Featured Alumni: Brenda Chang

Featured Alumni: Brenda Chang

ITS-Davis alumna fights never-ending battles for a cleaner world

By Alston Lim • UC Davis 2014

Brenda Chang wants to save the world. Perhaps not specifically with a pair of fancy tights or with a super-cool sidekick, but the notion of contributing to the broader scope of things on a world level was always an ambition for the ITS-Davis alumna.

“Back in high school, I had lots of ideas to save the world by solving our energy problems,” said Chang. “I really liked math and physics, so it made sense for me to use my interests and abilities to find out what makes the world go ’round.”

Chang, who received her master’s degree at UC Davis in Transportation Technology and Policy (TTP) in 2009, is currently discovering what that means first-hand as an Air Quality and Climate Change Specialist for ICF International, a technology and management consultancy located in Sacramento.

“My first concern is with air quality, specifically with helping our clients meet the requirements under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act. The state requires all major construction projects to undergo an environmental assessment before being built. The largest and most complex of these reports is the Environmental Impact Report, and I am responsible for the air-quality and climate-change sections of these reports,” said Chang.

“So if someone wants to build a big box store, for example, I would have to take note of how many bulldozers they plan to use, quantify the emissions from that and then check it with the air district’s threshold and make sure it falls below that to ensure air quality is preserved. If it doesn’t, we suggest mitigation measures to help the builders meet legal thresholds.”

“My second duty deals with climate change, where I work with both CEQA and local government climate action plans. The CEQA approach for climate change is generally similar to air quality. In local government climate action plans, I help develop local greenhouse-gas inventories and quantify potential mitigation measures, such as greening a municipal vehicle fleet for a city that is aiming to comply with AB32,” said Chang.

Prior to her current position at ICF International, Chang spent a year as an intern at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-profit think tank that engaged Chang in high-level projects where she helped develop a global roadmap model using socioeconomic data to create a “transportation forecast for the whole world”.

“I’m always curious and interested in quantifying emissions from smaller things, like a single car, to the bigger picture of transportation as a whole. So it was pretty cool for me to have the opportunity to work on such a global project at ICCT, where I was able to see the direction of the global state of transportation,” said Chang.

This extensive outlook on solving the environmental issues of not just the local community, but also those of the entire planet, manifested when Chang began learning about the basics of alternative fuels and transportation technologies at ITS-Davis in 2006. She came to Davis from UCLA with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering.

“ITS-Davis definitely has a wide variety of perspectives on transportation,” said Chang. “It offers a diverse curriculum that incorporates policy, technology, psychology and the logistics of transportation. There’s still a great amount of technicality involved, which I like a lot, such as in the great traffic engineering classes that the program has. However, I also learned extremely valuable lessons and concepts in transportation policy, such as the reasons behind roadblocks for certain vehicle technologies.”

“But what makes the TTP program outstanding is the freedom it gives students to choose a specific focus and to pursue their specific interests within the realm of transportation,” said Chang. “After being inundated with all this new knowledge and finding something that sparked my interest, it helped to know that I had the support to pursue that interest.”

Alissa Kendall, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was Chang’s faculty adviser and was extremely influential in helping Chang maintain her pursuits and in guiding her academic career.

“I was her very first student, since she had just started teaching at Davis, so it was a learning experience for us both,” said Chang. “She’s a very dedicated person who engaged me in many research projects that involved synthesizing and comparing biofuel life cycle assessments. I also got a behind-the-scenes look at why people are in the transportation profession and why others study it.”

And at the end of the day, Chang puts these ITS-Davis lessons to use daily.

“The terminology I learned and the discussions I participated in at ITS still apply to the work I do now, because the policies we talked about in the classroom are the same ones I encounter in the workplace. When I think about how policies, such as CEQA and AB32, came to be in the first place, it helps me know that what I do makes a difference.”

People therefore don’t necessarily need a flashy cape or some fantastical superpower to fight some of the world’s toughest issues. All they really need, as Chang shows, is the right mindset.

