Name: Sam Kaufmann

Hometown: Bethlehem, Pa.

Major: Biology

Activities: Perry World House, Social Deduction Club (SDC), geoengineering research


Can you tell us about your involvement in the environmental field?

I’m interested in trying to present information to policymakers, and in  building that information base—thinking about how the world is going to be very different from how it is today. One of the things that was always a given to me was the whole rapid decarbonization thing. You know, the “revolutionary, rapid, everything goes green all at once”—it'll never happen. I'm interested in geoengineering because geoengineering is basically “break glass in case of emergency,” and, well, there's an emergency.

I was also one of many, many people who get pressured by their parents to go to medical school or something similar. The way to break out of that, I have learned, is to come up with an alternative and get them to buy into it. You put in the work to actually establish some kind of career path that isn't that, and then you rope–a–dope them while they're on your butt about it.

I saw a Wharton Risk Center call for essay submissions, and I wrote an essay about geoengineering. It won this little contest they had, and I was like, “Oh, that's cool.” I was lucky to have a gap year over COVID–19 to develop my interest in environmental stuff. Now two years later, I've gotten involved in research and learned to be a geospatial software guy a little bit. You know those New York Times maps that have cool visualizations? There's a GIS [geographic information system] guy behind every one of those, so I learned to use that kind of mapping software.

It took a long time to develop this from, “I know that we're going to be in a very, very climate–changed future, and I wish I could do something about it,” to, “Here are some topics within that that I could maybe help work on and understand,” to, “Here are some transferable skills that will get me jobs right in that field.”

Geoengineering is such a niche area that most people probably didn’t even know existed.

Yeah, I'm a very liberal arts, jack of all trades person, so that has led me to do extremely niche things. I think a lot of the issue with the climate field—and the reason that we can't really admit to ourselves that we're on the medium emissions pathway and that we should plan accordingly—is because the science people know the science, and therefore they conclude, “Well, I guess we've just got to reduce carbon emissions really fast.” The social sciences people say, “There's no way that that's going to happen.” But they don't spend too much time really focusing on the details of the science.

Having had the fortune to do both, I'm like, “Okay, let's take this fucking seriously. This is what we’re actually dealing with.” I'm not a revolutionary, but can we admit the basic facts from all these fields? This is what motivates me around environmental policy. I just want to help people communicate information and help the world understand and really prepare.

So more specifically, what do you do within geoengineering?

My research has not focused mainly on geoengineering. The geoengineering field is miserably small compared to the size of the problem. No one can make money off of geoengineering, and no one is quite ready to accept that we're going to need some kind of geoengineering. Geoengineering means like ten different harebrained strategies for how to modify the Earth's climate. It's going to turn out that like four of them will work if we do them right. It's not that I'm wedded to any particular strategy, whether it's sulfate aerosols or cloud seeding—it's just that it's an approach to be willing to take that step.

I started my climate research by doing a report for Michael Weisberg at Perry World House through something that he called the "Perry World House Geoengineering Project," which basically [consisted of] briefing him and some collaborators on the actual state of the hard science on geoengineering. That report’s not published, and for now it's sort of dormant research. 

What I have been doing is a climate security mapping project. Within Perry World House, Anna Cabre, a former postdoc with Irina Marinov in the Earth and Environmental Science Department, and I have learned how to use GIS software from scratch and then collected every conceivable data set that could be relevant to climate change. We don't have enough, but it's also a giant freaking amount. We crossed lightly processed data sets from effects on agriculture to social vulnerability to currently existing conflicts. 

Right now, we have it all on the cloud, and we're trying to build a website so that policymakers can see some very basic visualization of how these factors might interact. Hopefully there will be a prototype of that website by the time I graduate and/or more funding for it.

Switching gears, tell us about Social Deduction Club.

At Social Deduction Club, I'm “OG Sam.” The reason I'm OG Sam is because there are numerous Sams at Social Deduction Club, and I'm very proud of the nickname because I think I'm the only remaining founding member. I was in the founding group of people who showed up at the first meetings. I’ve been an active member throughout. 

Social Deduction Club plays Mafia on Friday nights. The crowd of people you get is the sort of person who would want to play Mafia on a Friday night, which basically means all the social people who don't really party that much, which is definitely an interesting demographic.

It's shockingly wholesome for a club that is devoted to everyone lying and murdering each other. Also, I would say that their Nerf wars in Skirkanich Hall are the most fun activity on campus hands down. They also do secret events. I'd tell you what that is, but then I'd have to kill you. It's just a really successful, semi–underground club. The average attendance for a meeting is 35 people coming in and out throughout the night.

Tell us about your Shabbat dinner tradition.

I quickly figured out through my interactions with others and experiences with Riepe Pasta Nights that good food makes people build relationships. It makes people put down their phones and their stress and live in the moment with the human beings around them. It's shockingly consistent. It works on everyone.

I made friends with Xander Gottfried (C '21), who knew how to cook really well. We started hosting meals. We found funding from dorms and Hillel. It's been a defining part of my college experience. It's made my little place a sort of social hub. There’s no student group associated with it, and it's not any particular clique. It's maybe theater–adjacent, fairly SDC–adjacent, and pretty Jewish, but not very Hillel. I always make sure there's a rotating cast of characters who are getting invited. The social dynamic is always shifting—it's a skill I've built.

What I've gotten out of it is I've built so many more relationships, and I've also become much better at dealing with people as a person. That was really one of the defining struggles of my childhood, and hosting Shabbat dinners taught me how to be a person who has good relationships by giving. That said, people don't like you for the things that you do for them; they like you for the things that they do for you. That's a psych hack. So I get people to help me cook. I honestly couldn't cook all this food if I didn't. I get so much free labor from random people.

What’s your most meaningful experience at Penn?

I wrote a Haggadah [text recited at the Passover Seder] that condensed my own feelings about Judaism and my own take on my religion. Passover is really important to me. I’m a capitalist, but also a critic of capitalism, and Passover is a very socialist holiday. Because I host people, of course I'm going to be hosting Passover, and I'm going to have this crew of people who are partially Jewish and partially non–Jewish. I'm a traditionalist regarding Passover, but I also wanted it to be accessible to non–Jews. I felt like a Haggadah that was supposed to be very accessible might not be as classic and nitty–gritty regarding the biblical story. So I wrote one and did a little bit of cute graphic design with it. I wrote it, and I hosted a Passover Seder. Of course the food was super fancy because Xander designed the menu. 

What’s next for you after Penn?

Short term, I want to work in GIS and become a better GIS technician. Long term, I want to terraform this planet one way or another.


Lightning Round

Last song you listened to?

A cover of "Grace Kelly" by Pomplamoose because I have terrible taste in music.

Last thing you cooked?

Homemade spiced applesauce.

If you were building on campus, which would you be and why?

I'd be one of the food trucks, more specifically Magic Carpet, because I feed people.

What’s your death row meal?

Smoked salmon sandwiches with the bread and salmon from scratch. Cooked with Xander.

There are two types of people at Penn ...

Those who think that their life would be easier if they had sold their soul to capitalism and those who have done it and found out that their soul was cheap. 

And you are … 

Which do you think?


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.   


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