The New Year and 2022 Reflections

Happy New Year! I always like the new year as it gives one a chance to reflect on the past, the present and the future. This year my resolutions are to get eight hours of sleep/day, to leave the house earlier for things (run late less) and to try pottery throwing (particularly to make bowls!) before the end of 2023.

Also exciting is that this year marks my fifth year anniversary with USC and this recent Jan. 3rd was my one-year anniversary of my now not-so-new job as a sustainability data analyst. I really appreciated the added work-life balance of being on the staff side of things, and the fun and meaningful sustainability work with a great team.

A couple of work highlights from last year include:

  1. Getting to know so many more amazing people at USC, including our Sustainability Team and beyond!
  2. Some fun team events and field trips (some featured above), including trips to the USC Wrigley’s Institute, the CARB facility in Riverside, the USGBC Green Gala and UC Irvine (the latter to see all the amazing things that UCI has done for wellbeing first hand).
  3. Leading the development, distribution and analysis of the sustainabilty literacy and cultural survey
    • I previously blogged about this survey and now you can view the final report here! In a month I will be starting to review and update the survey for our April 2023 rollout. It will be really important to compare results between these two years, as many changes on campus have occured in the past year. (Including USC’s Asgmt: Earth Campaign which likely has helped to spread more awareness about USCs sustainability initiatives).
  4. Collaborating with the sustainability team at Carnegie Mellon University and mentoring a USC student- Brian Tinsley on a project to use keywords and an R package to map USC’s curriculum to the UN SDGs (check out the draft dashboard here, but please note that this is still a beta version). We even did a fun webinar on this for AASHE (view recording here)
  5. Mentoring five masters students at USC through the 2022 Fall CKIDS Datafest in a natural language processing project to map USC research to the UN SDGS. Check out their final project website here. *Note- lots of improvements to this dashboard coming soon.
    • Huge shout out to Alison Chen, Aurora Massari, Bhavya Raman, Ric Xian, and Xinyi Zhang to their hard work on this, and for winning first place for the Best Science Collaboration Practices Award and the Best Data Science Teamwork Award. Many thanks to Professor Mayank Kejriwal for helping to mentor the students in deep learning techniques and for providing feedback on the project! + Thank you to Abigail Horn, Keith Burghardt, Yolanda Gil and Guran Muric for organizing this amazing mentorship program.
  6. Collaborating with USC’s Transportation Department (shout out to David Donovan!) to obtain and analyze our AQMD transportation datasets at USC to estimate our Scope 3 emissions from student, faculty and staff commuting, as well as visualize commuting modes through time to strategize on how we can lower commuting emissions further in coming years.
  7. Being part of USC’s Task Force for Carbon Removal and Offsets (shout out to Hannah Findling, three amazing students (Harold Aaronson, Sean McCalla and Marisa Tremblay) and our newest Associate Director of Carbon Consulting- Brad Haydel for their hard work in leading the meetings and content!
  8. Giving a Microseminar with Dr. Camille Dieterle on “Growing Food, Community and Wellbeing in the Framework of Environmental Sustainability‘ to incoming freshman, with the second day taking place in the UPC Peace Garden (shout out to Professor Dieterle in her leadership in creating this garden)
  9. Collaborating with USC’s Spatial Science institute and helping to lead some fun data collection activities for USC’s sustainability data hub (more datasets coming soon!)
  10. Initiating and working with USC’s Open Access Task Force (shout out to Dr. Silvia Da Costa, Dr. Jennifer Dinalo, Melanie Vicedo and Alyssa Resnick) to promote Harvard’s Open Access Model as a path forward for open access at USC (mainly to implement an open access policy and repository so that all publications can be open access free of charge!). We met with the Academic Senate Executive Board, several faculty councils and the University Research Committee (fingers crossed that more progress is made in 2023!).

