Feeding human communities and natural ecosystems | MIT News

When she was in 7th grade, Heidi Li and the five other members of the Oyster Gardening Club grew hundreds of oysters to help repopulate the Chesapeake Bay. The day they released the oysters into the bay, the event drew television reporters and local officials, including the governor. The attention opened young Li’s eyes to the ways a seemingly small effort in her local community could have a real impact.

“I got to see with my own eyes how we can make change locally and how it impacts where we are,” she says.

Growing up in Howard County, Maryland, Li was constantly surrounded by nature. Her family made frequent trips to the Chesapeake Bay, as it reminded them of her parents’ home in Shandong, China. Li worked to bridge the cultural gap between parents, who grew up in China, and their children, who grew up in the United States, and attended Chinese school every Sunday for 12 years. These experiences instilled a community-oriented mindset in her, which Li brought with her to MIT, where she now majors in materials science and engineering.

During her freshman year, Li pursued a research project in microbiology under the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). She has studied microbes in aquatic environments, analyzing the impact of clean water on immunity and behavioral changes in marine bacteria.

This experience led her to reflect on how environmental policy affected sustainability efforts. She began to apply the problem to energy, asking herself questions such as, “How can you take this specific economic principle and apply it to energy? What did energy policy look like in the past and how can we adapt it to apply to our current energy system? »

To explore the intersection of politics and energy, Li participated in the Roosevelt Project, through the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, during the summer after her freshman year. The project used case studies targeting specific communities in vulnerable areas to suggest methods for a more sustainable future. Li focused on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, evaluating the effectiveness of an energy transition from natural gas and fossil fuels to carbon capture, which would mean redistributing the carbon dioxide produced by the coal industry. After traveling to Pittsburgh and interviewing stakeholders in the region, Li watched local community leaders create physical venues for citizens to share their ideas and opinions on the energy transition.

“I have seen community leaders create a safe space for people in the surrounding town to share their entrepreneurial ideas. I saw how important community is and how to create change locally,” she says.

In the summer of 2021, Li pursued an internship with energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie, where she examined technologies that could potentially help with the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables. His job was to ensure that the technology could be implemented efficiently and cost-effectively, maximizing the resources available in the surrounding region. The project allowed Li to participate in industry efforts to map and analyze technological advances for various decarbonization scenarios. She hopes to continue to examine both local, community and external, industry-based input into how economic policy would affect stakeholders.

On campus, Li is the current president of the Sustainable Energy Alliance (SEA), where she aims to educate students about climate change and its impact on the environment. During the summer of her sophomore year, Li chaired a sustainability hackathon for over 200 high school students, where she designed and led the “Protect Climate Refugees” and “Fight Environmental Injustice” challenges. to inspire students to think about humanitarian efforts to protect frontline communities.

“The goal is to empower students to think of solutions on their own. It’s really important to empower students to show them that they can effect change and inspire hope in themselves and the people around them,” she says.

Li also hosted and produced “Open SEAcrets”, a podcast designed to engage MIT students on topics related to energy sustainability and give them the opportunity to share their opinions on the subject. She sees the podcast as a platform to raise awareness about energy, climate change and environmental politics, while inspiring a sense of community with listeners.

When she’s not in class or the lab, Li relaxes by playing volleyball. She joined the volleyball club during her freshman year at MIT, although she has been playing since she was 12 years old. Sport not only allows him to relieve stress, but also to have conversations with undergraduate and graduate students, who bring different backgrounds, interests. , and experiences to conversations. Sports also taught Li about teamwork, trust and the importance of community in ways that his other experience did not teach him.

Looking ahead, Li is currently working on a UROP project, called Climate Action Through Education (CATE), which is designing a climate change curriculum for K-12 students and aims to show how climate change and the energy are an integral part of people’s daily lives. Viewing the energy transition as an interdisciplinary issue, she aims to educate students on issues of climate change and sustainability using perspectives from math, science, history and psychology to name a few areas. .

Most importantly, Li wants to empower younger generations to develop solution-focused approaches to environmentalism. She hopes to give local communities a voice in policy implementation, with the end goal of a more sustainable future for all.

“Finding a community that you truly thrive in will allow you to push yourself and be the best version of yourself that you can be. I want to embrace that mindset and create spaces for people and establish and instill that sense of community,” she says.