Undergraduate Research in Environmental Analysis

Environmental analysis offers a wealth of topics for students to dive into via research projects. Below is a list of recent Summer Undergraduate Research Projects by environmental analysis students. 


The Environmental Heritage of Claremont: A Story of Powerful Women and Foothill Preservation

Pauline Bekkers ’21; Advisor: Char Miller

This research examines Claremont’s environmental heritage. The city has taken major steps to protect its open natural areas, referred to as Urban Protected Areas. Though interviews, research in archives, and field studies, I have explored the history of nature in Claremont and how humans have interacted with it. A combination of factors including a culture that supports citizen participation on political issues and a significant percentage of residents with higher education has promoted the protection of open space – with the majority of residents understanding that these Urban Protected Areas are important for education, nature preservation, and recreation. Women, particularly members of League of Women Voters (LWV), played – and continue to play - a dominant role in conservation efforts in the city. Since the 1950s the LWV pushed for the preservation of open space in the hillsides, urging the city to buy parcels of land and eventually opening this open space to the public for recreational use in the form of the 1693-acre Claremont Hills Wilderness Park (CHWP). Although CHWP provides access to nature for residents of Claremont and the region, there remain many challenges. Climate change and increased urban development are threatening such Urban Protected Areas as the CHWP, so that it is vitally important that the community understand Claremont’s environmental heritage and use that legacy to create even more open space for those living in Claremont in the 21st Century.

The Black Spatial Imaginary: Measuring Park Dynamism at Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA and Historicizing Racially-Motivated Environmental Injustice

Betel Tesfamariam ’20; Advisor: Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes

Recent, racially-motivated incidents in and around Lake Merritt, a large urban park encircling a lake in the center of Oakland, CA, shed light on the urgency of problematizing traditional understandings of environmental justice.  This research project deploys an interdisciplinary approach to measure and contextualize the dynamism of park use at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California; while reckoning with the life-threatening consequences of exclusionary processes such as gentrification, and reimagining equitable park use and access by turning to practices of place-making by historically marginalized people in the United States. This work deploys environmental justice as an intersectional framework to expose how ‘environmental hazard’ has been narrowly characterized as toxic waste or pollution-not taking into account the racial violence that has historically threatened and continues to threaten the lives of Black people, and people of color more generally, within the United States. Oakland has been shaped by political struggles-presents an important location from which to study the intersections of racial violence, park use, and social science research.  Through the use of triangulation, this research combines literature review, field observation, and content analysis to represent what is taking place at Lake Merritt. A key deliverable of this pilot project is an in-depth project proposal for Park Census 2020, which will present best practices for data collection.

The Living Community Challenge: A Case Study in Biophilic Master Planning

Jordan Grimaldi ’20; Advisor: Char Miller

This project used the International Living Future Institute’s Living Community Challenge (LCC) as a case study in biophilic master planning to assess two neighborhoods in Seattle: North Rainier Mt. Baker (LCC registered) and Fremont (no master plan with any sustainable initiatives). 60 surveys total were conducted with residents in the two neighborhoods to gauge perceptions of their health and the health of their local environment, how they relate to nature, and whether they engage in environmental stewardship. Interviews were also conducted with LCC staff members and members of the respective neighborhood associations. Survey responses were supplemented with statistical and GIS analysis in order to gain a quantitative perspective in data trends. Field research identified key obstacles to achieving LCC certification (there are currently no certified communities), including the program’s high standards, issues of land ownership, relative novelty compared to the time it takes to develop master plans, and a perceived lack of support from the municipality. Data was consistent with other studies that biophilic design can lead to an increase in stewardship, improved public and environmental health outcomes, and general feelings of connectedness with fellow community members. Future research should continue to focus on the North Rainier community as it pursues LCC certification as well as how Seattle’s larger sustainability goals evolve in the face of rapid urban development.

Resilience in the Built Environment: A Study on Design and Planning Strategies in Coastal Cities Regarding Climate Change Challenges

Claire Yi ’20; Advisor: Char Miller

The built environment is not inherently resilient. Cities around the globe are under increasing impacts of climate change, some traumatizing like hurricane Sandy for New York, some chronic like seasonal flooding, sea-level rise and the Urban Heat Island effect for Singapore. This involves designing more sustainable buildings and infrastructure, developing resiliency policies, businesses, and systems. To identify and analyze such strategies, I conducted secondary research, site analysis and interviews in Singapore and New York for a comparative study. They showed different approaches to urban resiliency resulting from their unique urban history, geopolitics, culture, and demographics. Singapore’s limited land resources have forced the decision-makers to design with resiliency in mind from the beginning: the floating Semakau landfill, NeWater to purify seawater to drinkable standards, Marina Barrage as an in-city water reservoir to mitigate flooding. New York, on the other hand, is in a more complicated situation. The city government is not streamlined or mobilized as Singapore’s, and less trusted by the public. Research work regarding resiliency is being conducted by scholars at Urban Systems Lab at the New School and Columbia University’s landscape architecture department, as well as the post-Sandy initiative Rebuild by Design. However, there are fewer projects put in place when the issue is compounded with socioeconomic diversity, limited capital and conflicted knowledge…

