Rong Bao, '21

September 2, 2020
Science leadership scholar researches reforestation in Asia, air pollution in Richmond

Humanity’s differences and divisions often dominate the headlines. Rong Bao, ’21, however, chooses to focus on humanity’s common connection—specifically its connection to the environment.

The senior from Beijing, China, said she had an epiphany when she read Bill Nye’s “Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World” as a first-semester student in Dr. Haley Harwell’s Leadership and the Social Sciences class: “I realized human society is facing a big challenge with Mother Nature. I wanted to build on the scientific consensus about climate change across cultures.”

To do that, she became a science leadership scholar with majors in leadership studies and geography and the environment.

“My leadership studies major gives me the soft skills to interact with people, navigating between them and science,” Bao said. “In Dr. Hidalgo’s Critical Thinking class, I learned how to make a persuasive argument, how to translate my scientific findings in a way that I can communicate to people.

“My physical geography studies at University of Richmond and in my study-abroad program at the London School of Economics and Political Science set my basic understanding of the environment, including forest ecology. And my GIS experience at Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab taught me how to conduct spatial analysis.”

This summer, she used her leadership, scientific, and technical knowledge in her Jepson internship in Beijing with the international nonprofit Asia-Pacific Network for Sustainable Forest Management and Rehabilitation (APFNet). The Jepson School of Leadership Studies awarded her a Burrus Fellowship to support her internship.

“One of my main internship duties was to draft an executive summary about reforestation," Bao said. "The summary serves as a bridge between scientific knowledge and policy making.”

To produce the summary, she collected reports from Sri Lanka, China, Cambodia, Nepal, Fiji, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, looking for answers to two questions: What are the most significant changes in forestry management priorities and challenges during the last 30 years? How are individual countries responding to these changes?

“I’m very happy to see all these countries implementing reforestation programs and other policies to mitigate climate change,” Bao said. “But there are challenges, because many of these are developing countries that need technological and scientific support and financial aid. Therefore, the United Nations and international commitments have played an important role in guiding the climate change responses of these states.”

In addition to her APFNet internship, she has gained hands-on environmental experience working with Richmond's Spatial Analysis Lab under the direction of Dr. Todd Lookingbill, she said. Specifically, she is part of a group researching the impact of heat and air pollution on human health in the city of Richmond. With the support of the Fredric M. Jablin Award for Undergraduate Research, she has delved deeper into this topic through her own independent research.

“A lot more ambulance calls come from areas that were previously redlined,” Bao said of her findings, referencing the effects of a decades-long government policy of disinvestment in minority neighborhoods. Her research underscores the social inequities associated with damage to the environment.  

“Sometimes it is depressing to think about how humans have exacerbated environmental degradation," she said. "But at the same time, we are making changes that have made a positive difference. I’m somewhere between being optimistic and pessimistic about climate change and want to continue to pursue a path in environmental governance and policy.”