MERCED -- Ashley Chiang insists she's not a tree-hugger, though her streak of internships may suggest otherwise.
Chiang, 23, interned at the University of California at Merced's Green Campus from 2008 to 2010. She's now an intern for the university and just finished auditing the amount of energy the school uses, including the gases each facility emits.
The tests are meant to determine if the school is meeting its promise to reduce emissions. She's also doing the same assessment for the city of Merced.
"I hold the ideals, in terms of being an environmentalist and conserving our resources, but I couldn't spend a year in a tree," she said.
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The San Mateo native said she sees herself working in the field of sustainability when she graduates, but she didn't always seek a green career.
When Chiang was young, she wanted to be lawyer, but after entering high school she became interested in construction sites and buildings, she said.
Chiang is now a senior majoring in mechanical engineering with minors in management and economics.
When she first began looking into possible career paths, she started at Arvin Sango in 2007, the automotive manufacturing plant in Merced that recently closed.
She shadowed another mechanical engineer. Chiang's work was a combination of machine maintenance and mechanical engineering. "I would literally come home covered in grease," she recalled.
It's OK to be a gearhead
Because she's small in stature, Chiang said her co-workers would ask her to squeeze into tight spots to fix hard-to-reach places on some of the machines.
Jessica Duffy, Chiang's friend, described Chiang as a gearhead -- a category Chiang isn't embarrassed to admit.
"I love industrial machines," Chiang said.
Her switch from working for an automotive manufacturing company to interning for Green Campus, a group dedicated to making UC Merced more sustainable and energy efficient, might seem like a 180-degree turn, but Chiang doesn't think so. "There are a lot of ways to make the machines at Arvin Sango energy efficient," she said.
She wasn't sure she wanted to work at a place like Arvin Sango for the rest of her life, so she decided to shift gears.
Duffy, a fellow engineering student and Green Campus intern, suggested Chiang intern at the campus organization. The jobs are project-based positions; interns find environmental problems on campus and then work to resolve them.
"That sounded perfect because I like being my own boss," Chiang said.
She was also a good fit for the position because she was able to talk to other people about energy efficiency in a way that was more approachable, Duffy said.
"It was nice having someone who wasn't a born-and-raised hippie talking to people about the environment," Duffy said. "She would look at it as a cost-savings benefit. She was really good at thinking about it in a practical way."
Part of the reason Chiang enjoys what she does is the satisfaction she gets from finding an answer to a problem.
"If there's an answer, there's something to strive for," she said -- and that's making sure UC Merced and the city of Merced are minimizing their carbon footprints.