Zebras, peppers and philosophy: PEI Discovery Day showcases diversity of student research in environmental studies

Morgan Kelly ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Princeton University seniors and graduate students exhibited the topical diversity of environmental-studies research during the Princeton Environmental Institute’s sixth annual Discovery Day on May 10 in the Frick Chemistry Lab Atrium. Sixty-six seniors and six graduate students representing 19 academic departments took part in the culminating event for students in the Program in Environmental Studies and students who received field-research support from PEI. We interviewed eight students who provide a snapshot of the research and disciplines featured at Discovery Day 2017.

Princeton University seniors and graduate students exhibited the topical diversity of environmental-studies research during the Princeton Environmental Institute’s sixth annual Discovery Day on May 10 in the Frick Chemistry Lab Atrium.

Sixty-six seniors and six graduate students representing 19 academic departments showcased their research and discussed their findings with fellow students and University faculty. Students examined subjects such as the effect of land degradation on giraffe social structure in Kenya, how trees pick their nitrogen sources, and how to conserve smallholder rubber farms in China. They detailed price shocks in resource-dependent economies, human-made pollution of near-shore coral reefs, and artistic tranquility in the Catskill Mountains.

Discovery Day is the culminating event for students in the Program in Environmental Studies and students who received field-research support from PEI. Seniors presented the methodologies and results of their senior-thesis research.

The photos and excerpts below provide a snapshot of the students and research featured at PEI Discovery Day 2017.

Tobi Aladesuru, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
“The Protein Costs of Immunity: Effects of Parasitic Infection on Blood Protein Levels in Mice”
Adviser: Andrea Graham, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology

“I’m interested in medicine and had done some reading on how albumin concentrations and other protein levels are determinants for post-operative success. That got me interested in blood-protein levels, so I looked at the effects of parasite burden on protein levels in wild Peromyscus mice. Peromyscus mice are a good model because have more genetic diversity, which is more like human populations than lab mice. Ideally, understanding this helps us understand how protein is used and rationed out in immune-challenged situations. For things such as post-operative care, understanding the concentrations that people show of albumin and other proteins after surgery, and how different levels can affect that, can provide insights on whether there’s a need to boost those numbers through protein supplementation and replacement therapies. Better understanding of how proper protein nutrition is important for an effective immune response.”

Casey Ivanovich, Geosciences
“Uncovering the Sources of Elevated Arsenic in Classic Maya Human Remains: Implications from Antiquity to Modernity”
Adviser: Satish Myneni, professor of geosciences

“This project was inspired by a senior thesis in 2013 that looked at the elemental composition of a set of pigments used by the Maya in the Classic period. She found that both painted and unpainted surfaces of the clays had significant concentrations of arsenic throughout. We would not expect that in a normal clay. That prompted a lot of preliminary questions that led to my spring junior paper last year and my senior thesis this year. We have estimated that the arsenic contamination levels that may been experienced by the Maya may have been up to 75 parts per billion (ppb), which is quite significant. If we look at modern-day Bangladesh as a case study, we see that exposure is about 50 ppb, and in the most extreme cases gets up to a couple hundred ppb. The health effects they’re seeing range from skin lesions to death from cancer. What’s really interesting is that we see in the Maya levels of heavy-metal toxicity that bring to mind industrialism and modern pollution. But these problems can be produced by the natural system and had effects in antiquity. There are already environmental sources, so for industrialism to amplify that is even more risky. We can see from the experience of the Maya and how contamination potentially affected the political and social stability of their civilization the risks we run if we don’t deal with our environmental challenges. Today, we tend to think of environmental challenges as being totally centered around climate, but there’s so much more.”

Shannon Osaka, independent concentrator in Environmental Science and Environmental Studies
“Modeling the Anthropocene: Agency in a Climate-Changed World”
Adviser: Emmanual Kreike, professor of history

“I became interested in the idea of when did climate change become an actor in the sense that we can ask, ‘Climate change caused this or caused that?’ I found that climate modelling has enabled us to expand the reach of what we can say climate does and what effect it has. We can not only model human activities that cause global and regional climate change. We can stack other models onto it, such as social and economic models. So, what we’re seeing is an expansion of climate change from the weather perspective into other impacts, such as how climate change could affect the global economy. It’s really moving us toward a different paradigm in terms of how we think of the interaction between humans and nature. We can separate human-caused climate from natural climate. So, when we say a drought might be 20 percent caused by climate change, what we’re saying is that it’s 20 percent caused by human agency as opposed to natural agency. So, we’re seeing a split of agency into natural and human. We’re also seeing a return of what scholars have called environmental determinism, which is viewing the environment as a very strong deterministic force over human social worlds.”

Konadu Amoakuh, Woodrow Wilson School
“Barking Up the Wrong Tree? Challenges to Implementing a Timber Legality Verification System in Ghana”
Adviser: Jennifer Widner, professor of politics and international affairs

“Both of my parents are from Ghana and I’ve always been interested in environmental degradation in the country. When I went to Ghana and conducted interviews, I got a better idea of the policy conflicts that have gone into the delay. The main obstacles stem from unequal stakeholder participation in the negotiation process with the VPA [the Voluntary Partnership Agreement, a European Union framework to ensure legal logging]. Civil society had a lot of influence in the process and setting legality standards, but the timber industry wasn’t as involved. There was incoherence in Ghana’s forest law, so there were a lot of conflicts in what constitutes legality. That’s a problem because the whole certification policy is based on verifying that the timber is legal. The policy conflicts have continued over the past 10 years, but they’re supposedly being resolved this year in parliament.