Anyhow, I’m ready to dive back into all the fun sustainability work after the long and relaxing break. This year, for the holidays, we went to St. Croix for a week (luckily before the holiday airport chaos). This was the first time my hubby and surfed in the Caribbean (which was super fun although lugging our surfboards and packing them to protect them during the travel was a new experience). We also snorkeled, golfed (well… just my hubby and his mom), worked out and all spent a ton of time on the beach reading (I finished “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez and highly recommend it!). Of course we also enjoyed some good food and each other’s company. Then, I spent the rest of the break in LA, and tried to catch up on all those ‘someday tasks’….but mainly some good surf (these winter waves are intense!), working out and starting up a new book- “Sapiens” (also a great read that I highly recommend!). More updates coming soon (and a better blog post too…lol).

You Can’t Manage What you Don’t Measure: Sustainability at USC

As the end of Spring Semester at USC approached, rather than my usual routine of frantically grading tons of projects and final exams as in previous semesters, I revved up to analyze a big sustainability-focused dataset (~6000 data points!)! As I mentioned in my last post– I recently changed career positions and am now a data analyst in the Office of Sustainability at USC! One of my first projects was to lead the development of USC’s first Sustainability Literacy, Culture and Behavior Survey that launched this past April! This survey will help USC gauge sustainability literacy, culture and behavior across USC through time (remember – you can’t manage what you don’t measure!) and it will help USC in its path to a gold STARS rating (current STARS rating is silver). We also added in several commuting questions to the survey for students to fill in some emissions-related data gaps to further assist USC’s 2025 carbon neutrality goal!

After developing the survey, implementing internal (USC) and external reviews (UCLA, CalTech and ASU – thank you!), myself and the sustainability team put in a ton of work to help market and distribute the survey! My boss- Mick Dalrymple (USC’s Chief Sustainability Officer) was key in getting top administration to approve survey distribution via email to every single person with a valid USC ID. We also implemented an incentive for all participants for a chance to win one of twenty $100 USC Bookstore e-gift cards. Our Sustainability Director, Ellen Dux gets the credit for telling me to come up with a marketing plan (that was a new experience!) to spread the word. Nichelle Huizar and Cynthia Tucker helped me locate places around USC where I could put up sandwich board and yard signs (that was good exercise btw! I think I lapped USC DPS on their rounds several times that day…). Elias Platte-Bermeo and Joshua Sierra were a huge help in marketing the survey at our Earth Week Events (and helping me carry the signs around!). Student interns helped me post fliers all around campus, as well as spread the word to their friends and our marketing specialist Erin Jebavy made sure that the survey was on all of the possible digital boards, social media, websites and newsletters. As Ellen says: Team work makes the Green Work!!

USC’s 2022 Sustainability Survey Response Distribution

In the end, ~ 6000 responses wasn’t bad for our first go around! As we will be conducting the survey every year, I think we will be able to garner more participation through time. I recently finished organizing and cleaning the data and I am now looking forward to analyzing and visualizing the data. We plan to release the full and executive summary reports in the Fall– so stay tuned for more on that soon!

In addition to the survey, I’ve also been working on automizing the process of classifying courses and programs at USC as sustainability focused, inclusive or unrelated. I’m currently collaborating with a group at Carnegie Mellon on this as they had an amazing mathematics undergraduate that started developing an R package to map courses to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. So this Summer, I’ll be working with CMU and a USC undergraduate to expand the package to map curricular programs and research as well. It’s exciting because I get to combine my passion for sustainability with my data analytics and R-skills! Go R Power!

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals

I’m also exploring an initiative to implement an Open-Access Policy, Fund and Repository at USC similar to what the UCs, Harvard, Massachusets Amherst and many other Universities are doing (If you are interested in this, then click on each of the links above). In a nutshell the way this works is that the University holds a non-exclusive copyright of the written scholarly work of employees so that then a researcher can submit their peer-reviewed accepted paper to the publicly available university repository (this is GREEN OPEN-ACCESS and is free!). This does NOT prevent employees from submitting their work to their preferred journal. If a journal does not agree with this open-access set up, then the researcher can obtain a waiver from the University and waive out of submitting their paper to the open-access repository. If a researcher waives out, then ideally they have funds to publish in the journal’s open-access option (GOLD OPEN-ACCESS, which is expensive.. just like gold). If the researcher does not have funds- they can apply to the University’s open-access fund so that they have the funds necessary to publish through the Journal’s Gold Open-Access. The University’s library is usually the one to host the open-access policy, repository and fund. So far myself, two librarians and a staff member in the Office of Research have met with an open-access consultant from Harvard – Dr. Peter Suber– (offers free OA consulting). Our next step is to try to find some open-access faculty champions at USC to spread the word and garner more support. (Please let me know if you work at USC and you are interested!) Open Access = Equity = Advancement for All!

