Exploring climate change through wine

Rice Global Paris Center offers hub for students to engage in learning in classroom, field

Sylvia Dee

In the heart of Paris just blocks from City Hall and a short jaunt over the Seine from Notre Dame, you’ll find the Marais district — a cultural hub teeming with boutiques, galleries, restaurants and now the Rice Global Paris Center.

“This is our first Rice University international campus,” said Caroline Levander, vice president of Rice Global. “We’re in the center of the city, we’re in the center of Europe and we are in the center of education and research activity.”

The historic building that houses the Paris Center dates back to 1540. Echoes of its storied past can be found in its exposed timber, the ancient well in the garden and its elegant meeting rooms as centuries of history meet modern academic pursuits. Blending education and cultural immersion, the Paris Center offers students a unique opportunity to foster academic rigor and explore one of the world’s most iconic cities.

“One of the things that’s really great about the Rice Global Paris Campus thus far is that faculty across the university want to teach here,” Levander said.

Among the courses recently offered at the Paris Center was “Climate Change, Economics and the Wine Industry,” which brought students to Paris for three weeks in May.

“I got together with several colleagues, and we wrote this proposal to teach the class centered on environmental solutions with wine as a case study,” said lead instructor Sylvia Dee, assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences and civil and environmental engineering. “It’s a really interdisciplinary group of faculty and very purposely a very interdisciplinary group of students as well.”

Sejal Gupta, a rising senior majoring in economic and data science, said she was drawn to the course due to its application of economics to winemaking as well as the environmental and data sciences aspects of it.

“I’ve been learning a lot from it,” Gupta said.

While the Paris Center provided a home base for the course, the faculty and students embarked on several field trips, including one to Caves Cathelineau, a Loire Valley winery that has been making wine for seven generations.

“I think we could have taken this course back in Houston, back at Rice and sat in a classroom,” Gupta said. “But to be able to do it here in Paris, to walk around and then to actually be able to visit the vineyard, I think that’s a really good opportunity.”

Those on-site experiences facilitated meaningful interactions with local experts, said rising senior E’kiijah Turner, who is majoring in operations research.

“We’re getting a chance to see how the grapes are grown from the beginning process and just see all the different steps in the process,” Turner said.

“We’ve had a really wonderful experience working with the winemakers and talking to them about how climate change is affecting everything from their production to their harvest dates to storage and what kinds of wine they’re able to produce,” Dee said.

Dee also credited the Paris Center staff, notably Garry White and Camille Evans, with coordinating the logistics involved in exploring Paris and the surrounding areas.

“They’ve taken such good care of us,” Dee said. “From booking our meals to getting our train tickets organized to making sure we have someone there to greet us when we get to the vineyards, I could not be doing this without them. I’m really grateful for their help.”

Back at the Paris Center, students and faculty synthesized these field experiences with the faculty group teaching the course, which included Mark Torres, assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences; Matthew McCary, assistant professor of biosciences; Guha Balakrishnan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; and colleagues at other Paris institutions.

“The idea was to bring together people with expertise in terroir and climate change, then also economics and computer science,” Dee said.

The students agreed that the knowledge shared and the experiences gained during the course left a lasting impression.

“I would definitely encourage anyone who has the time to sign up and take a course here,” Turner said. “I think you will not get an experience like it anywhere else honestly, being able to just be interactive and not just learn about things but physically go and see them. Paris is a beautiful city. It’s very safe and there’s a lot to do. And just being able to engage in so much at the same time, I think it’s really incredible.”

For more information about opportunities available at the Paris Center, click here.