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As Julien Wang wraps up work on her master's degree and interviews for a job focused on air pollution or energy policy, it looks like she's come a long way from the big, dirty city in northern China where she was born.
But there is a connection: Life in Shenyang afforded plenty of personal encounters with carbon emissions, aerosols, and sulfates. "It's better now," Wang says, "but in the early 90s, on most days the air was pretty much brown. If you went out for a walk, you had sand and dust everywhere, and you had to [brush it all off] before you went inside."
When Wang's family came to the United States in 1993, she gravitated toward the humanities. In high school, her hobbies were black and white photography and playwriting.
Looking for something new during her junior year, she joined the high school's environment club. That choice led her into activities like coordinating Earth Day events, recycling cans, and planting trees.
When she graduated from high school in 2002 and chose a college major, her growing interest in the environment beat out the arts. This spring she is finishing a five-year combined undergraduate and master's program for an M.S. in environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.
At Hopkins, Wang got a taste of the scientist's life through UCAR's SOARS program (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science), which she entered in 2005. Her first SOARS research was a study of the effects of climate on outbreaks of dengue fever in Puerto Rico through NOAA's Oceans and Human Health Initiative.
She eventually switched out of the public health concentration in her major and into a management and systems design concentration, but she says, "I think in engineering everything ties back to humans, and human health is probably in the forefront of that connection."
Wang's most recent project at school was to design a green roof for one of the Hopkins campus buildings. Green roofs—covered with a thin layer of soil and planted with grasses and other species—reduce the urban heat island effect, cut heating and air conditioning costs, and reduce wasted runoff water, among other benefits. Common in Europe, green roofs are also catching on in this country; for example, the Chicago City Hall, the Clinton Library, and the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Denver have them. Wang was in charge of choosing appropriate plants for the roof, which include drought-tolerant sedum and even a tree.
The most difficult part of the project, for Wang, was collaborating with students from other disciplines, including civil engineering. "There were 11 of us, so it was extremely difficult to organize everything into one comprehensive design, but at the end we were all proud." The roof they designed will be installed after the building is retrofitted to handle it.
As Wang looks toward the future, she hasn't ruled out the possibility of working in an international context where she could use her bilingual ability. But would she consider using her degree to help clean up China itself? "The attitude in China is definitely changing and they've come a long way, but the bureaucracy is so rigid, you can't do anything without about five levels of approval.
"I don't think I could work there very well—at least not now. I don't know about the future."