Vector Mosquitoes Using Population Genomic Data”

Adviser: Lindy McBride, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Neuroscience

Haba will expand his project, PipPop, which is focused on sequencing the genomes of 1,000 northern house mosquitos (Culex pipiens), to better predict how climate change will shift the range of the species and the diseases it carries, such as West Nile Virus and lymphatic filariasis. He plans to sequence hundreds of genomes of Cx. pipiens from countries ranging from Finland to Saudi Arabia in order to investigate their evolutionary origin, as well as map their current and possible future distributions based on climate change scenarios.

Shannon Hoffman, Chemical and Biological Engineering

Headshot of Shannon Hoffman“Optogenetic Control of P. pastoris for Sustainable Production of Animal-Free Dairy and Meat”

Adviser: José Avalos, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

Hoffman plans to develop new genetic tools that would use light to control the production of proteins in Pichia pastoris — the yeast essential for producing meat and dairy alternatives — which currently relies on the hazardous petrochemical methanol. Hoffman will build on her previous work by creating light-activated genetic circuits in P. pastoris that emphasize the desired expression in both the presence and absence of light, and remove the need for methanol.

Xiaohan Li, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Headshot of Xiaohan Li“Wettability of Black Carbon and Its Impact on Radiative Forcing: A Comparative Molecular Dynamics (MD) Simulation and Experimental Study”

Adviser: Ian Bourg, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

Li will conduct nanoscale simulations to shed light on how black-carbon particles respond to atmospheric moisture over time. She will work to characterize the factors that determine how black carbon absorbs solar radiation, how it can be removed from the atmosphere, and how climate models can more accurately capture its significant role in climate change.

Sayumi Miyano, Politics

Headshot of Sayumi Miyano“Politics of Energy and Climate Information by International Organizations”

Advisers: Helen Milner, B.C. Forbes Professor of Public Affairs and Professor of Politics and International Affairs; Rebecca Perlman, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs; Kosuke Imai, Professor of Government and Statistics, Harvard University

Miyano will combine an extensive survey and field interviews with a compendium of energy projections and climate policy to investigate how institutional relationships influence the forecasts of international organizations. She plans to identify how the overlap between these organizations can foster cooperation or competition, as well as how businesses and interest groups ultimately influence and implement policy recommendations.

José Montaño López, Chemical and Biological Engineering 

Headshot of José Montaño López“Harnessing Microbial Evolution for High-Level Isobutanol Production in Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Adviser: José Avalos, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

Montaño López aims to enable the industrial-scale production of a key biofuel by expressing specific genes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is widely used in the production of ethanol. Montaño López plans to engineer S. cerevisiae that instead primarily produce isobutanol — an alcohol with broader potential for replacing gasoline — and could be readily implemented into existing biofuel refineries.

Devan Nisson, Geosciences

Headshot of Devan Nisson“Abiotic Organic Chemistry in an Ancient Hypersaline Brine: Evaluating Bioenergetic Support for Microbial Life Inhabiting 3.2km-deep Fracture Fluid in South Africa”

Adviser: Tullis Onstott, Professor of Geosciences

Nisson will analyze organic carbon and DNA discovered nearly two miles underground in a South African mine to conduct a taxonomic and metabolic characterization of microbial communities in a high-temperature, hypersaline subsurface brine environment. Her work could provide insight into the geochemistry and microbiology of environments such as Mars that contain abiotically produced organic matter, but host very few living organisms.

Don Noh, Economics

Headshot of Don Noh“Optimal Design of Markets for Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs)”

Advisers: Motohiro Yogo, Professor of Economics; Wei Xiong, Hugh Leander and Mary Trumbull Adams Professor for the Study of Investment and Financial Markets and Professor of Economics

Noh will work to develop the first supply-and-demand model of the Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) market. RECs are tradeable energy commodities credited with helping incentivize the growth of renewable energy in the U.S., but the market for them is decentralized and poorly understood. Noh will use his model to determine the best design for an REC trading scheme, and explore policy questions such as the need for interstate regulations or fixed prices.

Michael Soskind, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Headshot of Michael Soskind“High-Power, Narrow Linewidth Laser Source for Fugitive Trace-Gas Sensing and Localization”

Adviser: Gerard Wysocki, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Soskind plans to expand the functionality of a mobile laser-based detection system he developed for precisely locating and repairing methane leaks in natural gas infrastructure. He will focus on developing a high-power amplifier for the device’s laser that would make it more effective at detecting trace amounts of this potent greenhouse gas in windy conditions and in low-reflectivity environments such as urban centers.

Einara Zahn, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Headshot of Einara Zahn“Seeing the Trees for the Forest: Partitioning Ecosystem Fluxes into Their Vegetation and Soil Contributions”

Adviser: Elie Bou-Zeid, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Zahn will evaluate the processes by which plants contribute water to the atmosphere, as well as balance carbon dioxide input and output, across different ecosystems. She will use a method developed in the Bou-Zeid lab to study the individual components of these processes in order to gain insight into the mechanisms associated with the variability in water and carbon dioxide flux across ecosystems.