Students' Aha Moments; How a professor, a class, even a PowerPoint presentation, can change a life

Derek Chung
Environmental Engineering, UCSD '12

"When I started college, I thought global warming was stupid, trees needed to be cut down, and everything ran on the guiding hand of the market," Derek Chung says. The 23-year-old with mussed-up hair is Skyping from a hostel in Malaysia, the 16th country he's passed through during an eight-month "soul search."

By his sophomore year at the University of California, San Diego, Chung had helped found his campus's chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World. But, he says, he initially got involved with the club to pad his resume, "not really to make a sustainable world."

What truly sparked his interest in sustainability was a sophomore-year engineering class whose name he now forgets. (Nor does the class's professor, Sarah Gille, remember Chung. The 200-student Environmental Challenges course "runs the risk of being pretty impersonal," she admits.)

What Chung does remember is the course's term paper, for which he assessed a cow's environmental impact from birth to death. In it, Chung focused on the economics of beef production and concluded that "grass-fed beef is environmentally sustainable but not economically practical." He explains what he learned from that paper in terms of water: Producing a pound of beef requires about 1,800 gallons.

Though Chung grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the mention of water takes him back to the Grand Canyon, where he vacationed with his family every summer from ages 5 to 14. There, bluegills and guppies nibbled his toes, and baby rattlesnakes eyed him from between boulders. Through the years, he watched the canyon change. Water levels fell. "There used to be thousands of little critters hopping around [the waterfalls], but in later years we either didn't find them or they just weren't there."

When he considered the water footprint of one cow, then scaled that number up to 33 million, which is the number of cows killed in the United States each year, he began to worry: "Maybe the changes are our fault."

After making that calculation, Chung gradually reinvented his lifestyle--though it wasn't all the cows' doing. As he became more active in Engineers for a Sustainable World, he met "people who were so passionate about sustainability that their passion was addictive." He also started dating a vegan.

For most of his life, Chung had eaten meat with every meal. His junior year, he experimented with veganism for two months ("It was really hard"), then went back to eating meat, but only a few times a week. Next he started biking to class--three miles each way. Then he stopped buying new stuff. "It's really lovely and freeing to feel like I don't need any new thing," he says in the midst of crossing two continents with fewer than 12 pounds of possessions.

Later this summer, Chung will meet four fellow Engineers for a Sustainable World members in Thailand to install a student-designed project. The team's hydroelectric generator will power a UV filter to provide 150 families with 720 gallons of clean water per hour.

Sometime after that, Chung will head home, and then he'll . . . he doesn't yet know.



By: Natalya Savka