Triple major ASU alumna uses interdisciplinary skills to research causality


June 23, 2022

Rachael Kha grew up in a STEM-oriented environment. Both of her parents earned their degrees from Arizona State University, one with a degree in electrical engineering and the other in chemical engineering. They encouraged her to go to college.

She decided to enroll as a chemical engineering major at ASU, as well as an honors student in Barrett, The Honors College. She looked at it as a practical decision. Portrait of ASU alum Rachael Kha Rachael Kha graduated with her bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, economics and philosophy in 2021. Download Full Image

“I don’t think I was ever really sure about chemical engineering,” Kha said. “I liked chemistry in high school, and both my parents were engineers, so it just kind of made sense.”

Before taking The Human Event, a yearlong honors course that focuses on key social and intellectual currents in the multicultural history of human thought from the earliest written texts to the present, Kha had never considered studying philosophy. But after she finished those courses, she enrolled in a few philosophy classes and decided to add the topic as a second major.

“Looking back, I was definitely interested in philosophy before college,” Kha said. “In high school, I wrote my common application essay about philosophy and religion, and I liked reading philosophical literature. But I just never really thought about formally studying philosophy until later on.”

Kha continued on her double major track for three years, and during her junior year decided to start working on her honors thesis. She chose to write her thesis on a philosophical topic, quantifying philosopher David Lewis’ idea of causation and causal influence.

Lecturer of philosophy Jeffrey Watson was her thesis director. His mentorship helped guide her through the process.

“Rachael is brilliant and she took her ability to think abstractly and analytically about traditional questions in metaphysics about the nature of causation and then applied this to practical, present-day social problems in a way that can make a difference to how we understand and try to solve these problems together,” Watson said.

Kha already had a substantial background in math from her engineering degree, but she struggled with translating the ideas within Lewis’s conception of causality into quantitative measures and looked to economics for inspiration.

“(Economics) studies complex dynamics among individuals and social systems in a quantitative way, and it actually helped a lot more than I expected,” she said. “I ended up really enjoying my economics classes, so I decided to spend my fourth year finishing the degree.

Since Kha finished all her requirements for the chemical engineering degree, during her final year as an undergraduate, she was able to focus on only taking philosophy and economics classes. 

“Finishing three degrees was definitely difficult at times,” Kha said. “I actually never took more than 22 credits per semester; most semesters were at 18 or 21 credits. But I also took a lot of summer courses while either interning or doing research in a lab, which helped me not overwhelm myself during the fall and spring semesters.”

At some points during her last year, she thought about taking a minor in economics or philosophy instead of a bachelor’s degree, especially since she could have left at any time with a degree in chemical engineering. But Kha felt that earning a degree in chemical engineering was a necessity, while studying philosophy and economics was a choice. 

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with just an engineering degree, because I still wasn’t really sure if I wanted to be an engineer at all,” Kha said. “So when I’d feel overwhelmed, I’d just remind myself that I chose to be here and that I’m doing it for myself.

“In choosing to study concurrent degrees, I enjoyed the opportunity to explore and make the most of the many resources of higher education, beyond the value of a degree itself, which I didn’t really consider when I first started college.”

Despite feeling overwhelmed at times, Kha graduated in 2021 with her three bachelor’s degrees and moved into a master’s program for chemical engineering at ASU the following semester. 

She decided on completing a thesis for her master’s rather than an applied project, which has given her more time to conduct research and explore opportunities.

“In June, I presented a paper at the 2022 American Control Conference, which was my first out-of-state conference and my first, first-authored paper,” Kha said. “I’ve also gotten to work with a lot of amazing people from different fields and universities, which helped me decide that I want to continue in research after my master’s degree.”

Although her master’s program is in chemical engineering, Kha found herself pulling skills from her other two degrees to help her through the degree. 

“From philosophy, thinking about paradigms has come up quite a few times,” Kha said. “I’m studying behavioral medicine with respect to physical activity and walking. But one part of what makes this research interesting is that we take a ‘small-data’ perspective to study how we can develop models of individuals’ walking behavior to then design interventions that are tailored specifically to them. 