Open Access benefits, from Aston University Library Services-

Aside from these fun projects and others (will fill you in more later)- I’ve also been enjoying my time off on weekends- and have been spending a lot of time gardening and going on lots of adventures -from snowboarding in Mammoth Mountains, kayaking in San Luis Obispo while visiting one of my best friends- to camping in and exploring the Anza Borrego Desert, motor-dirt biking in Hungry Valley (Lancaster CA)- and going to Washington DC for my mom’s (Anita Hopper) induction ceremony into the National Academy of Sciences (Go mom!) and visiting some old friends. All in all- I’m enjoying this new position greatly! I have a better work-life balance and feel like I can really make an impact. More soon!

An Amazing Semester + New Job!

Happy Holidays everyone! I’m sure you can tell by my stealth mode that I’ve been in the middle of another hectic but yet wonderful semester (with no time to blog!). This semester might have been the best yet because I felt like I finally got down the rhythm of both of my classes as well as the balance of how much work to give students (so that they still learn a lot but aren’t stressed out). Plus not to mention- we were back to in-person teaching (yipeee)! So I had full-reign with outdoor field trips for my USC BISC315 Ecology Students. (You can read about how I dealt with remote teaching here)

My amazing TA (Jennifer Beatty) and I definitely took it to the max this semester. To make up for lost time, we had the students conduct ecological field studies at the Ballona Wetlands and the Abalone Cove Tide Pools as well as at USC and the nearby Natural History Museum gardens. By the end of the semester- the students were definitely pros at surveying biodiversity with transects and quadrats as well as with pitfall traps (the former for plant and intertidal organism diversity and the latter to collect ground-dwelling arthropods). We also had a cricket-behavior lab and a parasite lab (the latter where the students collected snails and then dissected them for their trematode parasites!). I had a blast and I know most of the students did too! Throughout the course of teaching them experimental design – my TA (Jennifer Beatty) and I also provided them with the flexibility to ask their own scientific questions and to design their own experiments. We also taught them how to collect, analyze and interpret the data – using Excel and R. Here is a video where I presented for the CET Faculty Showcase and I describe the importance of student ownership when it comes to teaching data analysis:

The semester then concluded with a poster symposium where the students chose their favorite study to focus on and present (photos below). It was tons of fun!

I suppose all of this makes it a bit bittersweet to announce that I will be changing it up a bit and transitioning to a new career (which I’m stoked about -as bittersweet as it is to know that I won’t be teaching Ecology next year).

ok… you are in suspense I know.. Drumroll Please….

NEW Job Alert!: I’m going to be a Sustainability Data Analyst for the Office of Sustainability at USC! I could not be more ecstatic to combine my skills in data analytics and visualization with my passion for sustainability. I will definitely write more about my position once I start, but briefly: I will be responsible for collecting, analyzing and visualizing all the different data on USC campus that relates to USC’s sustainability initiatives. Ultimately this data will be used to evaluate areas where we can improve -including metrics like: waste, water and electricity usage, education and engagement, etc. This data will be presented in reports that are assessed by the STARS – Sustainability Tracking Assessment Rating System. The ultimate goal is to go from our current silver rating to gold and eventually platinum! This job is awesome because I get to stay at USC and I get to be part of this fabulous sustainability ride. Stay tuned and enjoy your holiday, or even just every day!

Recommended holiday break reading

‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle – all about being present in the moment, really helpful during these chaotic and uncertain times.

“Do you dream of Terra-Two” by Temi Oh – I would describe it as similar ish to Harry Potter but with astronauts and space (no magic) – the first fiction I’ve read since college and it was delightful!

