When Kevin Lee ’14 graduated with a degree in biology last year, he decided to postpone graduate school for a year and spend his time enhancing his scientific portfolio. Over the next 12 months, Lee landed three internships. He studied the ecology of a solar farm on Long Island, evaluated carbon emissions of alternative fuels at a research institute in Chicago, and analyzed data from a “biodiversity hotspot” in the Himalayans as part of a research team at the Field Museum of Natural History, also in Chicago.
Lee will be putting some of this new knowledge to use in the fall when he pursues a master’s degree in environmental management at Yale University. “I knew I wanted to go to graduate school eventually,” he says, “but I wanted to take some time doing other things to help me decide whether I wanted to pursue the straight research path or do something else.”
Lee spent the summer of 2014 at Brookhaven National Laboratories in Upton, NY, monitoring the ecosystem of the lab’s “solar farm,” where numerous solar panels were deployed. Fencing and other barriers had been placed around the solar farm, barring deer and other large animals from encroaching. Lee analyzed the resulting changes in vegetation and the increase in smaller animal species in the area where deer were not able to graze. He also studied the effect of the increased amount of shade on vegetation where the large panels were deployed.
When the Brookhaven internship ended in August, Lee moved to Chicago, where he joined a team that was engaged in research on carbon emissions at Argonne National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary science and engineering research center. “We were analyzing the carbon emissions and costs of various alternative fuels used in cars,” Lee says. “It was part of a larger project being conducted by the federal Transportation Department.”
When his internship at Argonne ended in March, the California native says he was looking for a way to remain in Chicago. “I’d never been to the Midwest before, and I loved the Chicago area,” he says. He secured a third internship at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History conducting botanical research – a subject he had studied extensively at Vassar.
“My work at Field was a study on biodiversity,” Lee says, “We were looking at the evolution of flowering plants in a region in the mountains of Tibet. It’s a ‘hotspot’ where there are many different species of plants, and we were trying to understand why there was so much diversity there. It was similar to some of the work I did with (Vassar biology prof.) Mark Schlessman.”
While the subject of the research was familiar to him, Lee says, the methods of analyzing the data were not. “There was a lot of computational work that involved computer coding,” he says. “I’d done some basic computer programming, but nothing as extensive as this. This type of analysis is an evolving field, and I was glad I had the opportunity to learn it. It will be helpful to me in my graduate studies down the road.”
Lee says he believes earning a degree in environmental management at Yale will enable him to work on issues such as climate change in a meaningful way. “My Vassar experience gave me a broad, interdisciplinary look at the world,” he says. “You’re not just taught science, you’re encouraged to communicate your knowledge and become a steward of the environment. Young scientists ought to be able to communicate what they know to the general public, and that’s what I hope to be able to do.”
Photo by Steven Ching