[Michelle Levinson, ERG Graduate Student]

Image Source: East Bay Times

This has been a terrifying year. Earthquakes, hurricanes, heat waves, and floods — the news sounds like a chapter from the Book of Revelation, or a scene from the dystopian future that Octavia Butler envisioned 25 years ago. We know that these traumas and calamities are experienced first and worst by those with the fewest resources and means for resilience, and this truth has played out in the varied impacts of storm flooding in HoustonPuerto Rico, and Bangladesh.

I have read articles and “reacted” to posts on social media; I have donated (grad-school-budget-sized amounts) to causes; I’ve traded updates and insights with family, friends, and random strangers. Yet while these disasters have caught my attention, I have primarily managed them on the rational side of my mind — acknowledging all of this loss, but also wondering what I would have for lunch and whether the 6-bus would be running on time. This is to say, the remote traumas of others stayed emotionally remote to me, and I think to many others as well.

Disaster elicited a very different and emotional reaction this week, after landing so much closer to home. On Sunday morning, I woke up to a string of texts among my family. My aunt and uncle had been evacuated from their home at 2 AM the night before. They awoke to a loud banging on the door and saw the hills above them glowing orange. Now they are with my family in Oakland, still waiting to learn the fate of their home. Many have not been so lucky.

This tragedy reaches deep into the ERG and Berkeley communities, though the fires rage two counties away. It is not just the immediate loss of life, home, and community that we mourn, but also the little things we take for granted. For me, this is my bicycle commute.

Wednesday morning I checked the air quality and decided that 73 AQI was good enough to ride my bike to school. Maybe I would go a bit more slowly than usual, but I had my inhaler in my backpack (as always) and was desperate for some exercise to release some of the stress of midterm season. After all, I make this ride multiple times a week and am in pretty good shape. On a normal day, I don’t even need to puff my inhaler before going on a jog.

But five minutes into my forty-minute ride, I knew something was wrong. There weren’t many other cyclists on the street, which was abnormal. I pedaled past an unusual number of babies and children waiting with their guardians to cross the street to the pediatrics unit of Kaiser Permanente. By the time I was two miles into my five-and-a-half-mile ride, I was very short of breath.

For me, an asthmatic episode comes on slowly, straining my breathing and then constricting my chest in the way you might feel right before you start to cry. Yet the instinct to take a deep breath to calm myself and reset leaves me even more scarce for air. In these moments, it is hard not to let your thoughts rush and fear mount, but nerves are far more hurtful than helpful. In fact, it is because my asthma is so well managed that I am unfamiliar with handling the symptoms when they do arise. I am privileged to always have had access to quality healthcare, but my experience is common among children that grew up in Oakland.

I would rather that experiences like this stay rare, but I am not deluded. The effects of climate change are projected to increase prevalence of asthma triggers, like longer pollination seasons and ground-level ozone. As this week’s tragic events in the North Bay attest, fires are another awful face of these threats, driven in part by climate change. Whether it is the asthma attack of a cyclist in Oakland or the tragedy of losing your home in Santa Rosa, the havoc of climate change has come home.

I am proud to be a member of the ERG community. We have the opportunity, and the obligation, to apply our training, knowledge, and skills to this great challenge whose consequences are known too well, both near and far. Today, we also urge you to consider volunteering or donating to support the communities in the North Bay, and throughout California, that have been ravaged by fire this October.

Thanks to Jesse Strecker for his thoughtful comments on an early draft of this post.
Note: The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.


[John Dees, ERG graduate student]

 ERGies at ERGworts (Photo by E. Panzer) 

On April 7, 2017, the 2016 cohort (Newbies!) hosted yet another fantastic annual ERG Talent Show. This year's show really raised the bar, as the young wizards of ERGworts honed their interdisciplinary powers to battle the evil Trumplestiltskin! Amidst the unfolding drama at ERGworts, our department put their full powers on display with live music, acro-yoga, and the return of the famous (from Baghdad to Delhi, via Agra) Bollywood Dance! Special thanks to our cheeky MCs, Emma and Phillippe, who set the tone with their dapper style and bow-ties.


