InsightsMay 12, 2020

Meet Climate Impact Lab Alum Trinetta Chong

A conversation with Trinetta Chong, a former research manager with the Climate Impact Lab and current research analyst and project manager with the Global Policy Lab.

“Everyone knows water is a precious resource, so why don’t people save more water?” Trinetta Chong faced this quandary while working in community relations for the Public Utilities Board in densely populated Singapore, the island nation that relies on water recycling, rainwater harvesting, desalination, and water imports from Malaysia to meet its daily needs. Chong had just graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a Bachelor’s degree in communications. Her background in applied behavioral science—studying how people respond to ads and media—led her to believe that “a lot of the questions that we had could be answered by doing actual research.”

Chong coordinated focus groups, surveys, and in-depth interviews to better understand the motivations of environmental stewardship. She gathered information from key community stakeholders, including schools, businesses, and grassroots organizations. Her findings contributed to an overhaul of existing engagement strategies and the rebranding of water conservation initiatives.

This experience got Chong interested in the role data could play in shaping more effective policy and eventually led her to the Climate Impact Lab.

“In talking to our audiences, we realized that initiatives would work a lot better if they were driven by facts and informed by evidence, and not what decision-makers perceive to be the truth,” Chong says. “That was a really stark observation: I realized that in trying to do your job, trying to get your answers, you needed to gather information from the source.”

Three years later, Chong left the water agency to study at the University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy. She earned a Master’s degree and developed a new appreciation for spatial data. Chong started applying for data-focused research roles. Chong joined the Climate Impact Lab as a fellow at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, her “first foray” into working with global climate model projections.

“I was a total beginner, starting pretty much from scratch. But one thing that’s common across everyone is a passion and strong interest to learn,” Chong says. Through her day-to-day tasks, she became fluent in new programming languages, learned more about climate science, and sharpened her statistical skills. Her first assignment focused on examining the relationship between climate change and labor productivity. Then, she had opportunities to contribute to streams of research on climate change’s impact on health and energy demand.

“You just get to learn so many different things from different disciplines,” Chong says. “It’s not very common among a lot of research assistant roles, because usually you are just tied to one principal investigator, and you work on one project in a specific way. I like that the Climate Impact Lab is kind of like a startup—you get to dabble in everything.”

Chong took on more responsibility as a research manager during her third year at the Climate Impact Lab, assisting in the hiring and training of new team members. Her best advice: don’t panic. “There is just going to be a lot of uncertainty. A lot of curveballs will be thrown at you in the journey of research. But it’s ok not to know,” she says. “It’s more important that you learn from your instincts and know that you are not alone. Everyone who does research struggles from time to time. It’s more of a marathon and less of a sprint!”

Flexibility and adaptability were also key skills, Chong says. She uses both in her current role as a research analyst at the Global Policy Lab. Chong is managing a project that aims to measure the impact of climate change on human migration using machine learning, satellite imagery, and a unique archive of 1.6 million historical aerial photographs.

What’s the best part about working at the intersection between climate science and economics? “The practicality of it,” Chong says. “Being able to use data and have evidence-based research to drive policies and solutions to large-scale problems, I think that’s what excites me the most.”