EnviroLab Asia funds student research in East and Southeast Asia

Allison Joseph SC ’20 spent the summer conducting research in a village in Thailand inhabited by refugees from Myanmar. (Photo courtesy of Karin Mak)

Not many people immediately think of East and Southeast Asia when considering the environmental issues of the planet. One organization at the 5Cs is trying to change that.

I attended the EnviroLab Asia Summer Research Reportback Sept. 20, an event at the Oldenborg Center at Pomona College. It consisted of four presentations by students who had just returned from conducting summer projects relating to the environment in East and Southeast Asian countries with the support of professors and EnviroLab Asia.

EnviroLab Asia is a 5C initiative that formed in 2015 with a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation’s Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment. According to EnviroLab Asia’s website, its mission is to “train students, faculty, and staff to become active practitioners of change who develop sustainable and socially just policy-relevant solutions to environmental challenges in Asia, with a focus on East and Southeast Asia.”

Pomona Associate Professor of Environmental Analysis Marc Los Huertos is one of the three faculty “principal investigators” of EnviroLab Asia.

“[EnviroLab Asia] really is a bottom-up model where faculty and students get together to figure out what they want to do,” Los Huertos said. “I think it’s super exciting because it allows people to think about the environment in very creative ways.”

Allison Joseph SC ’20, an environmental analysis and psychology major, spent the summer conducting research in a fishing village in Thailand inhabited by refugees from Myanmar.

Joseph’s goal was to explore gender constructs through the arts, focusing on migrant children and their self-discovery in a foreign nation. She created the “Ideal Woman Workshop,” which taught Burmese children about gender roles and body perceptions to foster empowerment and free expression through the arts.

“I think connecting environmental issues with trafficking and women’s rights is incredibly provocative,” Los Huertos said of Joseph’s project. “And it re-frames environment and climate change issues in a way that makes it a little more concrete and really drives home the social justice aspect that me, as a scientist, … can’t communicate very well.”

Laura Zhang PO ’19 said that she and her team of professors and post-grads partnered with Animals Asia in Vietnam, a nonprofit trying to end bear farming for bile. The question she said she was interested in researching was: “How do design, animal protection, and trade medicine relate?”

She helped the organization execute their “Health Day,” in which they supported medical practitioners giving free health consultations with local Taiwanese under the condition that they used plant-based alternatives to medicine typically made with bear bile.

“I was interested in how people’s perceptions of health dictate whether they use traditional medicine or western medicine, and [in] just getting a broader understanding of what health care looks like across cultures,” Zhang said.

She added that she used “human-centered design” in her work, a technique she worked on at the Hive to better understand those who utilize bear bile for medicine.

Laura Zhang PO ’19 presents her summer research project, in which she worked with Animals Asia in Vietnam.

Marcus Liu PO ’20, an Asian studies major, focused his project on urban parks in China and how they serve as leisure spaces for the elderly. Working under a research project developed by Angelina Chin, Pomona associate professor of history and Asian studies, Liu observed and surveyed elderly people in public parks in China to determine how the state manages parks as leisure spaces.

Liu found that certain parks were more friendly to the elderly than others, featuring wheelchair accessibility, dances for the elderly, noise control, chess games, and more. He said one of his favorite parts about conducting his research was getting to have conversations with the elderly.

“I feel like people really generally wanted to talk to me and share their life stories,” Liu said. “I think it’s good for them to have a young person they can talk with, and [being able] to reaffirm to them that their ideas are valued in our fast-changing society today is something really important to me.”

Eugine Choo PO ’19, an Asian studies major with a concentration in gender studies, worked on the same project as Liu and Chin but conducted research in parks in Korea. Her project was titled “Desirable and Undesirable Leisure: Analyzing Urban Parks as Leisure Spaces for Elderly South Koreans.”

In her presentation, Choo said she found spaces aimed toward the elderly and observed “established culture, management, and indifference” in the communications among the elderly.

“What really stuck out to me was that something so mundane like going to these urban parks, they’re actually places where there’s a lot of response between state government-level imaginations, policies, and intentions, as well as the everyday lives, imaginations, dreams of ordinary people,” Choo said.

Los Huertos said EnviroLab Asia is trying to engage students who cannot participate in the summer research aspect of the grant, as well as those who can. He said they provide many other resources, such as internships, from which students can benefit the ability to help with research conducted by 5C faculty, along with courses “redefined” in the context of East and Southeast Asia and the environment.

He added that EnviroLab Asia will help students develop project collaborations with its partners as well as find external grant organizations that will fund students’ research.

“There are a lot of things happening on campus that are trying to alter how we think about Asian studies and the environment, and students are on the recipient end of that,” Los Huertos said. “[For] students that didn’t have an innate interest in Asia, getting involved in environmental issues or some issue they care about, and seeing how that lands in East Asia, will actually transform how they think about that.”

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