Meet the Nicholas Institute's Fall 2020 Research Assistants
Student research assistants are an integral part of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions' work that bridges Duke University and the environmental and energy policy world.
Each semester, a mix of undergraduates and graduate students from across Duke make invaluable contributions to projects across the Nicholas Institute's core programs. In turn, they get an up-close look at the policy-making process in action from the local level all the way up to international institutions.
Read about the work that the Nicholas Institute's research assistants did in the fall and their career aspirations in their own words below.
(Six student assistants are also working with the Nicholas Institute this year through a merit-based program from the Nicholas School of the Environment. You can read about those students in this September feature.)
Trinity College, BA in Economics and History
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I am the leading intern helping launch the Sustainable Infrastructure Community of Learners (SI-CoL), a virtual community that connects experts in sustainable infrastructure capacity development with each other and with government agencies, enterprises, and civil society. Specifically, I am helping expand the virtual community, which is still in its early stages. SI-CoL hosted its first webinar on Dec. 9, which involved over thirty organizations. In the wake of COVID-19 and the global recession, investment in infrastructure will be on the front-agenda of developed and developing countries, and the virtual community aims to help these countries achieve capacity development in this field.
Career aspirations: Transatlantic Politics and Diplomacy
Undergraduate (Class of 2021) studying Environmental Science (AB) with a minor in Biology
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I am working with Dr. John Virdin on the Illuminating Hidden Harvests publication for the FAO. I am a research assistant analyzing data related to global small scale fisheries.
Career aspirations: When I graduate, I hope to continue working in fisheries policy. I have been so motivated by the work done through this project.
Dual JD candidate at Duke's School of Law & Master of Environmental Management candidate at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. I'm scoped to graduate this coming Spring 2021.
Career aspirations: I hope to work in the environmental law & policy space addressing issues related to climate change. I enjoy grassroots-style, community-level work on climate change adaptation & resilience.
Nicholas School of the Environment – Masters of Environmental Management (Coastal Environmental Management)
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I am currently assisting John Virdin and the Oceans@Duke team in planning a series of events that bring together students, professors and researchers across Duke to solve ocean sustainability problems. Before assisting with the Oceans@Duke team, I collected data on marine protected areas (MPAs) and edited policy reports for Underwater Earth.
Career aspirations: I hope to pursue a career Marine Protected Species policy and management. My past work has primarily focused on coral reef and marine mammal science and policy, and I hope to continue working with these species as a professional.
Ph.D. student in Marine Science and Conservation, Certificate in Environmental Health and Toxicology
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Ocean Plastic Pollution
Career Aspirations: My ideal role would entail serving as a transdisciplinary, applied researcher that helps to find, implement, and evaluate solutions to major environmental issues, such as marine plastic pollution.
Nicholas School of the Environment. Master in Environmental Management 2021
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Conservation and Restoration Priority Areas for Water Purification in Great Pee Dee Watershed
Career aspirations: Ha is a young professional from Vietnam and studying her Master’s program in Environmental Management, with a concentration in Environmental Economics and Policy. Her particular interest is ecosystem service and natural resource valuation towards improving cost-benefit analysis practices and policy-making processes in developing countries.
Nicholas School of the Environment, Master of Environmental Management (Business and Environment concentration)
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Pew Plastics Project—I'm helping gather background data for this project (mostly researching and compiling corporate social responsibility/sustainability reports from companies for other team members on the project to code/analyze/interpret later)
Career aspirations: My goal is to help bridge the gap between the private-sector and the environment because of the scale of impact and resources the private-sector influences. Any way I can gain exposure to different sustainability professions and learning experiences in the short term is ideal to help solidify my niche and passions under the sustainability umbrella. However, I have always been interested in the food and agriculture industry, so I would love to work on projects that address environmental agriculture concerns through either a private-sector sustainability role or consulting job. Long-term specifics are TBD.
Nicholas School of the Environment – Master of Environmental Management
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I’m working on the Duke Restore initiative of the Nicholas School of the Environment through the Catalyst Program.
Career aspirations: I want to work with an organization innovating in conservation, from a technology company using AI to monitor protected parks in Africa to an international agency modeling the impact of degraded ecosystem services on the global economy.
Trinity College, Bachelor of Science in Economics and Biology or Environmental Science
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Working under Dr. Liz Losos in the Sustainable Infrastructure research project where we are analyzing trends in the COVID19 stimuluses of countries around the world. Specifically, we are looking at whether these stimuluses have been green or brown, and if green, which subset of countries (High income, middle income, low income) performed the best and why. Additionally, we are creating case studies of countries that did not perform well to analyze the reasons behind their weak performance.
Career aspirations: My career aspirations lie in the environmental sector. I am yet unsure of whether I would like to go into policy or business, but I am currently leaning towards business.
