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Field Notes: Undergraduate Summer Research
In summer 2012, 22 Harvard undergraduates set out to destinations near and far as recipients of grants from the Center’s Undergraduate Summer Research Fund. The students completed independent and faculty-sponsored research on a variety of topics, including climate dynamics, ecology, and energy. The following is a sample of two student projects, retold in their own words.
Laila Kasuri ‘13
Project Title: Hydrological Modeling for Flood Management
“The main goal of my research project was to study what kind of hydrological and hydraulic models were used for flood risk reduction in the Mississippi River Basin, and whether these flood models would prove useful in better management in countries such as Pakistan. I also wanted to integrate some of these models with geospatial information systems, to produce a response plan in times of massive flood events, which would “make way for the river” and minimize risk and damage.
The goal of my summer project was to design a flood routing model in the Lower Indus Basin without compromising on irrigation and power. As part of this research, I had to acquire some formal training in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), and other hydraulic and hydrologic modeling software; conduct literature reading; and interview hydrologists and modelers.
The first part of the project was spent on campus where I took a GIS course at Harvard offered by the Center for Geographic Analysis. Following this two-week course, I traveled to the Institute of Water Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in Alexandria, VA, where I met a number of water consultants, hydrologists and engineers, who introduced me to two models used for calculating water surface profiles for steady flow that are also capable of handling a full network of channels or a single river reach. This kind of software would be helpful for countries in predicting 100-year, 200-year or even 1000-year flood events given past historical data as inputs.
After my time in Alexandria, I flew to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where I spent six weeks at the Coastal and Hydraulic Lab at the Engineers Research and Development Center, which is operated by the USACE. While there, I furthered my knowledge of hydraulic modeling, and worked with a number of hydrological software models. By the conclusion of my experience there, not only did I learn how to model rivers to obtain discharges and flows as outputs, I fully understood the limitations of the models as well as the limitations of the input data as well.
After these weeks of intensive learning, I spent two weeks in Lahore, Pakistan where I used the skills I acquired to calibrate my own hydraulic model. The inputs for the model required obtaining cross-sectional profiles of the Indus River, discharge curves of the reservoirs, information on the existing canals and infrastructure—all in a format that could be used with GIS software.
The most rewarding part of my experience was actually interviewing the people in the basins, and conducting first-hand research rather than depending on literature. This first-hand engagement helped me immensely in understanding how federal rivers like the Indus and Mississippi are managed, where different political constituencies vie for water resources, and where states compete with one another and with the federal government for control of water. Even within the federal government, there are so many competitors and stakeholders that water has become a highly politicized issue. However, I learned from this experience that managing any rivershed, large or small, is complex, and resolving any issue pertaining to its use, management and sharing requires contextualization, for which nothing is more important than being aware of the politics, history and background, because these frame the priorities and concerns of various stakeholders.
In my field of environmental engineering, the buzz words have always been ‘energy’ and ‘entrepreneurship.’ Water was never seen as a concern, particularly on the East Coast—however, I feel certain through my past experiences that water management will become a growing global concern, especially as commodity prices rise. Many countries with a growing demand for energy will also want to utilize their hydro-power potential. The need to manage, use, and share water resources judiciously and prudently will be of utmost significance in the future, which is why these issues have excited me. Ultimately, after graduate school in a civil and environmental engineering program, I hope to undertake both direct fieldwork and applied research so as to propose more effective policies toward water resource management, development, and conflict resolution.”
Charles Gertler ‘13
Project Title: Potential for Solar-Generated Electricity in China
“In the summer of 2012 I began my first long-term, independent research project: a senior thesis in Earth & Planetary Sciences and Environmental Science & Public Policy. Through analysis of relevant policies, industry factors, and solar resources, my senior thesis will evaluate the total potential for solar-generated electricity in China, as well as possible wind-solar coupling (to smooth out temporal variability in the resources) and atmospheric effects (including CO2 abatement). It is an exciting project with numerous intricacies and difficulties that my work this summer has helped illuminate.
Briefly, my research took me to three major cities: Shanghai, Beijing, and Cambridge. Immediately after my last final of the spring term, I boarded a plane to Shanghai, where I spent 6 days attending the SNEC international solar PV (photovoltaic) conference. There, I gained a sense of the vast PV industry, especially in China, and gained appreciation for the oft-noted “commodification” of mono-crystalline and poly-crystalline silicon PV cells. I also made valuable contact with industry analysts, who have helped provide perspective for my project.
From Shanghai, I boarded the high-speed maglev train to Beijing, where I spent the majority of my time in China. For about 5 weeks, I was stationed in the Research Institute at the China Three Gorges Corporation, a company with a research partnership with the Harvard China Project (HCP). At Three Gorges, I deepened my knowledge of Chinese policies relevant to solar-generated electricity; a trip to a solar plant run by the corporation shed light on the practical challenges and considerations utility-scale solar power is facing in China. I also made important connections with developers on the ground in China. Being the only foreigner in a state-owned Chinese corporation was really exciting—eating in the dining hall, playing ping pong after lunch, going on company outings, and getting to tour a solar power facility in the western province of Qinghai, were all fantastic experiences.
After Beijing, I made my way back to Cambridge, where I spent the rest of the summer stationed at the HCP, further researching solar power generation in general, and contextualizing industry and market development in China and internationally. There, I was in close contact with my faculty advisor, Michael B. McElroy, as well as postdoc Xi Lu, who helped keep my work in perspective with regular meetings and continued guidance.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in the course of this preliminary research, it is that solar-generated electricity truly is, as is often said, a moving target. Reports from three years ago seem hopelessly out of date as the regulatory landscape, cell efficiency, manufacturing costs, and even forward projections tell stories vastly different from more recent analysis. That being said, it seems Chinese regulation and attitudes surrounding solar power and, more specifically, utility-scale Solar PV power, have reached a critical point of maturity, and can now be studied with more stability and certainty. I am in a good position, with fortuitous timing, to write a meaningful analysis of this resource’s potential in China. I think the opportunity to really dig into my research in a very immersive way has given me insight and experience that would have been hard to acquire by any other means, and hopefully this will eventually make my thesis a product I'm proud of.
The HUCE funds allowed me to experience an incredible, academically and intellectually rich summer.”
This article originally appeared in Environment@Harvard, the newsletter of the Center for the Environment, in Volume 5, Issue 1. Read the entire issue here.