By Valentina Prado, PhD student at Arizona State University, SA-YSSP participant 2012-2013 @ValentinaASU

Valentina Prado

Enjoying the landscape around Bloemfontein.

I am a PhD student in Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University (ASU). I was born in Cali, Colombia, and when I was in high school, my family immigrated to Canada seeking educational opportunities for me and my sister.  I did my last two years of high school in British Columbia, Canada and my undergraduate degree at Jackson State University (JSU) in Mississippi, USA (where I earned a tennis athletic scholarship).

After a degree in Civil Engineering at JSU, I decided to pursue a graduate engineering degree with an environmental sustainability focus. So, in the fall of 2010, I joined Dr. Thomas P. Seager’s research group to study decision analysis methods for environmental management problems.

The SA-YSSP program

When I found out about the Southern African Young Scientists Summer Program (SA-YSSP), it seemed too good to be true. I was immediately drawn by the project involving Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) tools because I apply these tools in my PhD thesis and I was familiar with the work from the SA-YSSP supervisors: Prof. Theodor Stewart from the University of Cape Town, Prof. Detlof von Winterfeldt from University of Southern California and Dr. Marek Makowski from IIASA. I even had one of their books on my desk when reading the call for applicants. The timing of the program was tough because of the academic schedule, but my graduate committee at ASU encouraged me to apply and worry about the logistics later. In fact, when it was time for the logistics, there was no time to worry- everything had to be quick! All of a sudden I was on my way from Phoenix to Bloemfontein, South Africa.

valentina prado and sa-yssp participants

Here’s a group picture from the SA-YSSP. I’m in yellow.

My project in the SA-YSSP evaluates environmental, social, and economic aspects of possible energy pathways in South Africa using MCDA tools—which allow us look for solutions to complex problems with many trade-offs. For this project, we focused on a period of energy transition in South Africa where natural gas is a key player. We used these tools to examine how thermo-electric power is produced in South Africa, and how different generation technologies perform economically, environmentally, and socially. For each energy pathway, we take into account environmental impacts concerning water and air quality, social impacts such as job creation and cost of production. We have already submitted our findings for publication.

In all, participating in SA YSSP was outside of anything I could have ever imagined – it was one of the most amazing and productive experiences of my life! I got to travel to a place that otherwise I would have not gone, I got to work on a really cool project with renowned people in the field, and I got to meet wonderful young scientists from all over the world.   I also learned more about the IIASA community and discovered that it is something that I will consider taking part during my doctorate or after. In addition, the people at University of the Free State took good care of us. It was 3 unbelievable months where I celebrated my birthday with friends from over 10 different countries and felt at home, learned about South Africa’s history, saw a penguin, ran a 5km race, ate bobotie, and got to pet 2-week old baby lions. All in three months. Amazing.  I feel incredibly fortunate to have participated in the SA YSSP program.

I never thought I would get to travel and meet so many wonderful people with my research. I also don’t think my parents ever considered the educational opportunities in South Africa when they immigrated to Canada! Coming from Colombia, South Africa is not a place you typically visit, or stay for three months (unless you are Shakira).  In all, I would like to thank all the sponsor organizations and staff for organizing the SA YSSP program, and allowing me the opportunity to participate.

Editor’s Note:

Applications for the 2013-2014 SA-YSSP have been extended to the 16th of September. Please visit the IIASA Web site for more information:

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.