Five Graduate Students Receive PEI Walbridge Fund Awards
Five graduate students were selected to receive the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) Walbridge Fund Graduate Award in support of their dissertation research at Princeton. This year’s recipients include: Stephanie Debats, Phil Hannam, Lisa McManus, Igor Rubinov, and Eric Zhang. Their research addresses important issues in food security, barriers to low-carbon energy, effects of climate change on coral populations, climate resilience, and nitrogen cycling dynamics.
Initiated in 2009, the PEI Walbridge Fund has provided support to Princeton graduate students pursuing innovative projects in the fields of energy technology, carbon policy, and climate science. The students will use the grants to support their research including fieldwork support, travel, conference participation, the purchase of equipment, and costs associated with data analysis and facility use.
Stephanie Debats’ research topic is “Understanding smallholder agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa under climate change and population growth.”
Undertaking her research in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Debats research aims to enhance the understanding of the climactic, hydrologic, and social dimensions of smallholder agriculture. Her work focuses on mapping the spatial distribution of agriculture and statistical modeling of crop yield variations. “I will analyze a mix of unique data sources, both ground-based and remotely sensed, with novel statistical techniques, enabling me to investigate Sub-Saharan agriculture in new ways,” said Debats.
This funding will allow her to expand her skill base through workshops and meetings with collaborators in fields such as machine learning, computer vision, and crop modeling. “It will also enable me to obtain remote sensing imagery as well as develop connections with local agencies in Sub-Saharan Africa to make use of untapped data sources, such as additional crop trials or maps of surveyed farmland,” she said.
Phil Hannam, a Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy doctoral student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, will examine the changing ecosystem of factors affecting energy choices in developing countries. His research title is “‘Race to the bottom’ in global energy development? The case of China’s emergence in the developing world.”
“Over the past year, I assimilated an international database of power projects, plant efficiencies, and carbon emissions. I am now testing hypotheses regarding the conditions under which low-carbon powerplants are built in low-income countries, focusing on the importance of domestic technological regimes and the incentives facing the international institutions that build the projects,” said Hannam. “My hypothesis is that the emergence of Chinese state-backed firms in the power sectors of these countries has placed so much competitive pressure on “incumbent” multilateral development banks that these institutions have changed their energy sector strategies – focusing on more centralized, carbon-intensive power projects than they would otherwise, slowing the transition to renewable energy.”
The Walbridge funds will help support his air travel to India and Indonesia, data purchases, and translation services.
Through her dissertation research in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Lisa McManus is investigating the effects of climate change on larval dispersal and the persistence of coral populations.
“Larval dispersal is an important driver for coral persistence, yet few studies have incorporated dispersal patterns into research regarding coral reef community dynamics in the indo-Pacific’s Coral Triangle (CT) region. In addition to being recognized as the global center of marine biodiversity, the reefs of the CT also serve as the direct provider of livelihoods for over 100 million people in coastal communities,” said McManus. She believes that understanding the constraints of coral persistence in this region, particularly in light of climate change, can inform management decisions that aim to increase reef resilience and prevent degradation into an undesirable state.
The Walbridge Fund will support her field research expenses associated with data collection at 20 sites in the Philippines.
Working on his dissertation in the Department of Anthropology, Igor Rubinov’s research is titled “Untested Waters: Developing Climate Resilience in Tajikistan.”
“With widespread acceptance of human impact on the climate, international funds are being allocated to help protect vulnerable populations from its effects,” said Rubinov. “An important framework for providing this adaptive capacity has been organized around the concept of resilience. However, there is great uncertainty over what such resilience actually entails and how its success can be measured. During the upcoming academic year, I will study how resilience is made visible and what constitutes its failure or absence,” he said. Through his research, he will study how these potentially transformative shifts in international development priorities may impact developing countries and their citizens.
Rubinov will use his funds for travel, equipment, and housing in Tajikistan.
Electrical engineering graduate student Eric Zhang’s research addresses nitric oxide isotopic ratiometery for nitrogen cycle studies.
Zhang’s research focuses on a novel solution to perform isotopic ratiometry of nitric oxide species for measurements of isotopic variations of organic nitrogen compounds. He believes these are critical to better understanding the global nitrogen cycle.
“Isotopic variations of organic nitrogen compounds are key to understanding nitrogen cycling dynamics, and is of particular importance in climate science. Natural and anthropogenic processes distinguish between these nitrogen isotopes, allowing isotopic ratiometry to determine environmental and climatic consequences of anthropogenic nitrogen fixation,” said Zhang. His project goal is to develop a mobile and compact, standalone spectrometer for real-time, high-sensitivity detection of nitrogen isotopes.
Support received from the Walbridge Fund will be used to support field trips and data collection and analysis.