Two Robertsons Join New Scholar Program at Duke

FY Matriculates 2024 (1)

A new program at Duke is bringing students together across disciplines to tackle one of the biggest questions of our time: how do we combat climate change? The Climate Scholars Program is a cohort-based model, that pairs scholars with faculty mentors and funds intensive research projects related to the environment. Two Robertsons are among the 8 members of the inaugural class, Jules Kourelakos (Robbie ’25) and Tiana Dinham (Robbie ’26).

I’m most interested in essentially how we can use AI to improve our climate models and track where the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events are going to be most felt,” Jules said.

“I’m from Jamaica and I’ve seen the effect that climate change has had on extreme weather events like Jules is talking about, and I’ve lived through those hurricanes and earthquakes. I just feel like there’s so much work to be done in this field, because I’m not trying to run away and live on Mars – I want to learn more about climate change and figure out ways to help solve this problem,” Tiana added.

Jules is a computer science major with a minor in creative writing. For Jules, storytelling is a skill that might help with solving this complex problem, “I actually think one of the first steps is to create a culture of climate optimism, that’s how I would describe it, because most of the news that’s being shared about climate change is making people feel hopeless and that it’s not something that we can change. That’s the enemy of change. The reality is that there’s incredible work being done across the globe by scientists, technologists, policy makers, activists at the grassroots level. We are making a difference, and I feel like by spreading that knowledge, by getting people involved, we can change the culture from one of sharing horrible climate events and why we can’t make a difference to one of sharing the incredible progress that’s being made and why we CAN make a difference.”

Tiana is currently studying geology and is on her Switch semester at Duke, for her there’s an intersection and intentionality between her academic pursuits and community, “This is an amazing opportunity, it’s giving me a deeper connection to Duke by doing this program. So, it’s not just like “I’m a UNC Robertson,” I’m also a part of Duke and a big part of a smaller, very niche community there where I feel supported and free to express myself around super intellectual people who are curious, who are driven, and who make me want to do more work and just be around them and learn from them. We have an opportunity not just to impact future scholars, since they want our feedback on the program, but to impact each other. Every time I go to a meeting and hear about the projects that Jules or other scholars are working on, I genuinely want to learn more about what they’re doing and have a conversation with them. We all have that common interest – that climate change is important, that we should be doing something about it – but maybe in different ways. It makes for a dynamic environment where we can really learn a lot from each other.

For both Jules & Tiana the collaboration aspect of the program is key to driving change.

“I’m taking a class right now, Climate Change for Future Leaders, and I realized from the get go that for any solution to climate change you don’t need only a climatologist, you need someone like Jules who is doing the models you need, the engineers who are going to build the infrastructure… It doesn’t take one person, one sector, it takes everybody and that’s the mentality that needs to shift. It’s not just a “me” problem, it’s not just the climate scientist’s problem. It’s all of us,” Tiana shared.

“100 percent, agree with all of that and would add that in light of recent experiences I feel like the major driving factor that’s going to decide how we as a society are going to be able to respond to climate change is not really how well we can do the science. It’s how well we can implement it in the real world,” Jules added.

The concept of collaborative leadership is something Jules experienced during her Exploration Summer. “I was working at NASA on the team working on the satellite PACE, which is an ocean and atmosphere monitoring satellite that went up just a few days ago being used to monitor climate change. And there’s really two halves of that project – one half being the science and tech people who are doing a really great job using their specific area of knowledge. But it was fascinating to work with the other half of the team – the applications team – because those scientific conclusions only hold up so much once you take them into the real world. They’re asking: how do we implement this in different areas in the Global North, the Global South, in areas with different stakeholders with a variety of needs? How do we even communicate this very complicated, abstract science to the people who actually need to implement it via policy? How do we even best design those polices? And that’s not something that can be done in the realm of science or tech alone. That takes a whole village of all sorts of people from all sorts of disciplines.”

Both Jules and Tiana will continue digging into collaborative leadership in this area through they’re research projects. Tiana is focusing on the impact of historical lithium mining on ground and surface water with Dr. Avner Vengosh, while Jules will use rainfall models in Hawaii to predict extreme weather events with the guidance of Dr. Shineng Hu.

“One of the big things we talk about in the cohort is that community engagement aspect. We’re not doing the research just for intrinsic benefit. Being a part of this program, we can help the greater population to see how important the problem is, and help younger kids see themselves as part of the solution being interested in the future. You don’t always have the answer, but that’s part of leadership – there’s something you can do. And being surrounded by people who may not have the answer for everything is okay – what’s important is that we’re trying to work towards those answers,” said Tiana.