When Cathy Cheng’s LinkedIn inbox lit up with a new message in September, she had no idea it would take her to the White House.
The message was from Stacy Aguilera-Peterson, deputy director of the US Global Change Research Program, and it asked for Cheng’s email. Surprised, Cheng (ENG‘23)—now a Harvard doctoral student—responded, but soon forgot about the exchange.
Two months later, the White House emailed Cheng an invitation to a discussion on climate change in mid-November. Cheng initially didn’t know what to think of the brief, cryptic email she received from the Executive Office. “I just thought, I don’t even know if this email is real, maybe it’s a scam,” she says with a smile.
But the invitation was very much real. Just a few days before the event, Cheng learned it would celebrate the release of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, an authoritative report on the effect of climate change on the United States. The initial email had been intriguingly devoid of details for confidentiality reasons, White House staff later informed Cheng.
The first steps of Cheng’s journey to the White House began well before that fateful LinkedIn message. In fall 2022, she enrolled in the BU class Biology of Global Change, taught by Pamela Templer, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology. Templer told the class about a unique opportunity called the Youth Environmental Alliance in Higher Education (YEAH) Network; Templer is a YEAH Network principal investigator.
The YEAH Network, supported by the National Science Foundation, connects scientists across institutions with ambitious students. The students learn interdisciplinary evidenced-based approaches to solving environmental challenges, and some get the opportunity to attend the United Nations Conference of the Parties.
Cheng, who says she has had a longtime passion for climate action, jumped at the opportunity to become a YEAH Fellow. Once she became a fellow, the mechanical engineering student joined a project led by Leah Dundon, director of Vanderbilt University’s climate change initiative. Cheng worked with Dundon to create an e-textbook about climate change for high schoolers.
Because the YEAH network has a strong relationship with the US Global Change Research Program, Cheng’s work at Vanderbilt caught Aguilera-Peterson’s attention. She sent Cheng the LinkedIn message, and the rest is history.
Templer says that young people today have a refreshing attitude to climate action and that seeing a former student invited to the White House is wonderful. “It’s an exciting time to teach this area because students recognize that our planet is changing and it’s changing rapidly,” Templer says. “They don’t just want to learn about it, they want to be part of the solution.”
Students like Cathy give me optimism that we are going to solve some of these problems.
On November 14, Cheng was ready to stake her claim for that solution. She arrived at the White House early and had a chance to tour the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is next to the West Wing and houses many of the offices for White House staff. It was Cheng’s first time in the White House, and she marveled at the ornate decorations and seemingly endless offices.
The event began at 3 pm. The group of formally clad guests gathered in the grand Indian Treaty Room, and Cheng heard from a variety of experts as well as from Ada Limón, current US poet laureate. Among the speakers and panelists was Alison Crimmins, director of the National Climate Assessment. “To be in the same room as her and hear her speak and to see all these accomplished people who have been working on this report was definitely very inspiring,” Cheng says.
She also had the chance to speak with national leaders. Aguilera-Peterson told her about the history of the Eisenhower building, and Laura Petes, Office of Science Technology and Policy chief of staff, gave her a tour of the space.
Throughout the event, Cheng was struck by the fact that she was among the few young people present. “It was a strange space to be in, given that everyone in the room had already done so much,” she says of all the professors and experts from various federal offices surrounding her.
Despite that, she says she thinks Aguilera-Peterson wanted younger attendees there because of what Cheng calls “climate anxiety”—many young people’s belief that humans have damaged the world beyond repair. “We’re thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve gone beyond the point of return, there’s no going back at this point, there’s nothing we can do,’” she says.
To combat this feeling of despair, Cheng says this year’s National Climate Assessment, more so than in previous years, emphasizes ways to reverse climate damage. For example, the report features an atlas of climate change effects in various regions around the country so local officials can tailor policy to their jurisdiction. The report also highlights ways to combat climate change equitably, something Cheng found refreshing and inspiring.
A new feature this year is an interactive online tool that allows people to see the impacts of climate change in their city and state.
“It gave me a lot of hope, the chance to learn about climate change and climate policy from the people directly working in it,” Cheng says. “It gives me a better idea of where we are as a nation in terms of addressing this challenge.”
In the future, Cheng hopes to use her engineering background to work on innovative solutions to climate change. Her experiences at BU, Harvard, and most recently the White House have also fostered her curiosity for climate policy. “Being able to contribute to climate change solutions as well as environmental solutions is something that drives me,” she says, “so I think that is always going to be a part of whatever career I go down.”
That passion is something that as an educator, Templer finds particularly inspiring.
“Students like Cathy give me optimism that we are going to solve some of these problems, because she has a great mind and she’s working hard,” Templer says. “So it’s great to see her work recognized.”