“So a part of our research involves engaging in the discussion of small-data versus big-data paradigms, which is related to how we understand and validate claims of causality broadly, as well as how our assumptions about what causality is, is reflected in our methods to derive knowledge about causal phenomena from data.”

Kha will be wrapping up her master’s degree this summer and will be starting her PhD in social and engineering systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall.

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

What is coastal America's future?

Future Tense panel discusses policies needed for coastal America


June 23, 2022

Rising sea levels are becoming more frequent along coastal America, and have been accelerating more than ever before, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Climate change has not only contributed to a significant increase in high-tide coastal floods, powerful hurricanes and years of drought for some, but also negatively impacted the quality of life for thousands of vulnerable residents that otherwise don’t have the means to relocate inland. Row of houses seen from a street that is flooded. Photo courtesy iStock/Getty images Download Full Image

A mix of creative policies and societal reimagining are needed to ensure the future of coastal America, a panel of experts suggested during a virtual discussion hosted by New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program (FLH) at Future Tense.

“How do we get there?” asked FLH Director Yuliya Panfil, who moderated the discussion. “How do we get people to think in that frame and move past some of the political and economic constraints that we all know exist?”

Elaine Morales, the director of partnerships and policy at Connective, a nonprofit that provides resources to residents impacted by natural disasters, explained how affordable housing is at a crossroads in Houston, where she’s based, because of increasing costs in an already scarce affordable housing market.

As cities implement climate resilience strategies, she said, policies will be needed to protect against resident displacement, particularly for those who are socioeconomically vulnerable.

“I think there’s a return on investment for resilient homes that shouldn't be sold either to the government or private sector,” said Morales, referring to housing that is built to withstand extreme conditions. “After (Hurricane) Harvey, we see organizations that have come online to elevate the voices of those on the frontlines, and they are working towards environmental justice, equitable mobility, food access, affordable housing, justice as to recovery.”

Brenda Cooper, author of the short story “Out of Ash” and the director of information technology at Washington state-based construction company Lease Crutcher Lewis, emphasized how the company focuses on addressing inequity, an area she believes is an essential part of the solution to the challenges faced by coastal America, where nearly 100 million people live.

“I work for a construction company (rather) than being in a more academic world, and we are focused on purpose. We're focused on building grades. We're focused on DEI activities,” Cooper said. “We're not alone. A lot of the corporations that we know or work with or are familiar with in the Washington state area (are) very focused on making these changes.”

Abrahm Lustgarten, a New America fellow and ProPublica senior reporter, added that a shift in tax structure is needed to create a fairer system and fundamental policies for funding Section 8 housing or schools in adapting coastal communities.

“As soon as you have those relative costs, there's a greater potential to make relatively large investments in response to it or, or compared to it, and that's part of what needs to happen,” Lustgarten said. “A huge component of what probably has to happen is a social reorganization of our values (and) looking at the way that sort of capitalistic mechanism ... incentivizes or don't incentivize the right kind of action and change.”

While reorganizing society economically, socially and politically can seem like a challenge, Tim Robustelli, a policy analyst for New America’s FLH Program, nodded to international coastal communities like Rotterdam in the Netherlands, which is prominently protected by storm surge barriers, dikes and dams, in how they have successfully adapted to live and deal with water and exemplify radical transformation.

“There has to be a very strong emphasis on community engagement and elevating the voices of folks on the ground to make sure that their concerns, their interests, their needs are being properly accounted for,” Robustelli said. “We sort of talked about the need for political will, and perhaps technical guidance and funding can come from Washington or state capitals, but when it comes to planning out what the next move is, I think that listening to folks on the shores in places that are flood-prone is critical.”

The panel was hosted by New America’s FLH Program at Future Tense, which aims to help solve today’s land and housing rights challenges, both in the United States and internationally. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.