Climate Change from the Ground Up: Contributing to a Global Challenge

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Climate Change from the Ground Up: Contributing to a Global Challenge


Corey Pahel-Short, Member and Vice President of UNC’s SPS Chapter, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A UNC SPS chapter member engages young scientists during a community outreach event. Photo courtesy of Johnny Andrews, UNC-Chapel Hill.I originally pursued physics for a reason many of us do: curiosity. Neutrinos especially interested me because of their “sneaky” nature. I joined a lab searching for neutrinoless double beta decay and thought I had found my niche, but I began having a hard time focusing on my classes and lab research. Climate change consumed my thoughts. What would the pursuit of knowledge amount to if we couldn’t stop climate change?

I took drastic measures as a second-semester junior—I completely changed my career path to incorporate environmental science into my degree. I wanted to use my physics background to help the world mitigate and adapt to climate change. Parting ways with my lab, I started environmental work from, quite literally, the ground up.

Serendipitously, I met my current boss, Sally Hoyt, through gardening, where I learned more about stormwater controls. Hoyt, a stormwater engineer for UNC, was one of the main people who contributed to bringing UNC’s underground, piped stream back to the surface. The restored stream and the native plants surrounding it help filter out pollutants from stormwater and provide habitat for animals and pollinators. I currently intern for UNC’s stormwater engineers. Physics provided me with the analytical and technical skills to tackle an internship in a new field. This work primarily involves controlling the substances released into our water systems and implementing infrastructure that slows stormwater. As the effects of climate change continue to materialize, extreme weather events such as flooding will become more commonplace. Our infrastructure will need to adapt.

Finding a Climate-Focused Niche

Inspired to mitigate the effects of climate change, I worked on a team consulting for the Town of Chapel Hill in the fall of 2019. After conducting energy and greenhouse gas inventories, we made recommendations to the town council on how to reduce Chapel Hill’s energy consumption. I specifically focused on the town’s transportation-related energy consumption. The calculations required making a number of assumptions due to a lack of available data. Physics prepared me well for this; the spherical cow can be applied to many fields!

I have found my niche and am currently seeking job opportunities in environmental consulting as I prepare for graduation. Environmental consulting involves helping clients comply with environmental regulations. There’s a mix of analysis, which I love, and implementing change. I’m most excited to work for clients that are choosing to be leaders in sustainability by anticipating future regulations.

This isn’t to say that every physics major who’s concerned about the climate should completely change their career path. While this is how I have made peace with climate change, no path is more valid than another. Volunteering and social activism provide avenues for people who want to both pursue a greater understanding of our universe in physics and address climate change.

The UNC physics lounge composting bin. Photo courtesy of Corey Pahel-Short.How SPS Chapters Can Do Their Part

SPS chapters can also take steps toward sustainability. For example, our chapter has contributed to our university’s composting initiative by buying a composting bin for the physics lounge. The bin has a lid that prevents smells from permeating the room. We maintain a stock of compostable plates and utensils for general use and for use at SPS meetings and have recycling bins in the physics lounge with signage noting what can and cannot be recycled. This is meant to prevent “wish-cycling,” or the recycling of items that people hope are recyclable but often are not.

When we have food at our meetings, we provide vegan/vegetarian options to support those reducing consumption of animal products for environmental reasons. Our SPS chapter also carpools and turns off the lights and AC in the physics lounge when no one is in the room. My advice is to lead by example and gently remind people who frequent the room. One physics professor is known to ride a bike through our physics building while turning off the lights in empty rooms and closing windows to conserve energy.

I also commend our department for creating a physics track with a focus on energy. Required classes for this track include topics such as renewable electric power systems and decarbonizing fuels. Physics majors with this track have gone on to pursue materials science PhDs and jobs in energy production (e.g., solar and geothermal).

Finally, physicists can develop their communication skills through community outreach. Scientists must be able to approachably explain their research to the public in order to convey its importance. SPS chapters can work on these skills by participating in community outreach events. For example, our chapter volunteers at UNC’s Science Expo, where research and community groups create demonstrations aimed at engaging children with science. We pair students with physics research groups to both enable undergraduates to learn about research opportunities and to encourage people to explain physics clearly.

I’ve volunteered with my lab’s booth in the past and know that explaining neutrinos to elementary school kids requires some creativity. We demonstrated neutrino oscillations with a ball that changes color when tossed, and the ball kept the kids entertained.
Bridging the gaps in communication between scientists and the public helps to quell distrust in science and lead the way toward better understanding of climate change.

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