Are You Sure Thomas Edison Did It This Way?
I had a brilliant research project, one that I was sure would make an impact on people’s lives and the environment.
The project was part of the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Summer Research Program (VUSRP), a research opportunity that affords students the opportunity to partner with a faculty mentor in a field of study. Political Science Associate Professor Brooke Ackerly, with whom I worked on an independent study in fall 2008, recommended that I apply, and she served as my project mentor.
Through VUSRP, I was able to combine my political science and human and organizational development interests in researching the feasibility of a nonprofit organization that might direct carbon offsets toward the improvement of energy efficiency in low-income housing in Nashville.
Carbon offsets have been in the news a lot this year. Simply put, carbon offsets are ways to compensate for carbon emissions. Let’s say a company emits a certain amount of carbon. To counteract the effects of those emissions, the company can pay an organization to decrease emissions in another way, thereby negating the effects of the company’s emissions. This is a method of meeting emissions restrictions in areas where cap-and-trade programs are in effect. The United States currently has no federal cap-and-trade program, so the offset market here is primarily voluntary, suggesting that people and corporations are interested in purchasing carbon offsets for philanthropic reasons, not just financial.
The nonprofit organization would serve as a marketplace where individuals could purchase carbon offsets. Then the proceeds from these offsets would be used to weatherize low-income homes, thereby decreasing energy bills for low-income individuals, increasing their real income and lowering the carbon footprint of the city of Nashville.
Professor Michael Vandenbergh of the Vanderbilt Law School and Professor Ackerly developed this idea for encouraging emissions reductions. I thought it was brilliant—everyone wins. Poorer people, who spend more income proportionately on energy than do wealthier people, save money and Nashville emits less carbon dioxide.
Then as I began researching the feasibility of the program, reviewing literature about offsets and meeting with people in the field, I hit a wall.
The cost to offset one ton of carbon emissions is between $5 and $30. The average carbon dioxide emissions of a U.S. household per year are about 19 metric tons of CO2. So even if the average household decided to offset all of its emissions, at $10 per offset, the revenues generated would be only about $190 each. To renovate one low-income household to be energy efficient and save 19 metric tons of CO2 itself would cost substantially more than $190.
You can read all the material you want—but if you’re not thinking about how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together, you’re nowhere.
I couldn’t reconcile the discrepancy in revenues generated per ton of carbon and the cost these methods would entail. As a researcher, I was quite discouraged, not only by the dismal findings, but also about my work for the rest of the summer.
I was very lucky to have a mentor like Professor Ackerly. She helped me see that that research is not a linear activity. It takes a lot of trial and error. It takes a lot of persistence. When you hit a wall, you try to dig your way under that wall. If you can’t find a way around that wall, go in a different direction. That’s the nature of research. That’s the way progress is made.
And that’s what I did. With Professor Ackerly’s support and encouragement, I adapted my research project to take a new direction, one that corresponded with environmental legislation moving through Congress this summer (the Waxman-Markey Bill). I started compiling media reports on climate news to examine how different media outlets portray it.
After I compile all my data, I will run it through a program called Atlas.ti. The program carries out quantitative analysis of qualitative data like news documents so that I can find trends in how the media responds to White House environmental press releases, how different outlets vary in their reporting and how environmental challenges are conveyed in different outlets.
Already through my statistical analysis, I was able to confirm and discount some hypotheses I developed from my reading. I had thought that the higher the median income of a congressional district, the more likely that district would vote against the bill. There was, however, no correlation. Yet by examining different variables, I found that there was a very statistically significant correlation between the amount of emissions in a given state and the vote of its representative on the recent Waxman-Markey Bill. Basically, for every thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted in a state, the odds of voting in favor of the bill went down 0.1 percent.
I also found that something as simple as quiet, focused thinking was incredibly crucial, particularly when carrying out study in social science. If you’ve ever taken the History of World War II with Professor Michael Bess, Chancellor’s Professor of History, then you’ve heard the story of Leó Szilárd, the famous physicist who developed the idea of a nuclear chain reaction. He often worked out great problems while thinking in the bathtub. He just sat there and thought.
I realized at some point that I wasn’t spending enough time in my bathtub (figuratively speaking). You can read all the material you want—but if you’re not thinking about how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together, you’re nowhere.
I have already learned so much through VUSRP. Not just on the subject of my research, but also about how research is carried out. I am fortunate to work with Professor Ackerly, a pre-eminent political scientist who also invests her time and energy in my personal development as an academic researcher. She genuinely cares about my progress. VUSRP provides the opportunity for students to develop such relationships with professors—and that experience is just as valuable as the actual research. I’ve also discovered that professors are always looking for help with their work, no matter their discipline. VUSRP is not the only way to get involved in research at Vanderbilt. Getting plugged into the work is as simple as asking.
Moreover, my summer research has also helped me appreciate Vanderbilt more. The work I am doing involves different disciplines such as statistics or communications. Other professors and students collaborated with me—like Professor of Education John Braxton from Peabody, who helped me figure out the correct statistical tests for my work. Another undergraduate researcher, Zach Stearns, helped me understand statistical output correctly. The Vanderbilt Community Creed lists scholarship as its first value. I experienced this partnership of learning firsthand through the people with whom I worked.
It’s been said that Thomas Edison tried thousands of times before successfully developing the light bulb. He didn’t consider those attempts failures: He saw each as a hypothesis tested and eliminated, pointing the way to the solution. Edison, you see, was a researcher. I am one, too.
Miron Klimkowski is a senior political science and human and organizational development major from Memphis, Tenn. He hopes to work in the nonprofit sector after graduation.
photo credit: John Russell