Michelle Louise Jones
Graduate Liberal Studies, MA
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Assisting in ClimateCAP planning for March 2021 virtual conference
Career aspirations: Environmental conservation advocacy/policy, academia
Nicholas School of the Environment, Master of Environmental Management and Master of Forestry
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I am developing case studies for the Nicholas Institute's Ecosystem Services and Natural and Working Lands datasets. As part of these case studies, I am analyzing stakeholder properties to identify the ecosystem services benefits, community resilience benefits, and forest carbon mitigation potential provided by their land. The goal is to determine how these data can be used by managers and decision makers for conservation planning efforts on local, state, and regional scales.
Career aspirations: I am interested in pursuing a career that focuses on forests as a natural climate solution, through means such as conservation, reforestation, or managing forests for carbon benefits.
Nicholas School of Environment, Master of Environmental Management (Concentration: Water Resources Management)
Work for the Nicholas Institute: At the Nicholas Institute, I work with the Internet of Water. My main responsibility is to review state water budget documentation and identify the different components that go into their water budgets. I also determine estimation methods, parameters, and data sources used to calculate each of the components. Focused on the Colorado River Basin, I have identified relationships between components from each state to see how their water budgets overlap. All of this information is stored in an online ontology that will be utilized to increase accessibility and usability of state water budget data. I am beginning to work on a new project that will facilitate user interactivity with water quality data.
Career aspirations: I hope to work at the intersection of science and law/policy and help to explain complex scientific information or data to policy and law makers, as well as stakeholders and community members. Within the Water Resources Management concentration, I have focused my studies on water science, geospatial analysis, and data analytics and hope to use those skills when I graduate. I would love to work for a government agency such as the USGS or NC DEQ or at a think tank in a position that is focused on water quality.
Master of Environmental Management, 2021 (Concentration: Water Resources Management)
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Since January 2020, I have been involved with the Internet of Water team at Nicholas Institute. I have worked on several data science projects in water resources that involve tasks related to data management, processing and visualization and developing dynamic user interface design. For some of my projects, I; 1) have developed a web application to visualize state-level water budget frameworks, 2) created inventories and assessed government water data platforms of different states using the FAIR data standards, and 3) will use water & wastewater utility rate structures to develop an API service to calculate a customer's water bills and water affordability.
Career aspirations: I plan to keep developing my technical skills in programming and data science while expanding my domain knowledge of water resources, sustainability issues and climate change. I like to create things and grow personally and professionally. So, I hope to work in a position where I can collaborate with supportive and knowledgeable team members and apply my analytical skills to create digital products or tools that can help address environmental issues. In my undergraduate, I used to DJ live and produce electronic music. One day, I also hope to convert my hobby as a profession.
Nicholas School of the Environment, MEM: Environmental Economics and Policy
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Currently, I am working with Tim Profeta on a project facilitating the formation of a Federal-State Partnership on climate policy. The project is designed to use the Nicholas Institute as a communications hub to facilitate collaboration between state climate leaders on technical aspects of policy, political challenges, and capacity building. However, while I have been at the Nicholas Institute, I have also worked on the Climate21 project—analyzing the role executive office on climate initiatives—and the Internet of Water project—analyzing various state data management practices with respect to water data.
Career aspirations: I hope to one day be in a position to influence the language of federal climate legislation. We'll see what form that takes, but it could be through a career on the hill, lobbying efforts, or researching through an environmental NGO or think tank; something that allows me to point to a part of a climate bill and know that I helped influence it. Managing the environmental portfolio of a congressional representative or senator would be the dream though!
Mary Carlton (“M.C.”) Murphy
Nicholas School of the Environment, Master of Environmental Management and Master of Forestry, Certificate in Geospatial Analysis
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I’m working with the Nicholas Institute’s Natural and Working Lands Dataset to create a prioritization model of threats to state-protected forest lands.
Career aspirations: I’m interested in a career in wildlife conservation and research that allows me to combine my field and geospatial skills to create effective management strategies.
Nicholas School of the Environment, Master of Environmental Management – Water Resource Management concentration
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Currently, I am developing an ESRI StoryMap to illustrate open water data legislation across the U.S. and its importance to water management decisions. This project involves engaging with and interviewing stakeholders who are involved in developing or applying state-level legislation.
Career aspirations: I am pursuing a career that embraces adaptable approaches to water management with a particular focus on securing access to safe drinking water. I hope to achieve this either as an economist evaluating federal/international programs and projects or as a scientist assisting policy development or environmental lawsuits.
Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, Master’s of Environmental Management (MEM) - Coastal Environmental Management; UNC Department of City and Regional Planning (DCRP), Natural Hazards Resilience Certificate
Work for the Nicholas Institute: As a research assistant with the Ecosystem Services Program, I’m helping to develop accessible protocol documents that guide practitioners in evaluating socioeconomic outcomes of restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico. More specifically, I’m conducting research on how to incorporate equity considerations into these protocols for improved environmental decision-making.
Career Aspirations: I hope to assist coastal communities in preparing for sea level rise by implementing equitable, nature-based infrastructure projects that mitigate flood impacts. I’m especially interested in working for state coastal zone management programs on community-based climate adaptation and resilience planning, as well as developing effective communications strategies to support and promote these efforts.
