Ed Gibson (left), a former astronaut and member of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, presents UA Honors College senior Anson Cheung with the prestigious Astronaut Scholarship. (Photo: Emily Kotay)
Ed Gibson (left), a former astronaut and member of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, presents UA Honors College senior Anson Cheung with the prestigious Astronaut Scholarship. (Photo: Emily Kotay)

Undergraduate Climate Change Researcher Named Astronaut Scholar

UA geosciences senior Anson Cheung is working toward improved reconstructions of the past environment to more accurately predict climate change.
Nov. 7, 2016

Anson Cheung started developing an interest in climate change while studying geography, physics and biology in high school in Hong Kong, where he grew up.

Now a University of Arizona senior majoring in geosciences with a focus in Earth systems science, Cheung is helping to map and understand historic climate variability in various parts of the world.

Because of his potential to be a lead researcher in his field, Cheung was awarded the Astronaut Scholarship, a nationally competitive award granted to some of the leading students in the nation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

Ed Gibson, a former astronaut and member of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, presented Cheung with the award. The Astronaut Scholarship was founded by six members of the original Mercury 7 mission to support the nation's "best and brightest minds" to expand the United States' capacity for developing innovative technology. 

"The prestigious Astronaut Scholarship is known for being among the most significant scholarships awarded to undergraduate STEM students," according to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. 

Cheung, who has received other competitive awards, will receive $10,000 toward his year of study at the UA.

"It is very humbling to have received this nationally competitive award," Cheung said. "This award serves as a reassurance on the time I spent, and commitment I made throughout the years, on research. I am thankful for the opportunities given by my research mentors, numerous support and encouragement from professors, graduate students, friends and other lab members."

When Cheung arrived at the UA, he joined the Honors College and participated in the college's First Year Project, pairing up with Julia Cole, a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences.

Under Cole's tutelage, Cheung conducted research using isotopic and elemental data extracted from corals from the Central Line Islands to reconstruct past El Niño Southern Oscillation events, a climate phenomenon that is known to affect global climate every three to seven years.

Such work complements Cheung's time spent working with different researchers around the world.

Earlier this year, he was awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship and spent his spring semester at Australian National University, where he worked with researcher Nerilie Abram on reconstructing past Indian Ocean Dipole events.

He also has interned at the University of Hong Kong, where he used organic molecules to study past East Asian Monsoon behavior. He interned at Penn State through the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, working with Michael Mann, a major contributor to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Also, Cheung was awarded a NASA Space Grant during his sophomore year at the UA. As an intern, he worked with the group Jonathan Overpeck, a UA Regents' Professor of Geosciences, Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences — another major contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — on precipitation variability in the western Amazon.

For his thesis in the Honors College, Cheung is currently working with Cole on using novel tracers in the corals collected from the Galapagos Islands to reconstruct past El Niño Southern Oscillation events. The project's ultimate goals are to reconstruct the past environment more accurately, and to understand long-term variations over the past few centuries.

"The study is critical because climatic conditions in that region can affect global and regional climate such as Southwest of the United States. Since reliable instrumental data only spans back to 1950s, this study can extend the instrumental record further back in time and allow us to better characterize the past and present conditions in that region," he said. "This will ultimately help us better project future climate."

Reflecting on how he came to this point, and thinking about his years in high school, Cheung said it was geosciences that captured his imagination.

​"I was not very interested in physics and biology at that time because they mostly involved memorizing different biological terms or deriving equations," he said. "However, the chapter on climate change in my geography class was very different, and it really sparked my interest. I was very intrigued by the complexity of the Earth's climate system and was amazed by the interdisciplinary nature of this subject."

Cheung plans to go on to graduate school, where he hopes to gain a deeper understanding of how different climate phenomenon work and how they have changed.

"​After getting a Ph.D., I plan to continue conducting research in areas where I can make full use of past climate records, such as corals, tree rings, sediments and climate models, to gain a more comprehensive understanding about different climate phenomenon," he said. "I also hope to inspire more students about climate change and help them develop an interdisciplinary mind when tackling unanswered questions about the Earth."