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Summer 2016 Blog - Maansi Shah

Wrapping up: last days in Hong Kong

August 22, 2016

Final presentations

I’m leaving Hong Kong at the end of this week, and it doesn’t seem real. This morning, I gave my wrap up presentation to the team, summarizing my work over the past two months. I will have a poster session for the Chinese University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program on Thursday, and after that, my internship will be over.

These last few days have probably been some of my most productive here (everyone works faster under a time crunch, right?) I have nearly finished preparing the primary input data for the SURFEX-TEB model, and have been analyzing data on vegetation, building types and road orientations. I have redone all of my initial calculations in order to fix small errors that I found had propagated through my data. The resulting data can be directly inputted into the SURFEX-TEB model in order to evaluate the energy flux between the surface and the atmosphere in HKSAR.

I was able to generate data detailing the land uses, vegetation and building types and fractions, densities, etc. of HKSAR. These files can be easily reformatted into input text files and sent to the research center in Toulouse, France for analysis in the SURFEX-TEB imodel.

Saying goodbye

I still find it hard to believe that it has already been two months, and that I will be back in Berkeley in less than a week. The unfamiliarity of Hong Kong has become comfortable. I have grown accustomed to seeing strange advertisements and hearing Cantonese around me. The heat and humidity no longer feel oppressive. It will be difficult to leave this beautiful city, with its incredibly lively metropolis juxtaposed with tropical greenery (Hong Kong is almost 70% greenspace) that allows me to hike several miles every weekend without ever being afraid to run out of magnificent vistas. In fact, I have been hiking so frequently that when I get back to Berkeley, I will have to exercise more regularly, as I’ve gotten used to this level of physical activity.

It has been a summer of firsts, of pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone. Two weeks ago, I went cliff-jumping for the first time over Sai Wan beach. That same day, I hiked for 18 miles on the island, and swam for almost two more (which, considering the difficulty I have with swimming for long periods of time, was quite difficult). Last Monday, I experienced my very first typhoon. Typhoon Nida passed through Hong Kong, and though it was not nearly as strong as it was originally projected to be, the typhoon still shut down all transportation and offices for a full day. From my dorm room, we could see a raging thunderstorm, with high winds, tree branches being ripped out, and heavy rains. For a Californian unaccustomed to extreme weather events, it was quite the spectacle.

These last two weeks have been a whirlwind, filled with hiking, adventures, last-minute souvenir-shopping, emotional goodbyes, and lots of wine. Over the last weekend, a few of my dormmates and I went on one of the most beautiful hikes that I have been on in Hong Kong thus far. The city never fails to amaze me. We went to Lantau island to hike to an infinity pool formed by a waterfall and a reservoir. The hike itself was much more taxing than we had expected, and we encountered at least fifty of the largest spiders any of us had seen before coming to Hong Kong. However, the view at the end was definitely worth it, it was absolutely breathtaking. We were also lucky enough to catch the sunset on a beach with several small tide pools on our way back down. It was the perfect way to spend the my last weekend in Hong Kong.

A view from the top of the hike

Even more difficult than saying goodbye to the city will be saying goodbye to the wonderful people whom I have met here, who have made this summer unforgettable. My dormmates, my co-workers, and everyone else who has been kind to me when I was confused, lost, or lost in translation.

Some of the wonderful people whom I have met in Hong Kong

Before I go, I want to thank Cal Energy Corps for giving me this wonderful opportunity, and for allowing me to both earn money and work in a job in my field over the summer. I have learned so much from this experience, and I could not have asked for a better setting than Hong Kong in which to do it.

And now, back to Berkeley.

