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Princeton Weekly Bulletin   April 16, 2007, Vol. 96, No. 23   prev   next   current

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Kunkel taking quiet, methodical steps to save the environment

By Chad Boutin


Through her earlier research on coral reefs and tsunamis and now with her work on biomass in China, 2006 alumna Cathy Kunkel is finding ways to combine her education in physics with her interest in saving the environment. She is pictured here at the Summer Palace in Beijing, where she is spending a year as a research assistant at Tsinghua University. (photo: courtesy of Cathy Kunkel)

Princeton NJ — Cathy Kunkel showed up at Princeton in 2002 with dreams of saving the environment, and she set out to get an education that would help her to realize them.

Since graduating last year with a degree in physics, she has published a paper on coral reefs and tsunami waves in a major scientific journal. And now she’s in China working with engineers to address that country’s energy problems.

Kunkel’s step-by-step approach has her on track to become “the sort of scientist the world sorely needs,” according to her Princeton adviser.

“Cathy is comprehensive, systematic and brilliant,” said Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, who was Kunkel’s senior thesis adviser. “She wants to understand the world at its deepest level. She is trying to learn both the basic tools and the applied skills needed to be an effective leader on environmental issues.”

Kunkel made news late last year with the paper, which was published in the Dec. 14 edition of Geophysical Review Letters and then reported by other media. In searching for a topic for her senior thesis, she was inspired by the tsunami that devastated the coastlines of the Indian Ocean two years ago. With assistance from Oppenheimer and Robert Hallberg of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab, Kunkel developed the first-ever computer model of a tsunami strike against a reef-bounded shoreline, using an idealized volcanic island as an example.

The model, which demonstrates that healthy reefs offer the coast at least twice as much protection as dead reefs, became the basis for her thesis. Her research partners encouraged her to convert the work into a formal scientific paper, and it netted them the publication — with Kunkel as the first author.

“She didn’t need a huge amount of help,” Oppenheimer said. “She raised and then answered some important questions that hadn’t even occurred to me.”

The problem involved figuring out how to make a mathematical model of a wave striking a reef, something that never before had been done.

“For our purposes, we assumed that the health of the reef would only be important in terms of the drag it exerted on the wave,” Kunkel said. “If you have a healthy reef, it has lots of live coral branching out, sticking a lot of small obstacles into the water. A dead reef, on the other hand, is not as rough — it tends to erode and exerts less drag on the wave.”

A turbulent mountain of water crashing over a complicated rough surface presented Kunkel with a number of obstacles for her own study — specifically, how to find a way to express each of these effects with a mathematical formula that a computer could employ to simulate it. Different complex parameters had to be considered one by one: the width and depth of the reef; the roughness of its surface; the size of the lagoon behind it; and the slope of the coast beyond. And the overarching element was the wave itself and its interaction with all these obstacles. Eventually, Kunkel found a set of equations that provided a limited but comprehensive picture of a tsunami strike.

“We had to idealize a number of factors, because we wanted to create a model that could be used for a general shoreline,” Kunkel said. “For example, we had to consider a perfectly even ocean floor, because uneven ones can funnel a wave into a certain area.”

Kunkel said that though the model works respectably well, it is a first step at best to understanding how a specific reef might protect a specific section of coastline.

“The study gives us a basic idea of what variables are important, but if you want to quantify the effectiveness of a barrier reef around a particular island, you’d want to model that island directly,” she said.

Longtime love of nature

Kunkel’s love of the natural world extends far back into her childhood, she said.

“When I was in elementary school, my parents used to take me hiking out West a lot,” said Kunkel, who was raised in Ellicott City, Md. “I can’t remember the environment not being important to me. We’d go to Utah, and to national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier. When my parents took me to Glacier in the mid-’90s, they were shocked by the loss of ice.”

She said her decision to major in physics at Princeton was made on the strength of an introductory course.

“I thought about becoming an engineer, but I fell in love with my required physics course as a freshman,” she said. “I realized that a strong technical background would help me with environmental work.”

During her undergraduate career, Kunkel stood out for her academic achievements as well as for her extracurricular work.

In fall 2005, she was recognized at Opening Exercises as the recipient of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award, given to the undergraduate who, at the end of the junior year, has achieved the highest academic standing for all preceding college work at the University. She also was named a Morris K. Udall Scholar that year for her academic achievement, leadership potential and commitment to pursuing a career in the environment.

Kunkel was co-chair of Greening Princeton for three years and was one of two undergraduate representatives to the Princeton Environmental Oversight Committee for four years. In addition, she served as co-president of Princeton Environmental Action for a year.

“Cathy never told me how deeply she was involved in campus environmental life,” Oppenheimer said. “The semester after she graduated, I walked into a class that aimed to design a greener Princeton campus. I wanted to give them an example of what sort of projects they might take on if they were interested in research applied to environmental problems, and I started describing Cathy’s thesis work. Several of them knew about Cathy: It turned out their class project was Cathy’s idea in the first place.”

Future plans

After graduating in June 2006, Kunkel decided to spend this year as a research assistant at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Her work involves exploring ways to get fuel from biomass, the remains of living organisms. Kunkel is working with American and Chinese engineers to help address an energy problem that is particularly acute in China, which has a huge population but very little oil.

“I’m looking at different ways to convert biomass into fuels,” she said. “Right now I’m trying to analyze whether it makes more sense to use biomass for large-scale power and liquid fuels production or for smaller village-scale applications. We want to help people in the poorest areas, where they tend to burn loose biomass — creating lots of soot, which is unhealthy both for lungs and the atmosphere.”

Kunkel will remain in China until August. She has been awarded a Churchill Scholarship for 2007-08 for graduate work at the University of Cambridge’s Churchill College, where she will study advanced mathematics.

Oppenheimer said he is confident she will continue to be a valuable contributor to the field of environmental science. “Cathy is a dedicated person who understands the implications that science bears for the future of humanity,” he said. “She wants to use science to good ends.” δ


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