[Christopher Hyun and Emma Tome] 

This is the email that all current ERGies received on election night.

Equity and Inclusion Rally on Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley (C. Hyun)

The students initiated an unanticipated ERG Town Hall the day after the presidential election in the department Reading Room. First-year graduate student, Emma Tome, wrote to all of us, eloquently expressing what many of us were thinking as that night progressed:
RE: Can we talk about this?
     Are we studying solutions to climate change and pressing environmental problems under an illusion of political inevitability?
     I'm writing before the returns come in because part of me hopes that the existence of political rationality is not yet completely foreclosed. But is it the assumption of rationality itself that has led us astray?
     Even if the non-climate change denying candidate manages to win, this remains a wake up call.
     I'm sure there are many think pieces underway that will far better explicate the phenomenon we are witnessing now.
     I'm here with many fellow students at Professor Harte's house. And in between checking competing returns on our phones we are puzzling over what our work in the department means.
     I will be the first to admit that I am new and naive to this work, it being my first term back in school. But this is also why I am asking for your collective guidance.
     Could we hold a town hall about the election in the coming weeks? It's not exactly about the election, but also the politics that underlie and motivate, implicitly or explicitly, the questions we might ask and the arguments we make, and dare I say, change we might achieve.
     Can we talk about this?
Immediately, the ERG community responded and organized a meeting with faculty, staff, students, post-docs, and visiting scholars the following day. We realized that we first needed to acknowledge what was going on in our community. We shared our histories, passions, realities, and concerns. We came out of this understanding that there is much to do within and outside of the scope of our individual academic work, within and outside of ERG, on and for both sides of this divided country. Our conversation still continues on day two and beyond via email, during ERG tea breaks, and butcher paper in the kitchen.

On butcher paper (C. Hyun)

The ERG executive committee of faculty, staff, and students has recognized the urgent need to reinforce and clarify ERG’s stance on inclusion and has put this preliminary affirmation on our homepage:
The mission of the Energy and Resources Group is education and research for a sustainable environment and a just society. ERG actively promotes intellectual, racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion; researches the impacts of equality and inequality; and celebrates diversity in our community.
The use of the word “inclusion” in this affirmation is purposive, so as to maintain space for those who are concerned about a sustainable environment and a just society but who may not often be perceived as a part of “diversity.”

This is in addition to the University of California’s official statement on the results of the presidential election by the UC president and chancellors:
In light of yesterday's election results, we know there is understandable consternation and uncertainty among members of the University of California community. The University of California is proud of being a diverse and welcoming place for students, faculty, and staff with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.  Diversity is central to our mission. We remain absolutely committed to supporting all members of our community and adhering to UC’s Principles Against Intolerance. As the Principles make clear, the University “strives to foster an environment in which all are included” and “all are given an equal opportunity to learn and explore.” The University of California will continue to pursue and protect these principles now and in the future, and urges our students, faculty, staff, and all others associated with the University to do so as well.
We are proud of what the University of California stands for and hope to convey that positive message to others in our state and nation.
Students, staff, professors, post-docs, visiting scholars taking the opportunity to meet during ERG tea (C. Hyun)

At ERG, we continue to meet and strategize during breaks and via email and Facebook. We encourage alumni, faculty affiliates, related programs across campus, California, and the US to reach out to us as well. We hope to have a stronger and more detailed statement ready in the near future and to keep the dialogue going.

In the meantime for more information, please contact an ERGie near you.

Note: The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley. 


[Niklas Lollo, ERG Graduate Student]

It’s my second year in ERG. That may not be a long time, but trust me, I kind of know what I’m doing. Not only do I have a full year of graduate studies under my belt, I’ve been on this campus for going on my eighth year. So when I talk about UC Berkeley, my heart swells with pride and my brain explodes with knowledge. Those are probably why I was chosen to be a peer mentor this year.

