Katie Purvis-Roberts Receives Third Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Grant

Portrait of Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science Katie Purvis-Roberts

This spring, Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science Katie Purvis-Roberts received her third Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grant to support her continued research into the use of clean energy by hosting workshops on collaborative data-gathering and analysis for university faculty across the Asia-Pacific region. APEC is a regional economic forum whose goal is to support economic growth and prosperity in its 21 member economies, which include Japan, Thailand, Russia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, and the United States. APEC-funded research projects help influence the policy directions of the region’s economic leaders and ministers.

“The APEC grant allows my students and me to analyze real-world data and apply it to environmental policies, while working with international collaborators at the same time,” Purvis-Roberts explains.

The concept for the workshop series began germinating while Purvis-Roberts was a Jefferson Science Fellow at the US State Department during the 2016–2017 academic year. One of the topics she concentrated on as a foreign affairs officer centered on increasing the use of renewable energy—an issue that the US has recently returned to under the current presidential administration. During her fellowship year, “I wasn’t doing academic work at all at the State Department,” Purvis-Roberts says, “but I kept looking for opportunities to bring what I was doing and learning back to The Claremont Colleges.”

Upon her return to Claremont, Purvis-Roberts received a grant from EnviroLab Asia, a 7C initiative that trains students, faculty, and staff to develop sustainable and socially just policy-relevant solutions to environmental challenges in Asia. The grant allowed her to hone in on her focus: “Now I had funding to really encourage faculty and students to think about the environmental issues going on in Asia,” she explains. Over the next several years, Purvis-Roberts and her W.M. Keck Science Department students examined these issues closely. Their work included a collaborative project with faculty and students from King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in Bangkok, Thailand, that conceptualized methods of reviving Bangkok’s canal system environmentally, so that people are more likely to use the canals for transport and connection to public transportation.

In 2019, Purvis-Roberts received her first APEC grant to host a workshop to help APEC’s member economies consider the benefits of using renewable energy for electricity generation, rather than coal. The workshop focused on energy sources’ impacts on long-term health outcomes. “I was trying to help people understand that if you choose to build a coal power plant, it might be cheaper right now, but once you have 30 years of human exposure to air pollutants, those costs might be more than the cheap upfront cost,” she says. Last year, with funding from her second APEC grant, she hosted a virtual workshop for APEC members that highlighted the data gaps of which policymakers should be aware when making data-driven decisions about energy sources.

This year, she hopes to host a follow-up, in-person workshop in Bangkok to discuss the data gaps that still exist. Much of this data is collected at the regional and local levels, making it difficult for non-local policymakers to access. “University faculty are actually really well-situated, because it’s easier for us to get access to data and then make it accessible to others,” Purvis-Roberts explains.

APEC’s collaborative nature helps make cross-economy information-sharing—and policy-making—more achievable. For example, one of Purvis-Roberts’ APEC colleagues, a researcher from KMUTT, is studying how office buildings in tropical locations can make better use of the tropics’ natural light sources to create more energy-efficient building models. “These findings could be applied to any offices in the tropics, a biome that represents a large part of the world,” Purvis-Roberts says. “That’s what they’re really trying to do in APEC: 21 different economies with very different biomes all helping each other.”

Purvis-Roberts hopes to continue to bring other faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students together to work with data and interact with APEC policymakers. “When you’re doing research, it’s wonderful to be able to present something to people who can make an impact,” she says. “As much as we can get students involved—they’re going to be the scientists and policymakers of the future—it’s good to get them started early.”