Inspired by the cosmos, student works for a more sustainable earth

“Primal Light,” taken in Indonesia, was published in National Geographic in 2017. (Photo credit: Mary Yap)

Four years ago, while grieving the deaths of two close friends in separate accidents, Yale senior Mary Yap began asking herself some deep questions about life and her own place in it.

It was a really rough year, and a reminder that life is short,” said Yap. “I started to ask myself: ‘What is life for? What do I want to leave behind?’”

Before that, Yap had spent two years at the University of Chicago and nearly six years working in the tech industry in San Francisco. While in California, she helped develop a private social networking site and served in several different roles for a crowdfunding company. But the tragedies brought her own priorities into sharper focus.

She decided to leave tech and spent the next year traveling. During that time, she re-connected with her father, an architect in Malaysia, went scuba diving in the Galapagos, and hiked in the Andes Mountains. Eventually, her soul searching led her to Yale, where she is now studying architecture (in the urban studies track) through the Eli Whitney Students Program, designed for students who have taken a nontraditional path to college.

During a month in Indonesia, Yap also began photographing the night sky with a fairly inexpensive camera and a lens her father gave her.

Ever since I was a kid, I used to look through the skylight after my mom was asleep, just staring at the stars and thinking about how the sun powers everything, and that we humans are like the sun — matter that has energy,” she said. “I was fascinated by the astonishing complexity that life has given birth to over billions of years, and think it is just incredible that we live on this tiny blue dot called Earth. … The night sky just reminds me how lucky we are to be here; to be alive and connected to everything else.”

Yap, whose photography skills are entirely self-taught, shared her photographs on a National Geographic community site. Her long-exposure photograph of local villagers by a campfire against the backdrop of an Indonesian volcano during a meteor shower — which she titled “Primal Light” — was published that year in a National Geographic article about volcanic Indonesian islands. It was later selected as a “Photo of the Day” by National Geographic Deutschland. (One of her celestial images was also used by her faculty advisor Toni Dorfman, adjunct professor of theater and performance studies, in a campus production of “Orfeo” that Dorfman directed.)

Yale senior Mary Yap, with her fiancé Henry Liu ’21.
Yale senior Mary Yap, with her fiancé Henry Liu ’21, who is studying physics in the Eli Whitney Students Program. Their dog, Cassini, is working toward a “diploma” in Yale’s Canine Cognition Center, which gives the honor to canines who participate in research there.

But it was something she observed closer to Earth while in Indonesia that would change her life’s path. In rural rice farming villages, she started to notice firsthand the effects of climate change, and she began her own research. She learned that 40% of human emissions come from buildings, and that the U.N. predicts that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050.

As the population grows, however, Yap believes cities and dense urban living can actually become an environmentally efficient way to live. “I began to wonder how we are going to make that sustainable,” she said. “How are we going to build a better future?”

When she returned to California, Yap took architecture classes at a community college and at the University of California-Berkeley. One of her architecture professors, whose client’s house had burned down in a wildfire, invited Yap to help her redesign the Sonoma Valley home. The firsthand experience convinced her to pursue her own architecture career, with the goal of looking at design in new, sustainable ways.

That path led her to Yale, where a fellowship from the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities and a Friedman Family Travel/Research Fellowship allowed her one summer to shadow urban planners, designers, and ecologists, mainly in Southeast Asia and Scandinavia.

In both of those places, entire cities have been built quickly from scratch in the middle of the jungle or the middle of the ocean,” she said. “But when I visited them, many were almost empty, such as in Forest City on the coast of Malaysia, which has about a dozen families living there.

These cities are supposed to be green and sustainable, but when I interviewed kids in a fishing village nearby, they told me that their fathers only caught a few fish that week; the new city was accidently put on top of the natural seagrass bed where fish are born.”

Yap decided to take on a second major, earth and planetary sciences, which has allowed her to focus on questions such as fossil fuels, energy, oceanography, and climate modeling. She also works in the laboratory of Juan Lora, assistant professor of geology and geophysics, who studies planetary climates.

I decided that for me to do the kind of architecture I want to do, I want to understand things like sea-level rise and ecology, and how those matter in the choice of any site,” she added.

With skills she honed taking a variety of fiction and nonfiction writing courses over the past two years, Yap is currently working on a book based on the life of her grandmother, the daughter of Taiwanese farmers whose entrepreneurial spirit helped raise their family out of poverty. The project grew out of a seminar she took with Yale historian John Gaddis called “The Art of Biography.”

On campus, Yap has served as co-president this year of the Eli Whitney Students Society, was co-president last year of the undergraduate entrepreneurship networking society Yale 203, and is a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma Society.

Her next deep questions concern her future beyond Yale. Yap is considering spending a year or so working on her book project before earning a graduate-level architecture degree. She is certain, however, that outdoor adventures, including astrophotography, will be in her future.

Survival is not guaranteed for any of us, either individually or as a society,” she said. “So before earning my master’s in architecture, I’d like to take a step back to synthesize all the things I have learned at Yale, and understand how I can best contribute. The problems ahead of us are immense, and sometimes it takes big-picture thinking to know how to address them.”

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