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Zhang, March 2012

Featured Alumni: Ryan McCarthy

Featured Alumni: Ryan McCarthy

ITS-Davis alumnus at the top of his game in a “moment of change”

By Alston Lim • UC Davis 2014

Anyone who’s been part of ITS-Davis for the past few years might smile when they hear the name Ryan McCarthy. His academic accomplishments are no laughing matter, but people might better remember him for what he did beyond the classroom, literally outside the Institute’s doors.

“I would organize whiffle-ball tournaments in front of the office with students and staff from the department. The windows of the chemistry labs across the way were singles, doubles and home runs,” said McCarthy.

As someone who put together countless intramural teams during his college years for flag football, softball and basketball, McCarthy definitely has a love for sports, a childhood passion that coincided with an early interest in the environment as well.

“I’ve thought that the environment was an important issue for as long as I can remember. As a little kid, I would shoot baskets on the driveway, pretending to be the Warrior’s “Starting 5”, and think about how I could solve the world’s energy problems from the free-throw line,” said McCarthy.

And now, the 2009 Ph.D. graduate is doing just that. Appointed by Governor Jerry Brown as the Science & Technology Policy Advisor to Chairman Mary D. Nichols at the California Air Resources Board, McCarthy focuses on transforming California’s energy and transportation sectors.

“I work on issues dealing with advanced vehicle and fuel technologies,” he says, by investigating the economic, environmental, and resource impacts of new vehicles and fuels on energy use and emissions in the state. “I also meet with various stakeholders and government agencies to help design and implement our clean air, energy and climate policies,” says McCarthy.

Prior to this current work at the California ARB, McCarthy worked with PH&EV Research Center director Dr. Tom Turrentine in 2010 as the chief writer for the state’s pioneering plug-in electric vehicle strategic plan, Taking Charge.

McCarthy was also a Science and Technology Policy Fellow for the California Council on Science and Technology, working in the office of California Assembly Member Wilmer Amina Carter on issues associated with energy, utilities and the environment.

“I helped write and analyze bills, prepared Ms. Carter for committee hearings, and responded to constituents. Working for the state legislature exposed me to the real-world impacts of policy on a diverse set of people,” said McCarthy. “Energy and technology affects so may aspects of our society. And California is a global leader in those areas, partly because of its pioneering energy and air quality policies. So it’s exciting to be working on these issues.”

McCarthy believes much of what he does now goes back to his time at ITS-Davis.

“Being at ITS-Davis provided me with the perfect background because what I did there is similar to what I do at ARB now. Davis has a great interdisciplinary and policy focus, which matched my own personal interest in transportation, energy and policy,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy graduated from UC San Diego in 2002 with a bachelor’s of science degree in structural engineering and earned a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2009 with the help of his faculty advisors Joan Ogden, Christopher Yang and ITS-Director Daniel Sperling.

“My whole experience at Davis was shaped by them. They taught me how to track issues analytically and to carefully read the implications from policies. Chris was able to break complex problems down into solvable concepts. I was always amazed by his ability to provide elegant, simple answers to complex questions. Joan always pushed me to ask questions and to think deeper. And Dan was the master of policy (by grant at here). He taught me how to frame issues and make my papers more compelling to a wider audience.”

“They led me to where I am today, so I’m very grateful for my time at Davis. The program provides very practical, useful knowledge to students that extend beyond theory. Students learn to broaden their focus to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges from all different perspectives.”

“ITS-Davis provides a broad exposure to industry stakeholders and gives its students access to real people in the real world. So it’s an exciting program that opens up career opportunities both inside and outside of academia,” said McCarthy.

The future, in fact, is an important topic for McCarthy, who sees a notable difference in what can be achieved from the generation of tomorrow.

“I’m very optimistic about the ability of young generations to tackle issues around climate and energy. I was born in Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley, so faith in the capacity of creativity and innovation runs in my blood,” said McCarthy.

“We’re in a profound moment of change right now where we’re in the middle of a transition from how things were to how things are going to be. I see tremendous potential in the next generation to evolve and adapt and to ultimately change the entire world in terms of transportation and technology.”

And with the recent arrival of his first son nine months ago, there’s a good chance that McCarthy will parent that very change himself.

Photo: Courtesy of Brittany McCall, October 2011