Running out of time

July 27,2016

These past couple of weeks have seemed like a race against time. After I passed the halfway mark of my time in Hong Kong, each day seems to go by more and more quickly. To compensate, I have been trying to stuff my weekends full with activities, to do as much as humanly possible in my remaining time here. I have a long list of things that I have yet to do or see, and dwindling days in which to do or see them. Last weekend, I decided to knock out some of the most touristy items left on that list. After all, if I left Hong Kong without seeing the Big Buddha statue, could I really even say I had been to Hong Kong? The journey out to the Big Buddha was almost as magnificent as the carving itself. We took a __ kilometer cable car ride in a crystal cabin with rolling hills and waterfalls below us. When we reached the statue, before us stretched a magnificent view of Hong Kong’s many islands, and behind us a beautiful Buddhist monastery. The Big Buddha itself was a beautiful, serene figure, which despite the crowds, the heat and the noise, made you feel at peace. During the visit, we were even able to take a short boat trip out to the Tai O fishing village, during which we were lucky enough to spot a family of Chinese white dolphins (which, of course, are actually pink).

The very next day, a friend of mine and I departed early to hike the Wong Tung Hang stream trail on Lantau island. It took us an hour to reach the island and over two hours to find the trailhead, so in spite of beginning the day at 9am, we were not able to start our hike until noon. It was absolutely worth the trek; the hike was among the best I have taken in my life. The hike was almost entirely a stream trek, in which we climbed across rocks and swam and waded upstream to waterfalls. The smaller cascades and pools along the way provided brief respite from the sweltering afternoon sun. The pools were filled with algae, making them a remarkable emerald green. This also made the rocks inside extremely slippery and dangerous, and I narrowly avoided a few dangerous falls.

I returned from the weekend completely exhausted (and a little bruised) after two full days of walking in the heat. I think that keeping up with a schedule like this will require very early weeknights and lots of naps. Here’s hoping I don’t fall sick before I leave (fingers crossed).

Data, data and more data

My weekdays have been almost as exhausting (if not more) than my weekends. Staring at a computer screen for 9 hours a day is much more draining than I had anticipated. In lab, I continue to work with the Hong Kong land use data in an attempt to adapt it to fit the parameters of the French TEB model. I have managed to fix some of the errors that I had originally encountered in the data, and (with the help of my supervising professor) have found some data that I had originally thought was missing.

There is still quite a bit left to do, and there is quite a bit of data that the team has not yet finished compiling for which I will need to wait. However, I hope to get as much done as possible within the time allotted. Through this lab, I have discovered that GIS work, though interesting, is not what I want to do full time. I do not think I could spend my days working with one software on a computer screen. However, it has been an interesting undertaking to throw myself into for two months. I have been able to get to know the software much better, and have grown much more comfortable with coding in Python.

I have also been lunching with my co-workers almost every day and therefore getting a little bit closer to them. I feel increasingly comfortable in this routine each day. Although I have more or less adapted to the rhythm of full-time work, I still frequently miss the fast-paced nature of collegiate life and the comfort of family and friends that I have known for longer than four weeks.

Back home: thoughts

On that note, I have to mention some events at home that have made me upset with my inability to be home and mourn with my friends and family. The recent attacks on black lives and the subsequent social media attacks on the black lives matter movement, the shootings across the United States, and the attacks on countless individuals abroad have all made me feel helpless, lost and stuck. It feels as though I am living a world removed from these horrifying events, and have been unable to process, to react.

The death of Berkeley student in the Nice attack has hit me the hardest. Everyone keeps saying “Nick” Leslie, but for the semester that I knew him, he was Nikola, the Italian-American who loved the water. The man who turned a conversation about the slow food movement into one about water sports and then, abruptly, Marina Abramovic. That was the man so passionate about marijuana legalization that he was able to argue one-on-four with the rest of the class in Italian and win the argument with an eloquent 30-minute monologue. For one hour three times a week, we made each other laugh, lightened our daily loads and forgot about our other responsibilities. We had a deal in that class: anything that happened there, anything anyone said, remained there. It was a safe space for reflection, for venting, for anything. We danced salsa, ate good food, and drank good coffee. We talked about art, culture, politics, religion, drugs, anything and everything. I wish I could have attended his vigil, or mourned with my friends who knew him better than I. His loss feels unreal to me. I never knew whether or not our paths would cross again after the course ended, but the finality of death leaves no room for speculation. For now, all I can say is, ciao Nikola. Ci mancherai.