Sustainability and Covid19 Part II: Wasting Less

Happy 2021! Here we are.. still in a pandemic, but at least the political scene in the USA has improved since I wrote last (Great news for Mother Nature and Society!). Anyhow, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently part of the 6 mo Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Challenge, an accelerator program that culminates in different workgroups trying to solve some of the many complex issues inherent in the global plastic problem, particularly the plastic that ends up in our water ways and oceans. I’ve definitely learned a lot in the past two months, with experts speaking about issues ranging from human behavior and what incentives are necessary to decrease littering and wasteful behavior; to the policies and regulations involved in trying to decrease plastic waste as well as the difficulties of getting corporations on board for the long-haul, and the ins and outs of obtaining and analyzing data on the types and amounts of plastic waste that we find in the environment! Shout out to the Trash Data Treasure Trove via Win Cowger and his colleagues on the latter!

It’s estimated that between 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean in a given year (based on the year 2010: Jambeck et al. 2015 Image

Even though corporations do have a large role in a lot of the plastic waste observed in our environment, I came out of this short-course series with still the same main opinion I had at the start: INDIVIDUALS (YOU AND ME) STILL HAVE A POWERFUL ROLE IN DETERMINING THE AMOUNT OF WASTE THAT IS PRODUCED, AS WELL AS THE DOWNSTREAM HANDLING OF THAT WASTE (aka – preventing it from getting into the natural environment!). So let’s stop waiting for corporations to start changing/taking action, and let’s talk about what you and I can do (some of which includes buying less of the more wasteful products and single-use plastics which then puts financial pressure (aka incentives) on the corporations to change their ways! Take that! Karate Chop! HiYah!


Thus I’ve put together a list of tips that I’ve gathered from the expert zero-wasters (people like Lauren Singer who literally and incredibly only have a jar-full of waste from years of living on Earth!), as well as from my own life experience of trying to cut down on waste (while on a budget!).

