This blog was written by Chester Ling, a Nanyang Technological University student joining DDL this summer and fall as a student researcher.

Blogging has been a longstanding aspiration of mine, since it serves as a platform to hone my storytelling skills and connect with others around me by sharing my personal thoughts and experiences. Serendipitously, when I transplanted from Singapore (the red dot nation comprising less than 300 square miles) to Chapel Hill in June to pursue research with the Data-Driven EnviroLab for six months, Professor Angel Hsu suggested I could start blogging about my experiences. I decided to take her up on this opportunity, and hope that this reflection will be just one of many as I contribute to a range of the lab’s projects focused on cities’ and private businesses’ role in global decarbonization to tackle climate change. 

Diversity at its core

I am no stranger to the word ‘interdisciplinary’. From my early days in middle school, where I enrolled in both fine arts and natural science classes, I was intrigued by the endless possibilities of combining science and art. Here at DDL, I am excited to do work that explores and pushes the boundaries of this intersection. From the Net Zero Tracker to the Urban Environment and Social Inclusion Index, DDL’s projects involve both rigorous quantitative data analytics and qualitative policymaking approaches. DDL’s team members also come from different cultural, social, and educational backgrounds, which improves the team’s ability to solve complex, wicked problems

During my first week with DDL, our team was invited to the launch of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability. It was heartening to see a range of industry professionals, interdisciplinary researchers, and other like-minded attendees at the event. I was pleasantly surprised when we encountered a student studying Medicine and Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill. It is indisputable that environmental issues such as heat exposure involve stakeholders beyond climate researchers, from fields including medicine, health, law, engineering, policy, and more. I am delighted to work with a team that recognises the importance of these intersections and fosters collaboration between experts in various fields.

Dealing with Data

As a visiting scholar at DDL, I am currently working on the Urban, Environment, and Social Inclusion Index (UESI), where I am updating the population census and socio-economic data for cities covered by the UESI. These global datasets form the bedrock of our analysis and enable policymakers and researchers to recognise the trends in environmental performance and social equity at an urban neighbourhood level. Although those familiar working with data will be unsurprised, I was shocked at the number of challenges I faced in collecting data: lack of consistency across taxonomy and classifications, incomplete and unverified data, and language barriers. 

The journey of data analytics does not stop here. As the UESI team moved onto the cleaning and preparation stage, we encountered a plethora of issues ranging from typos, spelling errors and inconsistent formatting as we dug deeper into the datasets. Fortunately, I was able to utilise my skill and experience with R and spreadsheets to overcome these challenges. Despite these obstacles, I am excited and optimistic about the next phase of my visitorship here, while exploring other projects and contributing to DDL in the coming months.

The value of Engagement

Back in Singapore, I took a module on research methodology where we were exposed to the reality of scientific research and its processes, such as peer reviews and application for grants and funding. Through this module, I learned that consistent engagement and interaction are fundamental to a successful research organisation, and it is evident that engagement is foundational across all aspects of our work here at DDL. From candid conversations at work to collaborations across various departments and institutions, I believe that sharing and partaking in discussions plays a catalytic role in advancing research and raising awareness of DDL’s work. I look forward to having more thoughtful discussions with our collaborators as well as contributing to DDL, the academic community and the sustainability movement.

Lastly, I would like to extend my sincerest appreciation to Professor Perrine Hamel for connecting me with Professor Angel Hsu and opening the door for my experience at DDL. This unique opportunity would not have been possible without the support and funding from the CN Yang Scholars Programme and the Asian School of Environment at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.