Settling In

July 13, 2016

Hello again from Hong Kong!


I feel as though I am finally settling in to my 9-5 (really 10-6) work schedule. I am no longer exhausted every afternoon and staring blankly at my computer before leaving for the day to take a nap. I now feel as though I have the energy to make it through the day and go out to explore Hong Kong cuisine in the evenings (yay).

The office environment, though at first intimidating due to the long hours that make it feel as though everyone around me lives in the office, is actually quite welcoming and relaxed. It is in in fact because my co-workers seem to live in this space that it has taken on many of the comforts of a home. People frequently move around to chat, play games, and nap at their desks in the afternoons. Occasionally, a few of them will even go to the gym and return in the middle of the day.

I feel as though I’m settling in, and can make some more progress on my work. This week, my post-doc and professor both returned from Toulouse, meaning I have both more information about the Town Energy Balance model inputs and someone to ask questions to. The data preparation that I have been doing is now moving along, and I feel as though I will actually be able to contribute something useful to this project, in spite of the short time period available.

A glimpse of my desk, featuring some of the work that I have been doing

Diversity, language and barriers to communication

During my time here, I have decided to attempt to learn a bit of Cantonese. Realizing that this would be a difficult undertaking on my own, I signed up for a short, four-day course on basic Cantonese. However, the course turned out to be completely useless, using a lecture-based, un-interactive method to teach the language. I had to stop myself from falling asleep as we were going through 500 food vocabulary words in half an hour (yikes). I am now trying instead to learn the language from some of my dorm-mates who speak Cantonese. However, they speak two different dialects, making learning the language even more challenging. Adding to my confusion, my co-workers in the lab are all from mainland China, and speak primarily Mandarin. Most of them don’t even understand Cantonese! In spite of some major barriers, I have managed to pick up a few basic phrases, enough to order food, direct a cab/ask for directions, shop for basics, and count, but unfortunately too little to understand a word when (as often happens) my simple questions are met with not-so-simple answers. I’m guessing that it will only be by the time I’m ready to leave that I’ll begin to understand the answers.

My spare time

During the week, when I’m not glued to my lab computer, I have been sitting in the campus bookstore (which actually is primarily meant for *gasp* books), and reading whatever catches my eye that day. It’s so rare that I have the time to sit and read, without pressures from classes, organizations, or other responsibilities. This brief time spent reading each day after work has made me feel more relaxed than I have felt in a long time.

Due to the distance from Hong Kong sights, I have gotten closer to my dorm-mates here than I thought possible in such a short time. I rarely see them before 8pm during the week, but it is those delirious, after-work, late night conversations, hiding from the thunderstorms outside, that have brought us all together.

Because we live too far from the majority of sights on Hong Kong island, the only time we have to explore Hong Kong is on weekends. The city offers no shortage of things to do or places to see, and I am now afraid that eight weeks here will not be nearly enough to see even the most touristy of those. The highlight of the weekends thus far was a hiking trip last Sunday. Some of my dorm-mates and I decided to go on a hike to a waterfall in the Sai Kung Country Park. Somewhere along the way, we must have accidentally taken the wrong bus, and ended up on the wrong trailhead. Having intended to go on a different trail, we did not anticipate the length or the arduousness of the trek. However, the beach that we eventually alighted on made the journey well worth the added effort. The waters were clear and warm. Islands upon islands dotted the sea in front of us, lush and untouched.

A view of Ham Tin beach

We were only able to spend an hour there before the last ferry back to the main island arrived, but we have decided to go back before leaving Hong Kong (we may even make it to the right trail next time).

Looking forward both to more adventures and more progress! Until next time.

