When Christine Keung first traveled to northwestern China in 2014 on a Fulbright scholarship, she set about collaborating with local university students to improve the region’s heavily polluted environment. In many rural communities in Shaanxi province, for example, contaminated rivers and streams meant there was no source of clean drinking water. So she helped locals build systems to track, control and recycle waste responsibly.

What Keung originally intended to be a yearlong stop between college and business school morphed into a four-year mission to address the slew of issues affecting everyday people in this corner of her parents’ homeland. She acts as a liaison between Chinese students and U.S. researchers on issues from pollution to health care, gathering and analyzing data to craft personalized responses. In one ongoing project, she works with a U.S.-based manufacturer to give children eyeglasses. In another, she helped rural mothers access nutritious meals. “Everything we’re doing is to increase the overall quality of life for people in that region of China,” she says.

Christine Keung (Chris McPherson for TIME)
Christine Keung
Chris McPherson for TIME

The ultimate goal, Keung says, is to empower the university students to carry on the work themselves. “It’s not about developing one solution or even five,” she says. “It’s about developing these students.”
Keung is now back in the U.S., working as chief of staff at Dropbox’s legal department. But she remains committed to her work in rural China, waking during twilight hours to speak to researchers on the ground in China and traveling there and to Europe in her spare time to help manage projects and meet funders. “It all comes at the cost of my sleep,” she jokes.

Keung still intends to go to business school, just a bit later than planned. The skills she learns there will help her continue to improve lives, fulfilling what she calls her “moral responsibility.”

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