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Spotlight on Metcalf Institute Alumni: Eli Chen

chen-profileEli Chen began pondering the environment as early as high school in the “consumer-driven” suburbs of Chicago. “My family wasn’t really thinking about how much stuff we threw out on a daily basis or how much we used things like air conditioners in the house,” she said. Her exposure to what she calls “a wasteful culture” and the books she read about environmental issues “woke me up to the fact that there were some real problems out there,” she added.

Chen’s interest in those challenges inspired obtain a dual B.S. degree in Earth, Systems, Environment and Society and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and earn a graduate degree in Journalism, Health & Science Reporting from City University of New York.

Her coverage of coastal storms and local adaptation efforts during her first journalism job at Delaware Public Media led Chen to Metcalf’s 2015 Climate Change and the News seminar focusing on sea level rise and extreme weather. The daylong session drew experts from around the country and covered a wide range of issues including the broad implications of sea level rise for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population living in coastal zones, and looked at various approaches cities and states are taking to build resilient coastal communities. “[The seminar] helped me see the larger picture,” she said. “It was very useful.”

Chen also led Delaware Public Radio’s partnership with iSeeChange, a crowdsourced storytelling project founded by Metcalf alumna Julia Kumari Drapkin that connects average citizens with scientists to help them understand climate change impacts in their own backyards. One of those stories explored the connection between increasing storm frequency and the pace of coastal erosion.

Citing what she sees as a disconnect between society and the environment, Chen also enjoys telling stories through the experience of animals “because it makes us pay attention to things we normally wouldn’t.” Her piece about researchers studying ways to protect bats from being killed by wind turbines earned her a Delaware Press Association Award in 2015.

Chen headed to the Midwest in May of 2016 to accept a reporting position at St. Louis Public Radio where she covers science and the environment. Her recent stories include a controversy over a levee that may have been built too high by the Army Corps of Engineers, a giant balloon launched by researchers to view black holes in the Milky Way galaxy, groundwater testing of wells at a landfill where radioactive waste from World War II was detected, and a legal battle to ban commercial trapping of Missouri’s freshwater turtles.

“I think what I do makes a difference in alerting people to [important environmental issues],” said Chen of her reporting, especially on controversial subjects.  “With controversy, things can get heated and misinformation can spread, and I think it’s important for reporters covering these issues to clarify things and get the facts,” she added.

“This is really a fascinating career,” said Chen.

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