Mapping The Slum Divide: Testing Geocoding Certainty To Examine Disease Presence Across The Formal And Informal Urban Divide In Rio De Janeiro

Zachary Wakefield ’22; Advisor: Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes

Geocoding converts an address description into a physical location on the earth’s surface. Errors in this process impact public health and environmental surveys and initiatives, among other things. We aim to establish a framework for address data cleaning for assessing the accuracy of Google Earth and ArcGIS in geocoding said addresses. This research provides a novel perspective by focusing on Brazilian addresses, where address formatting is not yet fully standardized, especially in regions officially classified as aglomerado subnormais (AGSN)—the Brazilian Census Bureau’s term that equates to slum, which describes areas lacking in basic municipal services.

Results: Geocoding match rates were higher when address formatting was standardized, and Google Earth was particularly unlikely to yield matched results if components were misspelled, out of order, or duplicated. For the addresses that did geocode successfully, there were consistent discrepancies between Google Earth and ArcGIS coordinates, though most geolocations were within 200 meters of one another. Whereas Google Earth often placed coordinates in the middle of a forest or a road, most ArcGIS-geolocated coordinates were clearly placed within a defined building parcel. This suggests that ArcGIS may be a better-suited geocoding service for Brazilian addresses. Future research might explore possible sources of geocoding error and the geocoding accuracy level necessary to assess specific gradients of pollution or disease.

Local Memories of World Heritage

Hans Zhou ’20; Advisor: Benjamin Keim

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) created its World Heritage program to preserve the cultural and natural wonders around the world. Through interviews with local residents, news coverage, and current scholarship, this project examines the cultural, social, and economic impacts that the inscriptions of UNESCO World Heritage sites have on local communities. In Hangzhou, China, the inscriptions of three UNESCO sites have stimulated the city’s economy through increased tourism and allowed the city to create cultural and educational programs for both tourists and locals, resulting in an increase of the local interests in preserving both cultural and natural resources in the city. However, forced relocation and shutdown of local businesses in the name of heritage conservation has negatively impacted some communities residing around the sites. In the case of Tivoli, Italy, the government has been successful in promoting its tourism industry through the two UNESCO sites to sustain its economy. Yet, the education of local history is uneven across the city, resulting in the sense of detachment that some residents experience with the rich history and culture of the two sites. These cases demonstrate that these inscriptions’ impacts on the local communities still follow the modernist principles of “progress” and “development,” and reveal the needs to strengthen the involvement of local communities in the conservation efforts.


A Look into Aphantasia and a Blind “Eye”

Reina Hernandez ’20; Advisor: Char Miller

Coined in 2015, aphantasia is the inability to consciously synthesize senses in the “mind’s eye.” For example, someone with aphantasia cannot create a quasi-sensory experience of a beach in their mind, but they know its details and that they are thinking of it. Despite the condition’s lack of research, Adam Zeman’s current study, “The Eye’s Mind,” focuses on visualization extremes of aphantasia and hyperphantasia. Online forums and sites also host platforms for people identifying with aphantasia to discuss shared experiences. In doing so, the community acquires a further grasp of aphantasia’s varied dimensions and individual impact. “A Look into Aphantasia and a Blind Mind’s Eye” explores various points on the visualization spectrum, its nature, and implications on our understanding of mental imagery. I conducted literature reviews, fieldwork, interviews and surveys to define mental imagery, identify individuals with aphantasia, discover aphantasiac thought processes, and compare experiences. Literature reviews on the mental imagery debate and case studies reveal the brain’s complexity, allowing for variation in quasi-sensory experiences per person. The project survey also demonstrates that vividness of imagery varies not only per person, but also in the types of mental imagery and tasks involved. With these findings, the project has led me to question what we imagine to be the sharp line between “normal” and aphantasiac experiences.
Funding Provided By: Frank G. Wells ’53 Endowed Fund in Environmental Analysis

Carbon and Nitrogen Storage in Native Sage Scrub and Non-Native Grassland Soils Along a Coast to Inland Gradient in Southern California

Collaborators: Lauren Hartz ’18, Alondra Soto ’19 and Tal Caspi ’18, SC; Advisor: Wallace Meyer

