Valerie Karplus: An Eye on China, and the World

Dec 05, 2014
Valerie Karplus: An Eye on China, and the World

Photo: Valerie Karplus

As an undergrad at Yale studying biophysics, Valerie Karplus never imagined she would be where she is today. A patent attorney? Maybe. A lab technician? Possibly. A science journalist? Likely. But a newly-appointed faculty member at the MIT Sloan School of Management? Inconceivable. And yet, the winding road that has been the last decade or so of her life has brought Karplus to a place that seems to be a natural fit.

Karplus traces the origins of her current path back to a special seminar class she took as a freshman at Yale focused on Science, Technology and International Affairs. The class had a profound impact on Karplus’s life and career—though she may not have realized quite how much at the time.

“I became very interested in how scientific and technical knowledge enters the policy process and informs decision-making on a broad range of global issues,” Karplus says.

Her classroom experience led to an internship at the Council on Foreign Relations, where Karplus’s interest in science and technology’s place in global affairs grew. She joined with a group of her fellow Yale students to create an international affairs magazine at the University, The Yale Globalist, still in existence today, to get students thinking outside of the campus bubble and connecting with international issues. 

Through that collaboration, Karplus began interacting with students who had a deep knowledge and interest in China. She became fascinated by the country, so she applied for, and received, a Luce Fellowship to spend a year working there after graduation. Specifically, she focused on biotechnology and agriculture, and spent a lot of time interviewing farmers, technology developers, government officials and scientists at research institutes.

“I ended up enjoying it so much that instead of pursuing a Ph.D. in biophysics, I ended up turning down all of those offers and heading back to China,” Karplus says. 

Karplus spent another year in China after her fellowship. During that time, she built on her fellowship experiences and wrote a book titled Agricultural Biotechnology in China: Origins and Prospects. While the book focused on genetically modified foods and the role of biotechnology, Karplus noted that China’s rapidly expanding energy use seemed to be a more immediate and pressing challenge for the country.

“I felt that there was a consensus that the environmental impact of energy use was an important challenge that needed to be addressed,” Karplus says. “The more I learned about it, the more I became fascinated by the challenges of managing energy and emissions growth against the backdrop of rapid economic development.”

Energy became a topic she went on to study more in-depth as a Master’s student in MIT’s Technology and Policy program and as a Ph.D. student in its Engineering Systems Division. After focusing on U.S. energy and transportation policies in her PhD research, Karplus landed squarely back where she began: studying China. In 2011, she became the founding director of the China Energy and Climate Project (CECP), a partnership between MIT’s Joint Program and Tsinghua University’s Institute for Energy, Environment and Economy.

“Looking back, my interest in China developed out of spending a lot of time around people who were really passionate about the possibilities for their country,” Karplus says. “Working with colleagues in China over all of these years, I feel like the country has become a part of my own story.” 

Understanding China's energy system

The CECP brought life to an idea Karplus had for some time: to provide an opportunity for enthusiastic researchers from MIT and Tsinghua to better understand China's energy and carbon challenges by combining deep energy system knowledge in China with the economic modeling and analytical expertise that had been developed at MIT over many years. 

“That was our vision from the start with CECP, to bring that winning combination together to be able to say something meaningful about the options that China faces,” Karplus says. “By simulating the role of future energy technology and policy options in China, we can begin to identify cost effective paths to reduce carbon as well as how the impacts are distributed. And in the future, we will be developing a more fundamental understanding of how decisions are made within China’s energy system.” 

Since creating CECP, Karplus and her team of researchers have developed two new models from the ground up that are capable of assessing the impacts of policies in China. The models operate both at the subnational level, by representing the country’s 30 provinces, and on a global level in terms of capturing China’s trade linkages to other regions. The global model was used to produce the team’s first China Energy Outlook, released in June.

The group is also extending its regional model of China to develop the Regional Emissions Air Quality Consumption and Health modeling framework, or REACH. From this framework they hope to evaluate and project the cumulative effects of efforts to improve air quality on energy use, human health, and economic productivity. Determining these effects would provide a more comprehensive view of the costs and benefits of energy, air pollution, and climate policies. 

“Ultimately, the REACH framework is a great example of the type of impact the CECP hopes to have—to evaluate the impact of energy and climate policies in terms of more immediate, localized co-impacts on pollutant emissions, air quality, and human health,” Karplus says.

To better inform her group’s modeling work, and the modeling efforts of others, Karplus says she needs a more detailed understanding of China’s energy system at the subnational level. So while she will continue focusing on China and its energy policy choices, Karplus also plans to take a step back to gain a more fundamental understanding of how firms work. For example, how do external and internal incentives shape decisions within firms? And how do the incentives firms face—for instance, to engage productive inputs, to develop and deploy technology, or to comply with policy—explain differences in environmental, health, or economic productivity outcomes in diverse contexts worldwide? 

Reaching across disciplinary boundaries

Now stepping into her new role as a faculty member at MIT Sloan, Karplus is determined to continue working across disciplinary boundaries to better inform decision-making. She currently teaches courses in global business strategy and global entrepreneurship, preparing students to navigate the complexities of today's cross-border business world, while continuing her research as faculty director of the CECP. 

"MIT makes it possible to work in a team environment and collaborate across departments to focus on what really matters out there in the world,” Karplus says, and to tackle global problems without overly simplifying them. “MIT provides a unique and exciting environment for doing this kind of interdisciplinary, phenomenon-oriented research.”

The important emphasis MIT puts on bringing diverse perspectives and skill sets together is something that sets it apart from many universities, Karplus says. From this environment, she has learned “you can solve just about any problem.” But defining the problem is often the hardest part— for that, you need a strong, creative team that communicates well, especially when tackling challenges that are interdisciplinary and global in nature, such as climate change, according to Karplus.

“Solving our greatest challenges will require assimilating and acting on insights from across multiple disciplines. MIT has some of the most brilliant people out there. When you bring them together in a team with effective communication and a common purpose, the possibilities are limitless.”