2016 Young Laureate, Environment
United States, Born 1992
Christine Keung, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the United States, was the first person in her family to graduate from university. Her success did not stop there. She went on to win a National Science Foundation research grant at age 19, and, in 2014, was admitted to Harvard Business School under its high-potential student programme. But she started thinking about what she could do for China. “I knew I could use my education either to insulate myself from the problems of the world, or to become a force to address them.”
Keung made her first trip to Shaanxi Province, in Northwest China, in 2012. “It was amazing to see cave dwellings I knew my father had experienced living in as a young man.” She also witnessed environmental pollution. “I saw, firsthand, haphazard dumping of used medical supplies and pesticides in the largest tributary of the Yellow River.”
In 2014, a Fulbright scholarship gave Keung the opportunity to visit China for 10 months, where she became aware of the extent of China’s rural pollution and the contributing factors. “Men migrate to the cities for work, women and children are left to bear the disproportionate cost of environmental degradation,” says Keung. She decided to focus her research in China around this issue.
Her ultimate goal is to bring government representatives and rural stakeholders together to discuss options for a long-term solution to dealing with hazardous waste. But in the immediate term, rural Chinese women are key to Keung’s programme, and she aims to empower them to become agents of change. “I see transformed communities where women have the knowledge, the motivation and the ability to preserve, protect and invest in their land,” she says. As families do not have ownership of the land they work, she views it as important to tie the role of women “to something they do care about like the health of their kids”, she says.
With the support of the Northwest Socioeconomic Development Research
Center (NSDRC) – a research centre affiliated to Shaanxi Normal University – and local governments, Keung and her team are providing training for women’s groups on safe methods of recycling agricultural, chemical and medical wastes, implementing a pilot programme that tracks waste from points of purchase to storage, usage and disposal. Village doctors and farm suppliers will also receive training on recycling and treatment of waste and will develop a waste inventory system that they will pilot themselves.
“My team will lead the organization and the training of the workshops, and
Shaanxi Normal University students will be field agents to support the women’s groups,” she says, adding that eventually the women’s groups will receive training in soil and water sampling to gather baseline data.
Working with the NSDRC, Keung has also travelled to more than 60 villages to interview farmers and rural doctors and to work with them to address water contamination. Her team today includes researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shaanxi Normal University, the NSDRC and the University of Pittsburgh.
Published in 2016