Dr. Susan Cheng – Environmental Modeler and Plant Biologist

Modeling our Earth: How do forests grow?

Dr. Susan Cheng

How did I get here?

My family immigrated to New York City from Taiwan when I was an infant. Growing up in a bustling city, I got a lot of practice observing the people, places, and interactions around me. I also became interested in how our communities—like our families, cities, or countries—use the resources we have and how this affects our planet. In high school, I explored this topic more by joining my school’s environmental club and went on to major in environmental science in college.

An important part of my college experience was trying out what it’s like to be a scientist. I applied to summer programs where I worked with professors on their projects. I worked on a wide range of topics, from ocean fossils to impacts of air pollution on human health. After college, I worked at an environmental engineering company and an environmental non-profit. I realized shortly thereafter, that if I wanted to have a bigger impact on science education or science policy, I needed a stronger science background. When I started my Ph.D. program, I realized how wonderful it is to have the opportunity to work on uncovering the mysteries in the world around us.

What advice do I have?

If you are thinking about a STEM career, try finding ways you can learn more about the topics that interest you—whether that’s by reading, tinkering, or asking questions!

Hi! I’m an environmental modeler and plant biologist at Cornell University. I use STEM to figure out how our Earth’s forests grow and stay healthy.

Why do I do this?

Forests do a lot for us and the animals and plants that live in them. Forests help slow climate change, clean our lakes and rivers, grow food for us to eat, and provide wood for us to heat our homes and to make paper and furniture. But our forests are facing some new challenges—like changes in drought, fire, and growing temperatures—and there’s still a lot we need to know about how forests will respond to these changes.

How do I do this?

To solve these mysteries, I use two main tools. The first is a computer model that I use to grow virtual forests on our planet using math equations. To make this model more realistic, I need data on how real forests work. The second thing I do is go into real forests, set up experiments, and collect measurements on how trees respond to changes in their environment. Because I can’t measure every tree on the planet, I combine my data with my model to test how all our forests on Earth might respond in the future to changes in our environment.

What do I love about STEM?

There are so many reasons I love being a scientist at a university. First, I get the freedom to creatively explore topics I find interesting that are also important for solving global problems. Second, I love working in a place where my colleagues each explore something different. There’s always someone around to show me a new way to see the world around me—which has the extra benefit of helping me see my own research in a new way.

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