Christopher A. Smith, assistant secretary for Fossil Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, talked global warming while lauding the benefits of the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) Program to an overflowing room of science, technology, engineering and math students in Jackson State’s School of Engineering on Thursday.
“The Mickey Leland program is all about getting more underserved minorities and more women into the sciences particularly into the challenge of developing the technologies for a clean energy economy in the future,” Smith said.
Originally called the Minority Education Initiative, the program was later renamed in honor of Congressman Mickey Leland, a prominent advocate of cultural diversity, who tragically died in a plane crash in 1989.
Eligible students who are accepted into the 10-week summer program are afforded an opportunity to develop research skills through mentorships with officials and scientists in the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy. A weekly stipend is supplied; the specific amount varies based on the student’s undergraduate, graduate and doctoral classification.
Although the program caps at 50 students per summer, Smith explained that the department looks beyond the requirements. “We don’t say, ‘Ok, let’s pick the top three GPAs’ we are really examining the entire candidate.”
Smith enlightened attendees on the overall operations of the Office of Fossil Energy and his multifarious duties as assistant secretary, which include heading the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
STEM disciplines are the crux of the lab’s production where “all the chemistry, all the engineering, all the physics, all the design goes into creating energy systems of the future to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses that come out of fossil fuel sources.”
During last year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) held in Paris, the “world” unified to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and global warming – an increasing societal issue Smith characterized as “classic” and arduous.
The United States and China were the first to put forth individual Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) – a plan to aid in the decrease of global warming – in anticipation of the convention.
The magnitude of the U.S. and China’s actions were embodied in a parallel offered by Smith, who said: “The two countries with the two biggest economies; two biggest societies; two biggest consumers of energy; and the two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide.”
All countries were called to design a plan defining how they would contribute to the overall goal of achieving net zero emissions, hold the increase in global average temperature significantly below 2 degrees Celsius, and explore ventures to restrict the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the second half of the century.
Instead of the expected 50 or 60 countries, 190 countries put forth a definitive strategy to address greenhouse emissions. “The fact that China and the United States went first showed real leadership,” Smith said triumphantly.
Reiterating the purpose of the MLEF program and the intent behind his visit to the HBCU, he told students, “I like to find better pathways to bring students here to public service because there is a big need and a lot of exciting opportunities.”
With regard to skeptics of climate change, the U.S. official said, “From our viewpoint, the science is clear when you have 190 countries make an implicit commitment to move forward. The debate has reached a conclusion.”
One of the few females in attendance was sophomore Kaylani Essue, who changed her major from accounting to environmental engineering after studying abroad in China over the summer.
“When I was in China I learned about the programs that China and the U.S. had worked on together to create a more sustainable future. It’s always interested me. Even as a business major, I wanted to work for a clean energy company,” said Essue, adding, “I learned a lot. I never even knew programs existed like this within the government. I’m applying.”
After the presentation, Nathan Mays, a senior civil engineering student, felt his decision to work in the public sector was confirmed.
“One of my goals is to work with the Department of Energy. I want to work with clean energy and make sure there is clean air and clean water. This gave me a chance to network and learn how I could apply for the program,” he said.
Smith disclosed to the group that the university’s professors, administration and staff enthusiastically championed their intellect and abilities,which he thoroughly admired. He then made a call for students to seize the moment offered by the MLEF program.
“We think it is incredibly important as a scientific enterprise that everyone has an opportunity to contribute. This (global warming) is such an important goal and an existential challenge to our country; we can’t just have one portion of our country working on it,” he said.
Dr. Candis Pizzetta, associate vice president for Research and Scholarly Advancement, seemed to echo Smith’s sentiments.
“The Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship is a terrific opportunity for our students to take part in serious research and to be mentored by some of the leading energy-related research scientists in the country. We look forward to seeing a group of our talented STEM students participate in this outstanding program and are delighted that Assistant Secretary Smith met with our students,” she said.