Skip to main content

Alum to make global impact through sustainability

January 17, 2014

After a very busy year and a half being a graduate student in Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, Karen Kao celebrated her achievements as the graduate speaker at the school’s fall convocation this past December. With a background in psychology, Kao is very interested in the behavioral change behind sustainability, which led her to the school’s master’s degree in sustainable solutions

“The program is an applied degree, so anything that I learned in the academic field of psychology, I could learn how to translate into practice,” Kao says. “Graduating as the first student from the program, I feel well-equipped with the strategies and thought-processes that help build solution options, and I take with me a practical skillset that’s transferrable to almost any subject in sustainability.” 

As a student, Kao served as a research assistant on projects implementing practical solutions to sustainability issues, ranging from economics to urban planning. As part of her capstone project, mandatory for the master’s degree in sustainable solutions, Kao conducted community engagement workshops in Phoenix to collect public opinions for Reinvent PHX. The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Communities Grant Program, aims to develop a new model of sustainable urban development, where public transit, housing, jobs and services improve the quality of life for all residents. 

“In that role, I had to figure out how to talk about sustainability to the general public,” Kao says. “We wanted to see how we could holistically improve the city for the people living there by having informed conversations with them, an important process that is often left out.”

This past summer, Kao traveled to Washington, D.C. and London to compare how the different governments implement sustainability policy as a Global Sustainability Studies Program Scholar. The study abroad program is a project under the Global Institute of Sustainability’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives.

“The biggest thing that struck me was how different people think of sustainability,” Kao says. “In the UK, there’s not really a question as to whether there’s global climate change; rather, it’s what do we do about it? Here, it’s still a bit varied. This difference leads to very different viewpoints in perspectives for uncertainty and problem-solving.”

Bringing her global perspective back to Arizona, Kao became a project manager for the Sustainability Solutions Services, also part of the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives. She researched economically viable scenarios for forest thinning for The Nature Conservancy. Kao also investigated the impacts of healthy buildings on employee productivity and performance, using Park 20|20 in the Netherlands as an example. Park 20|20 is the “first cradle-to-cradle working environment” in the Netherlands, incorporating human-centered design that empowers employees through comfort, nature, non-toxic materials and sustainability.  

With a lot of experience under her belt, Kao is now a sustainability program coordinator for GreenerU, a university sustainability solutions provider. There, Kao coordinates partnerships with university clients, helps provide solutions for campus sustainability and collaborates with GreenerU’s engineering team and campus stakeholders on energy efficiency projects. 

Says Kao, “I look forward to helping universities make positive change through sustainability.”