Career choice flows out of care for a stream

Julien Wang, Master's degree candidate

Photograph of Julien Wang
Julien Wang plans to put her new M.S. in environmental engineering to work on air pollution or energy policy. (Photo courtesy Julien Wang.)

"I just stumbled across it, a little by accident and a little by luck," Julien Wang says about her current career path.

Wang's parents thought she should follow the family trade, medicine. Her grandfather was a renowned anesthesiologist. Her mother, an M.D,. brought the family from China to the United States while she was doing postdoctoral research.

Nine-year-old Julien spoke no English when she arrived in the United States in 1993. She credits "the sheer volume of cartoons that I watched, books that I read, and music that I listened to" for making her fluent. Whatever she did must have worked well, because she had success writing stories and plays in her new language at school.

‘There was nobody to run the group. [So] I started taking a leadership role.’

By the time she was in high school, "I had my hand in all the arts," she says. Her parents were still urging her toward a medical career, "but after growing up in a hospital, I didn't want to do that," she says. She was leaning toward a humanities major.

Something different

Then, as a junior, she wandered into the environment club. "I don't know why I went," she says. "I was just in the mood for something different."

She joined at an opportune moment. The club officers were all seniors, so the following year "there was nobody to run the group. I started taking a leadership role."

Wang lived in a well-to-do Baltimore neighborhood, but even there, she noticed the air pollution, and people littered the local stream. "It would bother me. I think when most people see trash, they just look the other way. But if you keep on like that, eventually we're not going to have a stream. If you ignore something long enough, it's not going to be there any more." Her club organized a stream cleanup.

Lessons in problem solving

High school was also the first time that she ran across a real academic challenge. She credits her parents' high expectations for making her a straight-A student—until she hit a precalculus class taught by a notorious teacher. "That teacher wasn't good at answering questions, she wasn't personable, she wasn't approachable, and the rumor was that she only gave, like, 2 A's. That was one of the first times that I realized that you cannot be perfect in everything you do and that there will be people who will not be very understanding along your way.

‘I realized that you cannot be perfect . . . and there will be people who will not be very understanding along your way.’

"In retrospect, I really needed that experience," she says. "Academically, I learned something about problem solving; socially, I learned something about dealing with people."

When it came time to choose a major, Wang was torn between the arts and her growing interest in the environment. Finally, she chose environmental engineering. She graduates from Johns Hopkins University this spring with a master's degree.

The bilingual advantage

Being truly fluent in English as well as Mandarin Chinese has given her a distinct advantage in her schoolwork, Wang says. "Language education in China is very weak. I have a lot of Chinese classmates who don't really speak English—even the [teaching assistants]. Some TAs ask me to translate very simple things for them. I don't know how professors pick TAs, but it's not for their communication skills.

"Now that I am job hunting, I always put down [on applications] that I speak Mandarin. That will come in very handy if I get a job that has offices in other parts of the world."

About the Research

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.

Graduate experience as an undergrad

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.

People standing on roof deck overlooking growing plants
A green roof grows in Denver. The viewing deck for this sedum-filled roof is on the 9th floor of the Denver, Colorado, offices of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's Region 8 building includes many other sustainable features. (Image courtesy the EPA.)

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."

Greening Johns Hopkins' roof

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.

The world in her future?

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."


June 2008

One-minute mentor

What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?

Be bold, voice your interests

Wang's advice is especially for introverts like herself: "Be bold and seek out people who might be able to help you. Don't be afraid to talk to people, especially teachers; teachers can be very helpful, especially in middle school and high school. It's important to understand that teachers love it when the students ask questions because they want to understand the material. They hate it if you only ask about your grades.

"Also, communicate with your parents. After my parents realized I was interested in this particular field, even though it wasn't their idea, they helped me find contacts. Be ready to voice your interests."

Julien Wang, Master's degree candidate

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