Hong Kong: the early days

June 25, 2016

First impressions

My first week at the Chinese University of Hong Kong has consisted of very little sleep, several new faces, lots of work, and even more food. Running on two hours of sleep and an empty stomach, I arrived at my new dorm in the middle of the afternoon, sweaty and parched. From that moment on, the week was essentially non-stop. Between the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) at the university, my work, my dorm, and of course all my distant relatives in Hong Kong, I have met over 200 people in under five days. In that time, I have also sampled almost 25 previously unknown dishes and desserts. I have eaten at street food stalls, University dining halls, in people’s homes, and even twice at Michelin-rated restaurants (my favorite dishes thus far have been a delicious vegetable dumpling provided by SURP at their orientation, and a wonderfully moist and subtle green tea tiramisu from a bakery near the University- not a bad place to be for a Bay Area foodie). Adding to the constant movement, the University campus is more than an hour by metro from Hong Kong island. In fact, the school is closer to the Chinese border than it is to Hong Kong island. The metro, albeit the most readable and accessible public transit system I have encountered, closes early, at midnight. This means that even if I go to the city directly from work, I can spend less than 4 hours in the city before I need to head back.

Thankfully, the CUHK campus is itself quite beautiful and worth exploring. Situated atop a mountain in a lush tropical forest, the campus has lakes, wildlife and magnificent views. On the other hand, this also means that it has two of the things that threaten my cushy and comfortable lifestyle the most: mosquitos and hills. The elevation changes are phenomenal; there is one area where one can take an elevator from the ground floor nine stories up, and end up on the ground floor on the other side of the same building. At least I won’t have to worry about getting my exercise in this summer (and never again will I complain about Berkeley hills).

A view from the University’s main library.

In the evening of my first day, I met with my professors, Edward and Renchao, for the first time. Both extremely personable people, they put me at ease right away, and we chatted about the project for some time. I will be working with the Town-Energy Budget (TEB) model, a model developed in Toulouse designed to compute heat fluxes between the atmosphere and the urban environment, taking into account separate fluxes from various sources. The research team at CUHK hopes to adapt this model to Hong Kong. My job is to convert the climate data that the University research team has into formats that can be recognized by the model as inputs.

The conversation lulled me into a false sense of security and complacency until Professor Edward mentioned that he always like to give the students from Berkeley “impossible tasks” to complete. He informed me that neither he nor his students had been able to figure out how to complete the task that would be mine for the summer, but that he had full faith that a student from UC Berkeley would be capable. Though I am not arrogant enough to think that the professor or his students had attempted for very long, it seems unlikely even then that I would be able to think of any new approaches.

For now, I have been attempting to understand the model and its nuances. I have looked through the inputs and formats of the data. Next week, I will begin working with the existing data compiled by the CUHK team and explore different potential formats for it. In the days since the conversation with Professor Edward, I have realized that it is much more important that I make as concentrated an effort as possible in these two months than that I actually succeed in running the model.

A view of one of three offices in which the department is housed. My desk chair sits facing away from the camera on the left.

Post-grad freshman musings

This is the summer after my freshman class has graduated and the majority of my friends are gainfully employed, attending graduate school, traveling, or searching for a full-time position. This is also the summer that I have decided to study at a new university as an undergraduate, live in a dorm room with two other students, and move once more from a place that had become my home. In other words, I am reliving my freshman year. During my first week at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I have often caught myself questioning this decision to regress, to retreat into an unfamiliar place for a familiar experience instead of accepting the natural progression of life and the end of college. A semester before my own degree is finished, I have chosen to hide inside academia, a bubble in which learning, discovery, and the questioning of assumptions reign supreme over repetition, efficiency and gridlock (a likely very skewed perception of office work that 16 years of education without any long-term exposure to the workforce has cemented in my head).

Whatever the reasons for my decision to pursue an undergraduate research program on a college campus, I intend to savor each day of my [possibly last] huzzah. If I discover what it is I’m looking for along the way, so much the better. In the meantime, my mind and body both need a much-deserved weekend break.

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