MSU senior combines scientific background with interest in environmental policy and advocacy

Angela Yuan switched majors to environmental studies and sustainability to better connect with her passion for conservation and water resources protection.

The Red Cedar River on Michigan State University's campus.
MSU student Angela Yuan worked with classmates on a plan to improve water quality in the Red Cedar River.

During her first year at Michigan State University, Angela Yuan felt overwhelmed by the decision to commit to a major and a career. She started out studying psychology, but changed her mind after taking one science course in particular.

“I took an environmental and organismal biology course, a university requirement for non-science majors, and found myself fascinated by the topics and my conversations with the professor, Dr. Winterstein, and the teaching assistant,” Yuan said.

“By the end of the course, I knew I needed to change my major and dedicate my career to conservation efforts. This is by far the best decision I have made in my life.”

Yuan changed her major to environmental studies and sustainability in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) as a way to turn her passion for conservation and protecting natural resources into a career.

MSU student Angela Yuan combines science and policy with her environmental studies and sustainability major.

“I am eternally grateful for the CANR, my advisor Frances Kaneene, and Dr. Winterstein for the direction, opportunities, and roles played in shaping my future career path and life’s mission,” she said.

Yuan’s drive in conservation stems in part from wanting to make a difference by protecting water resources in Michigan and the country, and making clean drinking water available for all. Long-term career goals include attending graduate school to study environmental law, becoming a lobbyist related to water policy and then working in a director role at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supporting public education and water restoration efforts.

“Since watersheds are connected, it will take a nationwide change to make a lasting impact,” she said. “I aim to tackle issues such as nutrient pollution, wastewater treatment, and bacterial and chemical contamination on a federal level and protect our water against the impact of climate change.”

Yuan aligned her interests in sustainability with opportunities to expand her science and environmental policy  studies at MSU. She is also one of the 2020 CANR Alumni Association Scholarship awardees.

“It became clear to me that my life’s purpose was to protect water resources by connecting my background as a scientist with my interest in policy and advocacy,” Yuan said. “As clean drinking water becomes scarcer and water resources become more at risk, I want to protect our nation's water, environment, economy and public health.”

Name: Angela Yuan

Hometown: Troy, Michigan

Major: Environmental studies and sustainability through the Department of Community Sustainability (CSUS)

Graduation date: Spring 2021

Who or what inspired your interest in the environmental studies and sustainability major?

My passion for environmentalism arose after reading in high school Braiding Sweetgrass, a book written about Indigenous wisdom, plants and science. I began to see the intrinsic value of the environment apart from its use to humans.

This spiritual awakening and my sense of pride growing up in Michigan, home of the Great Lakes, stimulated my interest in environmental protection, specifically water resource protection. It motivated me to take an environmental biology course, a water resource management course, and pursue an internship at McAlpine Law Firm working on state and federal litigation related to the Flint water crisis and PFAS contamination in Michigan. [PFAS is a class of chemicals found in fire retardants, non-stock cookware and in some manufacturing facilities.]

"As clean drinking water becomes scarcer and water resources become more at risk, I want to protect our nation's water, environment, economy and public health." Angela Yuan, environmental studies & sustainability student, Class of 2021

What has been one of your best experiences within your major so far?

I worked as a community liaison with a group of students from the CSUS 301 class to create a green infrastructure walking and biking tour and an education campaign to increase public engagement.

I also worked with a group of students on an EPA competition master plan for MSU to address storm water runoff, climate change and water quality in the Red Cedar River. Within this project, I managed environmental research, policy updates and community education.

After discovering the infrastructure and management practices that caused the degraded water quality, we met with students, professors and MSU departments to pinpoint areas of improvement for university policy. Then, we designed a master plan that incorporates bioswales [channels for water runoff], green roofs, bank stabilization and recreational amenities while also repairing outfalls, removing the weir [low dam barrier], and replacing a parking lot adjacent to the river with an artificial wetland.

This plan manages 2.46 inches of rain an hour, decreases the impervious area by 70%, increases infiltration by 159%, increases evaporation by 136%, controls 94% of storm water runoff, and projects it could save MSU hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our master plan won third place in the national competition.

Any thoughts or advice for current students?

If you get involved and network with professors and students, there are endless opportunities within the CSUS community for scholarships, fellowships, programs, internship opportunities and friendships. I am so grateful for this community of passionate, like-minded individuals and experienced professors.

What are your future plans?

After graduating Michigan State University, I plan to pursue a master’s degree in environmental law, hopefully at the University of Texas at Austin. While there, I will also pursue the watershed science interdisciplinary program.

I believe my undergraduate and graduate educational experience will provide an interdisciplinary understanding of the science, community engagement, policy and economics of environmental issues. This will prepare me to work with the heightening complexity and relevance of water issues as climate change and other human impacts proliferate.

My overall career goal is to improve the quality of ground and surface water and promote long-term water resource sustainability. I aim to increase regulations, enforcement, restoration efforts and create more public education programs to protect our water resources and ensure safe drinking water nationwide and for future generations.

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