Art, science inspire student climate-change activism

Credit: UC Irvine Communications

Artist Kathleen Deck is using the landscaping at UC Irvine to start a discussion about climate change.

UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative Fellowships

The UC Office of the President allocated $7,500 to each UC campus, the division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to help fund one-year fellowships.

The program's goal is to galvanize student participation in UC's effort to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025.

Within days of shutting off the sprinklers, the lush grass will wither and turn brown, and that’s exactly what UC Irvine art student Kathleen Deck wants to happen.

For her “Conservation Through Creation” art installation, a 7,800-square-foot section of lawn on UC Irvine’s Ring Road won’t be watered for a month. The idea is to return an artificial environment to its natural state, and start a discussion about how the changing climate can affect water use and the  fragile environment that people have created.

“Orange County is in this little bubble, and all of Southern California,” Deck said, noting that much of the state would be desert without human intervention. “We don’t have water but we ship in water to use for aesthetic reasons.”

Deck is one of 37 students awarded a President’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative Fellowship to work on projects that support the University of California system’s goal to produce zero-net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

UC President Janet Napolitano created the fellowships as a way to encourage student involvement in advancing UC's carbon neutrality and sustainability goals.

Fellows have taken on a wide range of projects, from research aimed at scientific advances to policy analysis. And at least one fellow at each UC location is dedicated to communicating the urgency of the carbon neutrality goal to students and campus communities.

Communication and engagement is an essential component to whether UC will achieve its carbon neutrality goals, Deck and others said. People need to change their mindset and take personal responsibility for solutions that can address climate change.

Deck said she hopes that seeing a brown patch amid a sea of green will be so startling that it forces people to change their perspective.

When the project is installed in May, the parched lawn will include a sign noting that it typically takes about 5,000 of gallons of reclaimed water per week to irrigate the site.

“It looks unkempt, like someone has neglected the area, but that’s the wrong way to think about it, because that is just the weather here,” Deck said. “We don’t have the weather system here to support green grass.”

Deck, an art major who almost majored in earth sciences, applied for the fellowship because she is interested in the intersection of art and science. She believes art has the power to ignite student interest in efforts to combat climate change.

“To know that we can make a change right now is one of the most important things to remember,” Deck said. “Sometimes people don’t want to hear about it because it’s scary and depressing. Maybe putting it out there as art, people might see it in a different light, and maybe it won’t be so scary.”

The 2015 Carbon Neutrality Initiative Fellows and their projects are:

UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

  • UC Berkeley graduate student Gavin Nichols: study of dynamics of carbon emissions in wetlands
  • UC Berkeley graduate student Stella Cousins: study of impact of dead trees on carbon emissions in conifer forests

UC Berkeley

  • Pascal Polonik: educational presentation on effect of greenhouse gases
  • Charlotte O’Donnell, Sarah Strochak and Nadine Melamed: report gauging student knowledge and interest in climate change issues
  • Mikela Topey: evaluating potential to reduce emissions of campus vehicle fleet, carbon reduction pledge campaign

UC Davis

  • Colin Mickle: evaluating how to use of carbon offsets; student engagement
  • Naftali Moed: student engagement

UC Irvine

  • Asiya Natekal: feasibility study for installing “cool roofs” on campus
  • Kathleen Deck: art installation to start discussion of water use and climate change
  • Hope Pollard: Energy audit and conservation plan for buildings at UC Natural Reserve locations
  • Cody Lee: establish a student engagement network of campus organizations
  • Amelia Rose Unsicker: using social media, video and art to encourage student engagement

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

  • Christine Li: create an energy management and monitoring system for buildings


  • Sam Hirsch, Austin Park, Alyssa Koehn and Parker Wells: develop communication plan for student engagement

UC Merced

  • Adriana Gomez: update to campus climate action plan
  • Gabriel Morabe: student engagement
  • Alex Newman: study of land management and erosion’s affect on ability of soil to absorb carbon dioxide

UC Riverside

  • Xuewei Qi: develop visualization tools for estimating pollutant concentrations of vehicles on campus
  • Parth Roy: energy audit for identifying approaches to implement campus-wide conservation and efficiency program
  • Salvador Ulloa: inventory lighting on campus in preparation for LED replacement
  • Julianne Rolf: adapt solar-powered clothes dryer developed by students for use in campus housing

UC San Diego

  • Linda Tong: develop communication plan about sustainability goals, student engagement
  • Charlotte Beall: study of pollutants that affect campus climate and air quality in collaboration with scientists in China and Taiwan
  • Laurel Brigham: study of carbon mineralization potential of soils
  • Ellen Esch: study of carbon storage in different climate change scenarios at sites in the UC Natural Reserve System

UC San Francisco

  • Nicole Jackman: study use of fresh gas flow with inhaled anesthetics

UC Santa Barbara

  • Unique Vance, Victoria Mansfield: student engagement
  • Max Stiefel, Claire Dooley: identify best practices for reaching carbon neutrality

UC Santa Cruz

  • Alden Phinney: develop plan for energy audits and efficiency measures on campus, student engagement

UC Office of the President

  • Thomas James LaPoint: feasibility study for establishing carbon tax on campus level at UC Santa Cruz and at systemwide level