Our Climate Journey with Sean Kelley
“Sustainability is being as efficient as possible with what you already have.”
Operations Research Scientist, Zum
Sean Kelley works on Zum’s routing algorithm, making our buses more efficient so students spend less time commuting and schools have more resources to improve the classroom experience. He is a PhD candidate in industrial engineering at Lehigh University, and hopes to return to San Francisco after graduating.
3 Questions with Sean Kelley
At Zum, we’re revolutionizing student transportation in order to build a green, sustainable future. What does sustainability mean to you?
To me, sustainability is being as efficient as possible with what you already have. In college, I specifically remember a case study on fast fashion where we were responsible for figuring out how to maximize profit by minimizing waste. I’m doing a similar thing at Zum now, by helping to maximize the efficiency of our bus routing algorithm. This reduces the time each student spends on the road, as well as the number of buses deployed in a given day, which ultimately minimizes our emitted carbon. For engineers in the transportation industry, sustainability = efficiency.
Climate change is the single greatest threat to our way of life, but it can sometimes feel abstract, far away, a problem for another time. How has climate change affected you personally?
I was raised on a working farm in the Great Lakes region. Until I was eighteen years old, I spent my summers detasseling, hand-pollinating, and cross-breeding corn. The idea was to maximize yield by making each new harvest resilient to both heat and drought. Over the years, rain was less frequent, but more intense. Growing season was sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, making it harder to decide when and what to plant. That’s something I learned, working outside—weather patterns were changing. Now, I’m lucky—the farm I grew up on never suffered dramatic losses, but even a few counties over, our friends and neighbors were seeing yields drop, crops fail. In my early years, climate change was there, but it wasn’t quite in my backyard.
Now, it’s everywhere. In the news, I read about people dying from record high temperatures, people displaced because of flooding. It can be overwhelming. I’m glad that I’m able to make a small difference professionally, though: by making our bus routes more efficient, we’re polluting less, minimizing our contribution to the global climate crisis. And as we transition to electric buses, that impact will grow even bigger.
Aside from that, I do try to keep my personal footprint as small as possible. Maybe it’s because I grew up with corn, but I do mostly eat vegetarian. I also bike as much as possible.
What can Zum do to be a leader in sustainability, to spearhead the charge in the fight against climate change?
I was originally hired at Zum because of a blog post I wrote on vehicle routing. On joining the company, I was struck by how dedicated the technical team is to maximizing efficiency. Their routing algorithm is already top notch, yet still the CTO brought me on to try and improve it however I could. The fact that I’m here speaks to Zum’s dedication to making their company as efficient, and sustainable, as it can possibly be. From an engineering perspective, Zum should continue its ongoing commitment to reducing waste and reducing emissions through efficiency. That, to me, is leadership in sustainability.