Max Zhang: Local engagement yields ‘real social impact’

Max Zhang delivers the keynote at the 2017 Sustainability Leadership Summit Dec. 4.

Engineer Max Zhang makes a concerted effort to improve the world through collaboration. “Ideas will only stay in my lab, will only stay on paper, if we don’t engage or work with the community.”

Zhang, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the winner of Cornell’s 2017 Engaged Scholar Prize, delivered the keynote address at the 2017 Sustainability Leadership Summit Dec. 4, hosted by the President’s Sustainable Campus Committee (PSCC).

In his talk, “By the Community, for the Community and With the Community,” he recalled an early career moment as a participant in a workshop, mingling with regulators and local groups aiming to mitigate air pollution problems. After listening to all sides, he realized a fundamental problem was timescale.

“Yes, we should regulate vehicle emissions, but those regulations take time – sometimes decades,” Zhang said. “The air pollution was impacting the community now and the community wanted solutions now, not in decades. It made me think, that’s a gap.”

Zhang directs the Energy and the Environment Research Laboratory and is a faculty fellow with Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Also, he is a member of the President’s Sustainable Campus Committee. Two years ago, Zhang’s students created the Tompkins County Energy Roadmap for 2050 – the first county plan of its kind in New York state.

His keynote capped a tone set earlier in the meeting as summit participants focused on workshops to integrate community engagement within Cornell’s living laboratory and sustainability curriculum, goal-setting for the five-year campus sustainability plan, and goal-setting for low-carbon and carbon-neutral solutions for Cornell transportation.

“We as researchers can help community processes by making their needs scientifically driven,” Zhang said to the university’s sustainability leadership. “Science can help communities who need a suite of tools and need design guidelines for planning.”

Zhang pointed to recent work in his lab – the Green Heart project in Louisville, Kentucky – where his students are designing spaces between interstate highways and residential areas that will feature aerodynamic wooded areas to protect people from pollution.

“Directly working with communities provides real social impact,” said Zhang. “Engagement is a rewarding experience on many levels – both academically and personally. Our research work is important, but for practical research that affects communities, you always must cultivate buy-in.”

In addition to the workshops and Zhang’s talk, a congratulatory letter from President Martha E. Pollack was read aloud: “This year’s summit focuses on the campus as a living laboratory – a place where sustainability solutions are developed, studied, implemented and evaluated.

“By blurring the boundaries among classroom, lab and campus, we are accelerating progress on exciting opportunities in the pursuit of a sustainable future in our buildings, food, energy, transportation and more,” Pollack wrote. “The Campus Sustainability Office, Engaged Cornell and the PSCC all work to connect faculty with staff, staff with students, and students with the community, with the twin goals of learning and campus improvement.”

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Lindsey Knewstub