Assessing how plant invasions influence carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) storage is important in determining regional nutrient budgets. California sage scrub (CSS), the native low-elevation shrub-dominated habitat of Southern California, is listed as endangered (85-98% lost) by the United States Geological Survey. Increased fire frequency, urban development, and climate change have facilitated widespread type-conversion of CSS to non-native grasslands (NNG) dominated by European Bromus spp. and at times Brassica spp. dominated non-native forblands. Our study examines how type-conversion to both NNG and forblands, as well as other environmental factors (e.g. soil properties and temperature humidity regimes) influence regional soil nutrient concentrations (% C and N) and quantities (total C and N) at nine sites along a coast to inland gradient (Santa Monica Mountains to Yucaipa). We sampled CSS and NNG at each site to minimize confounding variables. We collected a soil clod for soil density analysis and a loose soil sample for % C and N analysis from six sampling locations within each habitat. We found that type-conversion negatively impacts C and N storage in Bromus-dominated sites, but found evidence that non-native forblands may store more C and N than CSS. Our results suggest that the effects of plant invasions on nutrient dynamics are species specific, and if we intend to accurately model nutrient storage across the region, we must include plant community type in our analyses.
Funding Provided By: Schulz Fund for Environmental Studies

Policing, Prisons and Pollution: Visions for Safe and Sustainable Communities in San Antonio, Texas

Ki’Amber Thompson ’18; Advisor: Marc Los Huertos

How are policing, prisons, and pollution connected? How might prison abolition be used to transform our social and ecological landscapes? This project reconsiders toxicity, focusing on toxics from policing and prisons rather than solely from chemicals and emissions. This project shifts the focus to theorizing and producing change in communities and prisons through an environmental justice lens. Through interviews with formerly incarcerated people, it investigates the intersection of policing, prisons, and pollution, assessing potential for coalition building between prison and environmental justice activists and discovering visions for safe and sustainable communities. Based on the interviews, coalitions can be built around food insecurity, climate change, and parks. Participants discussed the lack of preparedness in Texas prisons for major climate events such as heat waves or flooding. Additionally, food insecurity in prisons is comparable to and more intensified than food insecurity in the participants’ communities. All participants discussed the significance of parks in their communities, not prisons, as spaces of safety. Using abolition as a framework, prison abolition could look like building and sustaining community parks. Prison abolition as a goal requires re-imagining and re-structuring of society and environment, and thus, is concerned with creating more just breathing spaces and landscapes.
Funding Provided By: The Edwin W. Pauley Foundation SURP Fund

The SNCC Office in New York

Jawuan Walters ’20; Advisor: Char Miller

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, commonly known as “SNCC,” was a civil rights organization formed in the 1960s in response to racism and segregation in the United States, particularly in the South. Working along with other civil rights organizations, SNCC utilized the nonviolent practices, such as protests and sit-ins, to challenge systemic racism. However, unlike other civil rights organizations, SNCC's membership immersed themselves into the South. During their time in the South, SNCC members created schools to educate black youth, integrated public facilities and registered people to vote. To fund these programs, James Forman, SNCC’s Executive Chairmen, created a vast fundraising network, opening a number of SNCC offices, the most important of which was located in New York City. At its peak, the New York office provided over 40 percent of SNCC’s budget, totaling $350,000. The SNCC office was able to raise most of their funds through parties or gatherings that were hosted by celebrities. Usually when discussing civil rights organizations, we neglect to uncover the methods of how leaders of each organization gathered the funds to run their campaigns. In this project, it was my goal to understand the process of acquiring money to run a civil rights organization. By searching through original SNCC documents, and reading the memoirs of SNCC workers, I was able to discover the significance the New York SNCC office and others like it had.
Funding Provided By: Frank G. Wells ’53 Endowed Fund in Environmental Analysis

Translating Interviews of Escapees Who Left Mainland China

Justin Lee ’20; Advisor: Angelina Chin

Waves of escapees from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from Liberation up to and including the Reform and Opening-up Period left because of the worsening economic and social conditions. A common destination was the then British colony of Hong Kong, where most of the interview subjects settled down. Professor Chin interviewed several such individuals in July and August of 2016. I translated the interviews conducted in Cantonese Chinese into English, paying special attention to people’s lives prior to their escape, their escape journeys, why they decided to remain and settle down where they did, and how they viewed the Nationalist Party of China (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In many cases, escapees had negative experiences because of the CCP’s economic policies. The subjects differed in the routes they took to escape, which include riding wooden boats across maritime borders or hiking across land borders. Subjects also differed in socioeconomic class, though many expressed that the only regret they have in leaving the mainland was due to their relatives in the mainland, who are better off than they are in the present day. The results of this research may be affected by selective memory and exaggeration, especially because many subjects had left the PRC in their teens or early 20’s, whereas the interviews were conducted much later in their lives when said interviewees had already retired.
Funding Provided By: General SURP Fund