Tips for How to Waste Less

  1. Biggest Tip: WHAT YOU DON’T BUY = YOU DON’T USE
    • Below are some swaps for things that you can stop buying (and save $$!):
  • For cleaning cooking, drinking and eating:
    • Instead of Single-Use Water Bottles – use a Reusable Water Bottle, and get a cheap water filter for your home tap water (if you are concerned about your tap water). Honestly, unless your are in Flint, Michigan (and my heart goes out to you guys)- the water quality in the USA is pretty well regulated (typically more so than bottled water)-and you can just google ‘water quality’ and the name of your city to find out what is in your water- see here for California
    • Instead of SaranWrap – use Tupperware, or Beeswax Wrap
    • Instead of Paper Towels- use Washable and Reusable Cloth Towels/Rags
    • Instead of Paper Napkins- use Washable and Reusable Cloth Napkins(you can make both of the above from old tshirts or towels if you are short on cash)
    • Instead of Ziplock bags– use Tupperware, silicon ziplock bags or do what I do, and reuse the ziplock bags from trailmix, and other snacks that you buy from Trader Joes or other stores that use too much packaging!
    • Instead of Aluminum Foil or Baking Sheets- use a silicone baking sheet, or keep your food in a covered pot in the oven. I will admit though that this can be tough for very large dishes such as a Turkey… but that is only once a year- so a box of foil could last you a life time!
    • Instead of single use Cleaning Cloths (such as the lysol ones)– use a soapy sponge- works just as well and is less toxic and cheaper.
    • Instead of One-Time Use Masks: Use Reusable/Washable Cotton Fabric Masks -ideally the ones with 2-3 fabric layers (unless you are working in the medical field of course).
  • For Self Care:
  • Self Care- What you can stop buying:
    • Instead of Cotton Rounds/Balls – make your own washable ones by cutting up an old tshirt into little squares (you can sew the edges if you want them to look pretty, but I just stuff my cotton squares int a glass jar and call it a day!). Pro-tip- use a lingerie bag to wash and dry the little pieces so they don’t clog your washer or get lost!
  • Use Refillable Products!
    • Instead of buying dish soap, laundry detergent, and all of the other household products that come in plastic containers- check out these cool detergent pods that you can use in refillable containers!
    • Instead of buying new shampoo, conditioner and body soaps in plastic containers: buy the bar forms of shampoo, conditioners, soaps and lotions, or buy refillable products where you can return the containers and the companies sterilize them and reuse them! My favorite is:
    • Instead of floss in plastic packaging, use refillable floss containers w/ waxed silk floss
  • Instead of plastic toothbrushes- use bamboo toothbrushes (that are not wrapped in plastic packaging!)
  • Fix, Trade or Thrift instead of Buying New
    • Instead of Buying New Clothes- go to a Tailor with Existing Clothes from your closet or a friends closet to spruce them up, make them fit better and/or fix that zipper (or do it yourself)
    • Instead of Buying New Shoes– take your shoes to your Local Shoe Cobbler – they can replace the heals, fix the straps, and shine them up like new!
    • Check out trendy thrift stores near you– like Crossroads Trading Store in Santa Monica! They actually have very fashionable and new-looking (lightly used) items. It is so fashionable that they consistently reject all of my clothes when I try to sell my stuff to them… .lol Don’t judge me!
    • Conduct clothing swaps w/ friends (outdoors or after the pandemic of course)
  • Eat at Home More Often (no this does not include takeout): It’s Cheaper + Less Plastic WasteTo make this easier- try food-prepping or cooking while watching a tv show on your laptop or listening to a podcast- or better yet- do it with a friend!
  • If you do go out to eat to support the local restaurants: Be sure to Support the Businesses that do NOT use Styrofoam, and ideally support businesses that use compostable or recyclable or reusable containers + Don’t forget to bring your own utensils and ask the restaurant to hold off on the single use silverware/ and straws (for takeout). If you are dining in/outside then bring tupperware with you when you go out to eat so you can pack the leftovers in your reusable containers.
  • Instead of Buying Coffee at Starbucks or another cafeMake it at Home –and please don’t use those plastic pod coffee things.. yuck! Although if you must, they have ones that use recyclable pods. Ideally use a french press or an italian espresso maker. If you do go get coffee then use a reusable coffee travel mug (during non-covid19 times…)
  • Bring reusable grocery bags to the stores – Almost all stores are now letting you pack your goods in your own bags again now (thank goodness!). If they don’t let you then just take the unpackaged goods to your car and load it in a bag in your car. A little more effort on your part makes a lasting effort on Earth : )
  • Shop at places that have bulk items in bins to so that you can pack dried goods in reusable cloth bags (or ones you make out of old pillow cases that you wash and sew). The bummer is right now most places that used to do this are pre-packaging their bulk items in plastic- yuck! However! You can try to find shops like this one in Los Angeles (Tare Grocery) where they will pack up goods for you in your own glass or aluminum containers (no cloth allowed right now). I actually just went to this shop last week! They pack everything in paper brown bags (from recycled paper) if you don’t bring your own reusable containers.
  • Similarly- Don’t use Plastic bags for Produce! I mean really.. do you really think you are being more sterile by putting it in plastic instead of directly in your cart? How do you think the produce got to the store and onto the display cases? (people’s hands!) I just put mine directly on the cart (wet and everything) and then on the checkout counter directly before putting it into my reusable grocery bag. I have not gotten Covid19 from doing this for the past year… you will be fine as long as you rinse off your produce before eating it (which I’m sure you do anyhow).
  • Don’t buy/use Plastic Garbage BagsUse biodegradable bags– I mean .. really.. why are we buying plastic just to throw it away? The biodegradable ones work great- especially if you compost your food waste in a separate container.
  • Compost your food waste (no meat or diary, just fruit, veggies, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea, etc.). Just keep a small container under your sink next to the trash so it is convenient to use. Then if you have a garden, you can get a compost tumbler and use the compost-produced soil for your garden; or if you don’t have a yard then chance are you can throw the fruit and veggie scraps into your green yardwaste bin! USA cities typically provide every household (and apartment complex) a green waste bin for free.
  • Use rechargeable items, and use re-cheargable batteries for items that cannot be recheargable.

