Alexi C. Arango is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at Mount Holyoke College. Arango investigates solar cells that aim to be both highly efficient and less expensive. Arango holds a B.S. in physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT.
Julia Worcester (JW): You first publicly supported the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition and fossil fuel divestment about three years before you received tenure from Mount Holyoke College. Can you talk about any concerns you had about your job security in relation to this activism?
Alexi Arango (AA): My concerns about job security weren’t at the forefront of my mind when I decided to speak up about divestment. The Mount Holyoke community is wonderfully supportive and I did not think my views would impact my tenure case. This might have been unwise, especially given that the year I was up for tenure, a fossil fuel executive became the new chair of the board of trustees. I was fortunate enough to have been granted tenure regardless. I did encounter skepticism, but I didn’t have anyone explicitly advise me that I was doing something bad for my career. But there were several concrete things that allowed me to feel comfortable in advocating for divestment, including the guidance of mentors and my own expertise in renewable energy.
An interesting example is when some of us had a meeting with the Board of Trustees Finance Committee. The night before the meeting, Geoffrey Supran, a friend of mine who was involved with the MIT fossil fuel divestment campaign, helped me flesh out the arguments we would encounter. At the meeting, a trustee admitted that they were opposed to divestment for ideological, not financial, reasons. It became clear that the concerns of the Finance Committee were misdirections, which helped with momentum for the faculty statement and then a vote on the statement, both of which turned out in our favor.And without my expertise gained from teaching about renewable energy and climate change, I doubt I would have had the standing to speak about the central role that divestment can play in cutting our dependency on fossil fuels.
JW: What are some of the challenges scientists, particularly early career scientists, face in engaging in political issues or advocacy and how can they overcome them? What helped you engage in activism around climate change?
AA: A difficult hurdle is deciding to speak up, particularly when you know it will not be taken well by people in positions of authority, or even by your peers. Regarding early career scientists, the younger you are, the more difficult it is to be heard when you have an unconventional idea. People only listen to your ideas once they are convinced you have the credentials to be someone worth listening to. But then again, what’s so wonderful and unique about science is that science advances by having a younger generation of people come along with new ideas that upend traditional thinking. Science relies upon new ideas and getting those new ideas heard.
I tend to be unconventional in how I approach scientific or advocacy issues, which is great in terms of generating intellectual property or analyzing renewable energy politics, but problematic in that whenever you have a new idea, you almost always are confronted with an enormous hurdle in convincing people to look at the world in a different way. When you say, “No, I think it works according to a different principle,” everyone’s first reaction is often to say you’re ridiculous. When you have an idea that’s not mainstream and people haven’t thought about it before, the first time you mention it (and sometimes the first ten times you mention it) you’re going to get an emotional response before the intellectual response kicks in. This can be discouraging, but I’ve learned through experience that being confronted with derision, as opposed to thorough, inquisitive questions, is actually an indication that you should continue to pursue an idea.
Especially with divestment, I would make a basic point that makes a lot of sense, but it would often be dismissed out of hand. Your natural response is to say, “Oh, yeah that’s stupid. I didn’t mean that.” To think deeply about the world and have communities that are not insular in their thinking, it is essential to have discussions about ideas without becoming personal or emotional. When I first began investigating divestment, some people had thoughtful criticisms that made me think about it more deeply. Sometimes I went back and changed my ideas.
I also have an anti-establishment streak, which can be helpful when paired with a careful scientific approach. I remember my first interaction with the Climate Justice Coalition at a presentation of theirs to the Environmental Studies Committee. I was shocked that few of the faculty were willing to support the students. That catapulted me instantaneously into wanting to learn more about the movement. There was also silent support among older faculty who told me that they largely agreed with what the students and I were saying, but were not willing to give full-throated support for divestment early on. On one hand it seemed strange, but on the other hand it validated that divestment was something worth talking about, even if it might have a negative impact on my career. Eventually, a number of senior faculty did come around and spoke forcefully in favor of divestment.
JW: When did you become interested in renewable energy, and can you give me a brief summary of your research career and interests?
AA: I developed an interest in science in middle school. I was fascinated by understanding the world, and the esoteric and romantic aspects of thinking about the cosmos fascinated me. As I developed more consciousness of social and environmental issues, it became important to do something that would make a difference in the world. I researched solar cells when I was an undergraduate, when there was little interest in solar energy. The prevailing opinion was that solar power was a failed technology, having risen and fallen in the 1980s. But that didn’t seem complete to me.
