Meet Linda Tseng, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Physics
(as told to Keiona Williams ’24)
When and how did you discover environmental studies?
As a young child, my elementary school was big on recycling. We would go on hikes to pick up trash and things like that. I guess my mom has always been very environmentally oriented, and so she’s always said, “this is good, this is organic.’” So, to me it was a big influence for me to get interested in the environment [from a young age]. One time, I got up in the morning, and I took a trash bag and went outside and started picking up trash. For the whole morning.
So when I was a senior in high school, and we had to decide where we wanted to go, I knew that I wanted to do something with the environment. I just didn’t know if that was environmental engineering, environmental science, etc. There is, at the University of California, Irvine, a major called environmental analysis and design. I would say that’s more like combining the sciences with epidemiology and the social sciences. But, at that time, I knew that, as an immigrant, I probably couldn’t compete with other people in writing things, but I knew that I was good at math. So I was looking into environmental science and environmental engineering, and I decided that I’m more interested in applying something and seeing if that thing works to solve a problem than I am in studying something and not knowing what the problem is. For me, I like to see that I have an impact directly to society, and I want to do things to help. That’s why I got into environmental engineering
What about the field of environmental studies excites you?
So, in my field of work, it’s kind of like lawyers. You don’t want conflict, but when there’s conflict, you need a lawyer. My job is to solve problems. If there were no environmental problems, there would be nothing I have to solve. So in a way, because there are so many problems right now, I want to be able to make an impact. Another thing is that, in environmental engineering, you could study bio remediation — using microbes to get rid of chemicals — or you can be in air quality; say there are air pollutants in the air and [we want to know] how to remove them, or you can have all sorts of soil problems or Superfund sites. So what got me interested in environmental engineering was water, and I was really interested in water because it touches every aspect of our life. You can’t do anything without water. And because of this, water is also very easily polluted. And because of that, I knew that it needs protection and that it needs treatment, and we need to have this resource protected in some way or at least make it good enough so that we use it. So that’s what drives me to do more, because I knew that this is something that we should really be invest in.
How did you find Colgate?
That’s an interesting story as well. I had never heard of Colgate before. So when I graduated, did my postdoc, I was looking for a job. I had an opportunity to help with a student research workshop and presentation at the Claremont Colleges, and I saw that the professors were able to work with students directly. And not only that, but because it’s a liberal arts school, the students had a pretty good understanding of the work they were doing. It’s not something from a state school that everyone has access to. So to me, it’s amazing that the professors work with the undergrads directly, not just postdocs, not just graduate students. Professors work with the undergrads directly, and those undergrads were able to produce high-quality research in the end. It made me want to go into the liberal arts. I liked that environment and I was looking for schools to apply to like Colgate. They happened to be hiring, I applied and that’s how I got here. It wasn’t because I knew Colgate, it was just because I was looking for liberal arts schools.
What are some programs/projects you are working on when you’re not in the classroom?
I am preparing for classes. That’s just one part of teaching, preparing for classes. When I’m not preparing for classes, I’m doing research, and you can see [some Post-It Notes with titles of my research articles stuck on wall behind me]. Five sets of Post-It Notes, and when I’ve finished them there’s this satisfaction of crushing them.
So, some of the projects I am involved in or involved with include myself in the lab and with students. I have a project about microplastics. So microplastics, when we started to look into plastic five, six years ago, there were people saying this is going to be a problem. Then, over the years, oh, we can find it in the ocean. Oh, we can find it in the sea. Oh, we can find it in the soil. We can find it all over.
We can find it everywhere, in the Arctic, in the deep ocean. I want to know, how do we stop this. From the perspective of an engineer, I know the problem. I want to make sure that it’s something we can address. So I’m collaborating with a student and professor in California to remove microplastics from wastewater. That’s part of it. But I am also looking at what kind of problems microplastics cause. For example, you have physical microplastics going into your lungs or into your body, and it can go into your bloodstream, or it can just stay in a tissue. What does that do, right? I’m not really interested in the biology. I’m interested chemically. What microplastics carry and bring into your body can make a difference chemically. You can of course bring in biology. For example, there’s a recent study on how antibiotic resistant microbes are associated with microplastics. But I’m really interested in that chemical part.
Not a lot of people have studied it in a way that I want to, in a way to answer the questions I want to answer. Like how do chemicals stick onto microplastics, and a lot of people were looking at very hydrophobic chemicals because microplastic is itself made from oil. So it’s very hydrophobic. But I'm looking for things that are not hydrophobic, for example, chemicals that we know are already in water. Wastewater doesn’t treat every chemical that we put in there. Caffeine or over the counter drugs, prescription drugs, or even something like hormones. So do they interact with the microplastics even though they’re not very hydrophobic? And today, there’s not a lot of people studying that. So what I’m studying currently is do they do something, and, if they do, what’s making them interact together? So that’s the answer I’m trying to find.
What would you say about this field that you think more people should know?
That’s a good question. What do I want people to know about? I think that just the little things help. What[ever] you do, even just a little, helps in the long run. And I can give you an example. I teach sustainability, and I had a student who stayed in my apartment when I was away during the quarantine year. So my electricity bill was low since nobody was occupying it, and then, when the student came, it doubled, tripled compared to when I was living there. I am a very energy-conscious person. When I’m not in the room, I turn off the lights. When an appliance is not being used, I take out the the plugs — whenever I’d leave for an extended period of time. During the day, I would turn down my thermostat to 68 degrees or something like that. And when I come in, turn it back to 70. And then when I sleep I turn it back to 69 degrees or so. So to me, I just want to conserve as much as I can. So I was in shock. The electricity bill doubled, tripled, and I was like, oh, “so what I do actually makes a huge difference.”
I always have napkins with me. Even though I may not use it to wipe anything off me. Whenever you wash your hands in the bathroom, you use one paper towel and just throw it away. And to me, it’s kind of a waste. There’s no program to compost things like that here. So, I ask, “how can I reuse this paper?” And so I carry stuff with me in my bag all the time. Trash on the streets, I'll pick it up and put it in the trash can. If we can, in our capacity, remove the trash from the from the ground, from the soil, from the river, then we will reduce the amount of plastic that would go into the ocean eventually. I want people to take away from this that even the littlest thing helps in the long term if they do it consistently.
Any advice for students?
A lot of the environmental studies students asked me, “What can I do with this degree in environmental studies?” We have so many affiliated faculty in environmental studies. If you want to do something, you can probably do something with a professor or learn about it within the environmental studies program. And I think that that’s the strength of environmental studies. When I was a student, I struggled with the question of whether I should go into industry and be an engineer, be a consulting engineer or an “Engineer Engineer,” or go into grad school. Why should I go into the industry and why should I go into academia? I found out that I really like doing research because I took the opportunity and harassed professors incessantly about not having research in the department. Because of that, I realized that I really liked the research. So, for students who don’t know what they want to do, I would encourage them to explore environmental studies. Take some classes and see if you like it. If you really like it, you’ll know.