College Scholars study climate change, local food

When Irene Li ’15 isn’t hunkered down surveying the latest research on the local food movement and social change, she’s in a Boston kitchen, meeting growers or dreaming up new items for her food truck and restaurant.

Li, one of three sibling owners of Mei Mei Kitchen in Boston, is a College Scholar in the College of Arts and Sciences, who will return to her family business after graduating.

This year’s class of College Scholars presented their final projects April 17.

Li’s thesis includes a personal essay. “The piece is about the questions that arise when we try to put principles or ideals about ‘local,’ ‘organic,’ ‘humane’ or other high-quality foods into practice in the world of business,” she said.

Her work included studies in hospitality marketing, feminist and third-world studies, sociology and psychology. That diversity is a hallmark of the projects undertaken by College Scholars, who apply to the program as first-semester sophomores because they want to create an independent study program.

 “The College Scholar Program provides a great opportunity for undergraduates whose intellectual interests are truly best explored at the intersection of disciplines to create an academic path that is as rigorous as it is original,” said Anne Birien, advising dean and director of the College Scholar program. “College Scholars get to develop a real depth of knowledge in a few core disciplines (which may be in the sciences, the social sciences or the humanities – with pretty much any imaginable combination possible), but they also … enjoy the broad intellectual exploration that is the celebrated strength of a liberals arts education.”

Emma Borden ‘15, whose thesis focused on the role of neighboring countries in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said she became fascinated with the region after taking a 10th-grade history course.

“Since then I have taken every possible opportunity to understand the Middle East and become a qualified participant in discussions of American foreign policy in the region,” she said. “In the College Scholar Program, I have constructed a curriculum that allows me to do just this: I am learning the Arabic language, I studied the Middle East and international relations in a global perspective for an academic year at the University of Oxford and I have just completed a year-long senior honors thesis.”

Borden will work for a think tank this summer focused on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East while editing and publishing parts of her thesis and applying to fellowships and graduate programs.

“I am confident that I will devote my life to this area of research,” she said.

College Scholar projects often stem from interests forged when students were younger. Brad Mills '15, whose work focused on the economics of climate change, performed an analysis of major environmental policies related to biofuels, examined their private and social costs and whether the policies promoted innovation and proper environmental management.

“One big surprise for me was how effective algae is as a sustainable biofuel feedstock,” Mills said. “If it can be grown in a cost-effective manner, it has major benefits over other sources in emissions reduction, minimizing fresh water usage and poses less of a threat to global food security.”

Other College Scholar topics included childbirth and medicine in Nepal, filmmaking styles, motivations for helping behavior, recommendations for theater directors and community-based theater.

“The College Scholar Program tends to appeal to – and be most beneficial to – students with boundless curiosity who are not afraid to work independently on challenging topics and can be trusted to make connections with faculty across fields to build strong academic foundations for their research,” Birien said.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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