Jess Chen '21


Connecting Energy, Environment, and Social Justice

Jessica Chen '21
Hometown: Crystal Lake, IL
Major: Environmental Studies

When Jess Chen traveled to Appalachia in the spring of 2018 on an Energy Immersion Trip co-sponsored by the Irving Institute and the Sustainability Office, her already deep interest in the environment and sustainability was infused with a new understanding of energy systems and their complexities. 

"The trip was such an awesome introduction for me about how energy systems relate to social issues and social systems — looking at things holistically," she explains. "We went to a coal mine and looked at the environmental issues, but we also talked to people who worked in the coal industry and learned about the significance the industry has on their lives and their family history and the hidden history of the injustices on early coal workers. This was one of the first times I understood what interdisciplinary meant and it really opened my eyes to the connections between social issues and energy and the environment."

The impact that coal mining had on the environment and the people in West Virginia stuck with Jess. When she returned to campus, she secured funding to work on a project with Thayer Professor Ulrike Wegst to develop a product that would help with remediation of acid coal mines. [Learn more about the experience here.] And later, during her sophomore winter she took a class called System Dynamics in Policy Design and Analysis. "In the class," she says, "we were creating models that represent any kind of system, including social systems. We could pick any topic for our final project, and I ended up creating my final project modeling the economic impacts of the coal industry on West Virginia," which she ultimately presented at the International System Dynamics Conference. 

Jess has also been involved in energy systems closer to home — the Dartmouth campus. "I've become really invested in learning about the College energy system and thinking about alternatives and ways to move forward," she says. 

"I took an Environmental Studies class, The Green New Deal, which focused on energy transitions and did a project thinking about alternatives to the current Dartmouth system." In addition to learning more about the technical aspects of the system, part of the project involved assessing the cultural aspects of institutional change, such as interviewing stakeholders to better understand the barriers to change.

Additionally, in her Sustainable Design engineering class, she worked on a group project proposing deep energy retrofits for Dartmouth Hall and Russell Sage Hall on campus. The class presented their findings to Dartmouth administration as part of the project. 

Throughout her four years at Dartmouth, Jess has been deeply engaged with the Sustainability Office, working in various roles, including an internship on the Organic Farm where she learned about regenerative agriculture and how it can help with reducing our carbon footprint. This year, as a senior intern and one of the leaders of the College's Earth Week 2021, Jess put her knowledge about Dartmouth's energy systems to work to shape the tone and content of the week-long event. 

"This Earth Week we wanted to have a more advocacy tone and purpose — as opposed to what is usually a celebratory event," she explains. "We called together a committee and let people come up with their own projects with the purpose of raising awareness about campus sustainability — the institution's goals, where we're at, how we can push for change." (View a short video with Jess and other students about Earth Week 2021.) As part of the effort, students issued a letter and petition calling for the administration to review and renew its commitment to Dartmouth's sustainability goals, encouraged — and achieved! — widespread student participation in a sustainability-focused Town Hall event, collaborated with Sunrise Dartmouth to hold a climate vigil, and more.

After graduation, Jess is headed to WholeWorks, a small company employing system dynamics modeling to provide insights for companies and help businesses transform operations in a more sustainable direction, where she will be a consultant. (Her project about West Virginia was included in her application materials!) And, while she acknowledges that the future, in terms of climate change, can be scary to think about, she is also optimistic. 

"What does inspire me is the younger generation — I know I AM the younger generation, but even the classes behind me have been inspiring. The freshman Sustainability program, when I started, had maybe 10 students who were consistently engaged. But in the class of 2024, there's been like 40 people. Seeing the energy the younger classes continue to bring has been pretty inspiring to see."