As I learned more about the field, I came to realize not only that solar energy could have an enormous impact on the world and energy markets, but also that there was a need for high-efficiency, low-cost flexible solar, so I decided to go to graduate school to pursue that. I work with semiconductors made from materials that can be very thin, flexible, and durable. The end goal is to remove the protective glass and aluminum framing you see around solar panels - the weight and energy that goes into making the glass dominates the energy and cost associated with the whole installation. Ten years down the line, when we’ve already saturated the spaces where solar panels can be easily installed, I see large arrays of flexible solar panels as an enabling step to get to 100% renewable energy.
JW: Do you think it is important for scientists and experts from any discipline to be more vocal about the importance of science and of their work?
AA: Yes and no. Scientists play an important role that is often overlooked. My primary role as an educator is training people to carefully organize their thoughts and think through problems to parse out the fundamental laws associated with a given physical situation. After years of teaching, the pattern is predictable. I give a lecture centered around a law in physics and then I give students a problem where, if you’ve understood that law, the solution is clear. On the first pass, it’s difficult for people to make the connection back to the fundamental principle. My job is to guide people back to the fundamentals. Once you have that capability, you’re able to think things through in a more powerful and concrete way.
When I look at conversations around political, environmental, and social issues, I see the same errors in thinking: a focus on the superficial, procedural, or strategic elements rather than the fundamentals. What you almost never see is people asking questions about what principles underlie the discussions, why people hold their opinions, and how to organize information in a constructive way and come up with a solution.
Scientists have a responsibility to help people think about the problems they encounter in their lives in a solid and concrete manner, without falling prey to misinterpretation or mischaracterization. Scientists have to say that there is a correct representation of, for example, what’s happening with the climate, and that there is a correct way to think about the amount of energy that can be generated with solar and wind. But scientists are realizing that even people who understand the problems and solutions are having trouble moving beyond that. I don’t know if this is unique in history, but it’s the first time in my lifetime when scientists are saying, “We have to move in these political directions.”
JW: How do you think science, education, and advocacy are interrelated? Does advocacy inform your research and teaching?
AA: In the course I teach on renewable energy, my pedagogical philosophy is to use climate change as a motivating factor to encourage quantitative thinking. My goal is to make people aware that climate change is a problem that needs addressing. I imply that there aren’t well defined solutions to be memorized, but that people need quantitative skills to figure out what to do as time goes on. If I do it right, that message is empowering because students understand that they have a role in determining where the world is going. I’m attempting to cultivate the change-agent mindset so students feel ownership over their own learning, so they will feel like they can positively affect the world if they adopt a mathematical and logical approach, rather than just passively absorbing information.
However, I don’t often speak about climate change in the traditional physics classes that I teach, only because I haven’t yet figured out how to incorporate those themes in a meaningful way. There isn’t a single discipline or classroom that should be ignoring climate change because there will be some impact of the changing climate on every field. It’s the responsibility of educators to figure out what that impact will be and to adjust their teaching in order to better prepare their students. But it goes counter to the traditional way of teaching, where you have a set of logical steps that you have to get through by the end of the semester.
It’s difficult to do new things in the classroom without using methods that have already been established in the literature to be effective. Asking faculty to ad-hoc add new content to the curriculum can be problematic because without deliberate experimentation, you can fail to get students to learn the material. We desperately need a national, well-funded research-based program to ensure that curricula taught to students today will be appropriate 10 or 20 years down the line when the world is a radically different place.
JW: What steps need to be taken by scientists, politicians, and the public to create an environment in which science can better inform policy?
AA: One amazing aspect of science is that there’s accountability. If your result can’t be reproduced, it doesn’t matter how good it sounds, it will be disregarded. When there’s a breakdown in accountability, things can go awry quickly. When you have scientific discussions in the media or in policy circles that are not held to the standard of peer review, you deviate from the scientific process that has gotten us to the level of advancement that we’ve achieved.
There are certain aspects of how policy is generated and how governmental institutions operate that are starting to break down. For example, there is growing distrust in the legitimacy of governmental institutions like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). People who doubt whether their food or drugs are safe are not necessarily anti-science zealots, but could also be noticing that political influence is infringing on the scientific process at the FDA. The challenge is to remove any semblance of bias due to either personal gain, power, or future promises of lucrative positions at a corporation.
From my perspective, the only way we can save the integrity of our institutions is to instill methods of accountability. We know how to do it, and we already do it really well. Science has made tremendous leaps and bounds in the past couple of centuries, in large part because of rigorous accountability and control for personal prejudices. We have to advocate for removing conflicts of interest that are degrading governmental processes and making political decision-making less productive. There is considerable opportunity and need for scientists, particularly early career scientists to get involved in all of these types of advocacy.
Interviewer Julia Worcester is a Science Network Outreach Intern with the Union of Concerned Scientists.