Remember: Take it one small step at a time– don’t try to go completely zero waste all at once, just see which of the tips/tricks and online suggestions work for you the best and start there. You got this!

Below are some resources for zero-waste goods that you can buy online

(I don’t get any kickbacks of any sort- these are just the companies I use).

-They carry plaine products shampoo/conditioner/etc as well as the leaf razors and many other awesome products such as bamboo tooth brushes etc- that you can buy all together.

-This is where I buy my dish soap powder and tablets for hand soaps and household cleaning products

Sustainability and COVID19, Part I: Combatting Plastic Pollution with Socially Distanced Beach Cleanups!

I’m sure all of you have heard that our oceans are in a crisis.

Humans have been drastically altering marine ecosystems through our overexploitation of marine resources (eg. over fishing), our contribution to rising global sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification (via the greenhouse gas effect from our dependencies on and combustion of fossil fuels) and the massive amounts of pollutants that we pour into the oceans every day (eg. plastics, oil spills, toxic waste, and more). In fact today I just stumbled upon a shocking and horrifying LATimes article on the 1950s dumping of DDT off the coast of San Pedro and near Catalina island, with the latter resulting in approximately 384 to 1,535 tons of DDT dumped on the seafloor. (Absolutely awful…. I know). Plastic pollution has also been getting a lot of press in recent years as it has been acknowledged that these plastics breakdown into micro and nano particles, likely lasting for long periods of time and transferring of plastic particles and chemicals up the food chain (including to us!). In fact this plastic pollution might even threaten ocean carbon sequestration (a process which is critical in decreasing the rate of global warming).

Fig. 1 from Shen et al. 2020:
“Carbon sequestration, transportation and cycling in the ocean. DOC, dissolved organic carbon; POC, particulate organic carbon; LPOC, labile dissolved organic carbon; RPOC, recalcitrant dissolved organic carbon. Microplastics can affect the development and reproduction of marine phytoplankton and zooplankton, thus affecting the ocean carbon sequestration”

Thus- it is critical that we all take steps to prevent more damage to our oceans and at the same time help the oceans recover. The first step is reducing our waste, which I will cover in a future blog, but another step that we can all do is to cleanup our parks, streets and beaches to prevent more plastic waste from entering our oceans. We can even do this during Covid19- while socially distanced outdoors and wearing our masks and gloves!

So this ‘Zoomester’ I decided to organize a Plastic Cleanup- with an in-person beach cleanup event at Playa Del Rey Beach in Los Angeles and a remote option for those individuals that were living afar. This took place last Saturday (10/17/20) and all in all it was a tremendous success with about 15 people that participated! This included faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduates, including four undergraduates from my Environmental Studies class that I had never met in person prior to this day (I get so excited to meet people in real life now.. ha). In the below photo are two students (and roommates) from USC posing behind some of the trash that they and several others collected. Unfortunately I forgot to ask everyone to stack their trash, so I wasn’t able to document all of it.

Two USC students, Emilia Weske and Raquel Lazaro, posing in front of some of the trash they helped clear off the beach in Los Angeles, CA! ps. They live together.. hence the close proximity!

The fabulously talented photographer: Maurice Roper (USC) also came and documented the whole event! Below I have included a gallery showcasing some of the photos he took!

In addition to Maurice Roper documenting the event, I was very fortunate to have the wonderful support of USC’s Environmental Studies Program and the Wrigley Institute. I want to give a special shoutout to Dr. Jill Sohm (Director of the Environmental Studies Program) and Dr. Ann Close (Wrigley Institute, Associate Director) for their help. Lastly, I was able to use hands-free online waiver forms with the help of Kate Tucker at Resmark Systems with “WaiverSign” (I highly recommend them for your hands-free events!).

I truly felt like this event was impactful. Aside from all of the trash that we cleaned off the beach (the majority of which was plastic), there were many people that watched us and thanked us, and even some that joined us! So I have hope that this event spread awareness as to the little things that WE CAN ALL DO to help our oceans and environment!