Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Emily Tianshi Is Helping To Change Our World

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Reach out to experts and ask for help. Society is so supportive of everyone who wants to contribute to a good cause. In the 9th grade, I emailed a scientist working at the San Diego Zoo who was researching the genetic diversity of Torrey Pines. Not only did she thoroughly answer my questions, she also gave me a wonderful tour of her lab.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Tianshi.

Emily Tianshi is the subject of Generation Impact: The Scientist, which is available now on’s digital hub, the Garage ( Tianshi and her brother founded Clearwater Innovation, a student-run environmental advocacy program with a mission to generate awareness about the global water shortage and water pollution through events and education programs in order to encourage students to utilize their creativity and solve the problem through innovation. She is a published scientist, patent-pending inventor and a current freshman at Stanford University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in sunny San Diego, California with my parents, younger brother Kyle, and our grandparents. We loved exploring the outdoors, creating music, dog sitting, and playing mahjong together.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Clearwater Innovation generates awareness of the global water crisis and encourages students to solve environmental challenges via garage lab research. We believe that innovative technologies are needed to take on the climate crisis, and youth are equipped with the creativity and out-of-the-box ideas to contribute. We want to empower them to step up and try out scientific research, even if it seems like they don’t have the resources or skills.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Growing up in California’s drought sparked my water sensitivities. I’ve seen many a beautiful field of grass tragically wither away. Finding out that so many people in the world have it way worse than California inspired me to action.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Believe it or not, I didn’t have just one major “aha moment.” I spent several years conducting my research project and made many exciting baby steps along the way, each of which induced a satisfying “aha.” In the beginning, I decided to give research a try because the stakes were so low. I had absolutely nothing to lose, so why not take a shot?

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I learned how to run an organization through doing community service, fundraising, and taking leadership positions from a young age. An important step, in my opinion, is to clearly define your mission and goal, which doesn’t have to cover a broad scope. Start with something small and stay focused on what you can do best. Choose an area you can contribute a unique perspective to. And talk about your organization extensively and exuberantly around your friends so they join!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Clearwater Innovation presented at the Barrio Logan Science and Art Expo to advocate against plastic and groundwater contamination. During the event, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria signed our petition against single-use plastic alongside dozens of other people. I was thrilled that my organization’s demands for change could reach San Diego’s policymakers.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school working on one experiment. It involved dying the water in my fog machine blue so I could see it under a camera as it condensed on Torrey Pine needles. I remember walking out of five hour lab sessions with a blue face and hands. It was only when I started blowing out blue snot did I realize that I should probably be taking better safety precautions. But the blue snot was fun!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My parents have been hugely influential in my life. My mom is a natural leader and community builder. She dedicates most of her spare time volunteering for FIRST robotics and several other organizations. It is a privilege to watch her in action — how she brings individuals together, raises people up, and inspires positivity. I think scientific research is a social endeavor, and I learned a lot from my mom in that regard.

My dad is a lifelong scholar. He treats every experience as a learning opportunity and approaches life with authentic curiosity. My dad embraces challenges. He doesn’t see them as an annoyance to get over with but as a chance to delight in problem solving.

Both of them are bold, confident risk takers. There have been many instances where I’ve been on the fence about reaching out to a professor or too scared to ask a question, but they always encourage me to take the jump.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

A high schooler was inspired to research how golf courses overuse water, as she was an avid golfer. She published an article on Clearwater Innovation’s advocacy blog on her findings. She volunteered at Clearwater Innovation and said that helped her realize how rewarding working towards something positive as a group was.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Instead of conceiving of climate action as an economic burden, policymakers should imagine how to incentivize environmental measures while spurring economic growth. Theoretically, any investment we put into things like green energy or sustainable manufacturing is worthwhile in the long run. We just need to figure out how exactly to implement effective policies. The community should relentlessly advocate for this.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Stop overthinking and be spontaneous! The first time I made a cohesive prototype, I was worried that it wouldn’t capture any water and was hesitant to bring it outside for overnight field testing. My dad offered to drive me to the Torrey Pines Reserve Extension at midnight, and I figured it would be a memorable adventure at worst. We hiked for a mile for the optimal spot to place my prototype, and we could hear coyotes howling in the distance. (Don’t worry, I brought a friend who’s skilled in Taekwondo along for the ride to be safe.) Sure enough, my prototype didn’t work, but I was glad I took the first step and enjoyed the process.

Reach out to experts and ask for help. Society is so supportive of everyone who wants to contribute to a good cause. In the 9th grade, I emailed a scientist working at the San Diego Zoo who was researching the genetic diversity of Torrey Pines. Not only did she thoroughly answer my questions, she also gave me a wonderful tour of her lab.

Take time to connect with other activists to broaden your perspective. Meeting changemakers here at Stanford and connecting with other student activists online has taught me the importance of intersectionality. Different social movements can leverage each other and build off of communal energy.

Develop a collaborative team and spend effort making each member feel included. So many more exciting things can happen on a larger scale when you have a great team to rely on.

Enjoy the failures as much as the successes. You learn way more from messing up than from a smooth ride.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

If you want the generations after us to have a future on Earth, we all have to do something. Climate change exacerbates inequality and locks millions into poverty.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Alex Honnold. I greatly admire his work for solar energy at the Honnold Foundation. I hope to emulate his tenacity, doer mentality, comfort while exploring uncharted territory, and one day maybe even his workout routine.

How can our readers follow you online?

@EmilyTianshi and @clearwater.innovation on Instagram. @EmilyTianshi and @ClearwaterInnov on Twitter!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Emily Tianshi Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.