Trinity College, Undergraduate (Junior), B.S. Economics and B.A Environmental Science and Policy
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Under Lydia and Sara, Mariana Vedoveto and I are currently extending the Bass Connections project we were part of last semester—How External Financing Influences National Commitments to Biodiversity Conservation. In the pilot study, we interviewed protected area experts from Asia, Africa, and Latin America to identify mechanisms and how government spending on protected areas is, or is not, influenced by non-government funding. Our existing findings have been written up in a report for the Moore Foundation and the Conservation Measures Partnership. We are currently studying how the current pandemic and associated drop in tourism and other funding sources have affected protected area funding.
Career aspirations: Work at the intersection of economics and environmental management, work in sustainable development.
Second-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment with a concentration in environmental economics and policy
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Leyi focuses on exploring and supporting the development of effective carbon pricing systems in emerging Asian economies. She provides background research and written analysis, participates in arranging and executing phone and video communication with stakeholders, drafts and edits written work, and contributes to strategic project planning and operations.
Career aspirations: Leyi has a long-standing interest in climate action at the international level, and has interned twice with UNEP supporting climate adaptation projects in her home country-China and more broadly-Southeast Asia. This past year, Leyi worked with both NIEPS and Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI) on developing countries’ climate and energy policy research, which forged her new interests in policy solutions to accelerate energy transition and greenhouse gas emission reductions. Leyi aspires to a career in global policy, focusing on international efforts at the interface of environment, energy and development.
Sanford School of Public Policy, master of public policy (2022)
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Documenting a real-time case study of the creation of a living shoreline at the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
Career aspirations: Bringing science to governmental policy making, especially at the intersection of human and water resources.
Nicholas School of the Environment, 2nd year Master of Environment Management concentration Business and Environment
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Researching goals/initiatives corporations are taking regarding reducing emissions, advancing renewable energy, water stewardship, and circular economy and whether they are making an impact. From there, seeing what techniques and strategies from these initiatives can be translated to businesses working to tackle plastic pollution.
Career aspirations: In the future, I want to work within corporate sustainability to help businesses with their sustainability strategy and help with their initiatives to reach their sustainability goals.
Sanford School of Public Policy, Master of Public Policy (2021)
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I am working for Sara Mason and Lydia Olander with the Ecosystem Services Program. I am working on a project that aims to expand on a study I also participated last Spring: How External Financing Influences National Commitments to Biodiversity Conservation. In this pilot study, we interviewed protected area experts from Asia, Africa, and Latin America and asked about funding mechanisms and how government spending on protected areas is, or is not, influenced by non-government funding. Now, we are doing a series of follow-up interviews to understand our findings in the context of COVID-19. We are interviewing global experts to investigate how the current pandemic and associated drop in tourism and other funding sources have affected protected areas funding. I am one of the research assistants for this project and conduct interviews with experts, manage and analyze data, and will write a blog post with main findings.
Career aspirations: I hope to support low- and middle-income countries to transition to low-carbon economies, help bridge the gap between science and policymaking, and scale-up proven solutions to advance climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Nicholas School’s MEM program, Sanford School’s MPP program
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I’m working on understanding whether individual states are giving out all of their available Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) each year, and if not, why. SRFs are basically state-run banks that receive money from Congress, and then add their own, to make loans and grants to finance local water and sewer infrastructure. SRFs are the largest source of public water infrastructure financing in the U.S., and theoretically, every state should be giving out all of their available money each year, but EPA data makes it seem like most states have some funding left over most years. We’re trying to figure out if that’s actually the case (most states say that the EPA’s data reflects a snapshot at a very specific instant in time, and so is a bit misleading), and if it is the case, why. I’ve been interviewing state SRF managers and local decision-makers to hear their experiences, and to understand the common reasons communities have for using SRF money and for choosing another source instead. This month, we’ve released two surveys, one for states, one for municipalities, to quantitatively track which reasons are driving local decisions the most.
Career aspirations: I’d love to work for a utility that’s committed to equity, resilience, and innovation.
Nicholas School, Master of Environmental Management (Coastal Environmental Management concentration)
Work for the Nicholas Institute: Evaluating voluntary corporate commitments to reduce plastic pollution.
Career aspirations: Endangered species management and tropical conservation.
Master of Environmental Management. Nicholas School of the Environment
Work for the Nicholas Institute: I worked with Jennifer Weiss and Kate Konschnik on developing an Energy Efficiency performance dashboard, reflecting the energy usage of commercial, industrial, residential, and institutional sectors. The dashboard also has its own voluntary data reporting system that we are building with EPA using their Portfolio Manager system.
Career aspirations: My career goal is to be part of the transition from fossil fuel-based economy to renewables. I aim to contribute to the efforts through utilizing my data analysis skills and intuition in the energy market.
Master of Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment
Work for the Nicholas Institute: At the Nicholas Institute, I work with Lydia Olander and her team on research that envisions how large-scale ecosystem restoration can embrace more of a forward thinking approach. This includes looking at restoration practices globally and developing ideas for how restoration can look more like a production science following the model of aquaculture, agriculture and forestry.
Career aspirations: I would like to work at the intersection of consulting, business strategy and innovation in developing environmental solutions, specifically on resiliency issues, but also more broadly.