Officially, the mentor committee assigned me to Alicia and by golly, I’ve given her some really, really good advice. I always tell her: get involved. Reach out to professors, attend other departmental colloquiums, have meaningful conversations with whomever, wherever, whenever. Explore the bounds of this institution. And definitely apply for every fellowship that might be remotely tangentially related to your interests. Can you shoehorn a background of theoretical physics into a grant studying Chilean farmers? As a mentor, it’s tough to say, but you know what isn’t: You lose 100% of the times you don’t try.

And Alicia has definitely followed that advice, no doubt. Bright future. V bright future. But this post isn’t about her – it is about someone else, another newbie who just oozed go-getter-ness, never-satisfied-ness, knowledge-spongey qualities.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t notice these qualities in him at first. I just thought he was another ERGie coming in, trying to change the world and some-of-that jazz. You know the type: passionate, driven, coordinating complex experiments with institutions across the world. Yeah, they’re great and all (and if you’re reading this, you’re great and all), but I’ve seen it, I know it, I can smell it. They can’t handle the possibility this program provides. They miss out on events and collaborations and relationships each and every day. They refuse to open their eyes and take the roads-not-taken (why don’t they program some model to figure out if that’s even possible? Now there’s a Master’s project).

So this young man, two years my senior, but still eager to listen, to soak up my knowledge, came to me in the break room. I was eating a quinoa salad; he had a PBJ. He asked me something so simple, so basic, “What advice do you have for someone like me?” And I blandly stated, “Get involved.” But I could see the hunger in his eyes (persisting post-PBJ), so I followed it up without words but rather a sustained look, and he knew: emails.

That’s right. At ERG, we receive thousands of listserv emails. Most of us (to borrow a phrase from the wonderful short story, “The Lord of Gmail-ia”) archive their souls without a second thought. A sociology colloquium – who needs Foucault? An article for the Energy Institute – sorry they wrote the same thing last week. BERC’s blast of a billion business opportunities – archived. Actually, deleted. Actually, unsubscribed.

But this newbie did what no one else at ERG has even dreamed of doing. He said yes. And yes and yes and yes. He reworked his schedule, so he could pack his schedule. Within 6 hours, ERG-Events-and-Opportunities fused with his Google Calendar to form a mega-can’t-be-controlled-calendar, overtaking neighbor calendars and even spilling over into Seigi’s (ever the helper). Some poets tell you what’s important is the space around words. Well, there was none in his calendar. Hell, there was no space in his brain, so crammed with deadlines and so packed with ideas he probably wasn’t even ready for.

He took on a few intern undergrads to manage his schedule and knock-out comments to articles, attend events as his surrogates and house visiting scholars for 8 months at-a-time. He AirBnB’ed a room in the East Asian library to not miss a moment of action. He applied for a job at the Stockholm Environment Institute. He got it; he took it. He also took the CPUC internship. He also took the PGE job. It’s not corrupt; it’s being a yes-person.

After a week or so, to some observers in the halls of ERG, he looked spent. To cite their biased evidence: he hadn’t showered in days (hey, no one sends emails about showering). His one pair of jeans had become ragged; his only shirt had disintegrated into a mesh net. His breath reeked of too many tuna sandwiches; his beard hoarded crumbs from those same sandwiches, and his left shoe was a bag of chips. His left hand clutched a pamphlet from a campus Socialist organization. In his right rested a notebook covered with scribbles on top of scribbles on top of mental maps and math equations and email addresses. Kay and Megan could be seen sending email whispers back-and-forth about his health. Others noticed, said nothing, judged.

But no, I thought, this guy gets it. Look, eventually he’ll stabilize. He’ll get a few more URAPs to take a load off. But really, if you’re going to come to an interdisciplinary department to get an “interdisciplinary” education, you need to get between and around and within the disciplines, wear 57 “hats,” maybe even go transdisciplinary. It’s hard to prescribe exactly, but all the emails we get are our interdisciplinary lifeblood. It’s time we started treating blood the same as energy and resources.