“Moving forward, I would like to combine environmental policy with business development. Increasingly, regulation is erring more on the side of sustainability. Businesses are becoming greener, and Green-consumer markets are becoming more important. I think this is going to be a huge issue. At the end of the day, this regulation tool is useful in that, for timber companies in developing countries, it’s a lot cheaper to get certification with this type of regime than under a private certification system, which is pretty expensive. This type of tool will be important for commodities in general.”

Jason Choe, Economics
“A Predictive Model for Wilderness Designation”
Adviser: David Wilcove, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs and the Princeton Environmental Institute

“Since coming to Princeton, I’ve developed an interest in policy issues, and I find policy solutions to be very fascinating. I wanted to look at wilderness designation in the United States. I modeled how different factors influence the probability of passage of a wilderness-designation bill and, after passage, the size of the resulting designation. The findings are fairly inconsistent. The only factor that was consistent was the chamber of introduction — if a bill was introduced in the Senate it was more likely to pass, and once passed it was more likely to result in a larger wilderness designation. That points to a few suggestions, the most of interesting of which is that micro-factors are most influential. It’s less about these broad trends in the political and economic atmosphere than it is grassroots support that influences the passage and success of this legislation. The economic factors, which I had hypothesized would be very influential, were actually not. These results suggest that environmental legislation and economic performance don’t necessarily have to work in antithesis to each other, they can be collaborative. I think we’re seeing a lot of good examples of that now in policy. For instance, clean energy has become a huge field. All these different factors can work hand in hand instead of clashing as the conventional models suggest they do.”

Susan Farrell, Anthropology
“Women in the Wild: Changing the Story We Tell Ourselves”
Adviser: Lauren Coyle, assistant professor of anthropology

“My thesis was inspired by a personal motivation. This past summer, a friend and I took a three-week backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada. On the trail, there was this perception that we were two young women out hiking because we’d read ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed, which really had nothing to do with why we took this trip or why we’re avid backpackers. That spurred me to look into more reasons why ‘Wild’ has     had such an impact on the world of thru-hiking and the rise of female thru-hikers recently, and, more importantly, why the gender gap in outdoor recreation exists and why more men backpack than women. The conclusions I came to were that women internalize, through a variety of societal factors, that there are inherently unsafe and unregulated spaces, including wilderness areas. Mitigating that fear and vulnerability is all put on women: We tell women to take self-defense classes, we tell them not to walk home late at night in a city, we tell them not to go backpacking. We need to change that conversation and talk about why we have this deeply held belief that women are inherently more vulnerable and break that down to empower women to do things like go backpacking in the woods and have these great wilderness experiences. We need to start looking at what we’re doing that normalizes the fear women feel in unregulated spaces.”

Derek Colaizzo, History
“Capsicum: From Spice to Medicine and Back”
Adviser: Keith Wailoo, Townsend Martin Professor of History and Public Affairs

“I was doing research about the history of substances and how they were found to be of medicinal use. I wanted to look at the intersection between that and environmentalism. What is the history of a substance that was eventually used medicinally — how did it get there and what were the implications? I narrowed it down to looking at a specific substance and a really interesting one was cayenne pepper, or capsicum. Today, it’s a household spice, but at one point was used as a medicine. It was really important during cholera epidemics, which were propagated by urbanism and the changing urban environment. Capsicum really fits into the narrative of the history of Western medicine where practices such as drinking mercury or bleeding yourself were really dangerous. That’s part of the reason why people veered toward chili pepper-based cholera syrups. But there was no singular factor for its increased use in Western medicine and then its exit. Part of it definitely had to do with the decline of botanical medical movement, urban environments getting cleaned up and epidemiology. People also started using opium a lot more because it had similar astringent properties. It was a whole wash of factors. Now, everybody just thinks of capsicum as a spice. One of the big issues with medicine now is that orthodox medicine is not super willing to incorporate ideas from other areas — but even something as seemingly dated as botanical medicine has promise for at least preventative health. My research sparked my interest in looking at medicine more holistically and I think that will influence my career.”

Alex Quetell, Visual Arts
“EXCESS — A Senior Thesis Production”
Adviser: Susan Marshall, professor of dance in the Lewis Center for the Arts

“I wanted to investigate the party as a format to reveal the social climate both here and abroad. I wanted to play with different levels of control, space and layers of exclusivity, and figure out how, when a party deconstructs — whether it’s a social gathering or a political faction — what happens to people’s social behavior. Environmentally speaking, I wanted to make a show that would recycle itself. So, how to use the materials over again and to think more sustainably of how I was producing the show. Most of the things in the show are provided through the University already, and I tried to limit my carbon footprint. By being artists who focus on physicality, there is a certain duty to maintain our art form as an ephemeral and alive art. I worry that the deeper that we engage our psyches into non-physical forms, we’re going to lose a sensuous perceptibility of our global environment. I think this kind of work can show that we need to be conscious of how we’re engaging with technology, and how we’re engaging with our bodies in physical ways, and also other people’s bodies. That shades my every day. I can’t walk through a day without being a performer or a dancer or a person who thinks constantly about physicality.”