I know I’ve been on this campus awhile and may be too eager for the revolutionary departmental shake-up that Chancellor Dirks had envisioned. So maybe I shouldn’t use my mentor position to pursue dreams, but most of us remember when Dick Norgaard would say each year to the incoming cohort, “Berkeley is less than the sum of its parts.” Well, dammit, it’s high-time someone sacrificed for that golden aim. Someone has got to be the bridge; someone has got to generate the web. No one is an island, but maybe you can be a network. What else are we going to do with all those damn emails?


[John Dees, ERG graduate student]

In April 2016, the annual ERG Talent Show was back, with more of the unparalleled talents of the ERG students, alumni, and staff! This year's lineup had star-power galore. Those in attendance were treated to an inspiring stump speech from a major political figure, not to mention--Comedy! Music! Poetry! Fashion! Bollywood! And we closed it all out with a David Bowie revival from the ERG first years (2015 Newbies)! Eat your heart out Grammy Awards!


[Laney Siegner, ERG graduate student]

Food on the Galapagos: Local ingredients and local volcanic soil

A quick summary of my recent trip to the Galapagos could read like a line from Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction”: coffee liqueur, rich dark chocolate, and passion fruit pie—showering under waterfalls in the jungle, perfumed tropical flowers in my hair. These phrases conjure up idyllic imagery but obscure much more than they reveal. My journey “behind the scenes” of Galapagos' agricultural activities led to revelations about the difficult realities facing many small island farmers.

Galapagos Islands (red box), off the coast of continental Ecuador

Fresh fruit rotting on the ground, excess vegetables lying uneaten on farms or fed to animals, costs of transport outweighing profits to be gained in local markets—these are a few of the challenges facing a declining agricultural sector on the Galapagos. Despite efforts by local organizations such as Conservation International, the Charles Darwin Foundation, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries (MAGAP) to increase and revitalize local food production, many galapagüeños are leaving the agricultural fields of the highlands in favor of better-paying jobs in the tourism industry of coastal port towns.

Saturday Market, 6:30 am

Agricultural activity has been increasing in recent years, but certainly is no longer at the levels seen before the boats started providing regular food production from the mainland. Boats arrive in the islands weekly (for the most part), bearing produce from continental Ecuador 1000 km away, supplying about 80% of local food consumption, and lowering prices due to higher production levels on mainland farms. With the prohibitively high cost of transport to the markets ($15 for the 20 km drive), local farmers are often forced to let their produce go to waste as it won’t produce sufficient returns to justify this up-front cost. Better communication and union, called for by Jose Angel Ortiz, might help solve this problem if neighboring farmers pool resources to buy an old truck for transporting produce to market. However, in a region where many neighboring farms are recently abandoned, this is not always possible.

​​Checking out Angel Ortiz's tomato plants

Besides being dependent on food imports from the mainland, the Galapagos are also dependent on petroleum imports for energy production. The Interpretation Center on San Cristobal Island declares a goal of 100% fossil-free energy production by 2017. The islands, however, are far from reaching this goal, having missed their 50% renewables goal by 2010. There is little evidence of renewable energy generation on the islands; other than three windmills at the top of a hill on San Cristobal and solar panels at the Giant Tortoise Birthing Center and Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz. Twenty-four hour electricity service, powered by petroleum products, is a relatively recent occurrence on the four inhabited islands, and service doesn’t fully extend to all of the farms in the highlands.

There are, however, signs of hope for scaling up island food and energy self-sufficiency. On March 19th, there was a cheering promotion of local food consumption at the Galapagos Earth Hour celebration; part of an international network of such events held in over 150 countries. Earth Hour, which lasts from 8:30pm to 9:30pm, is a call to action for communities to turn off the lights and look inwards for solutions to addressing climate change. The Galapagos chose to highlight local food production as their “local solution,” bringing producers and consumers together for a night of cooking competitions, taste tests, and trivia celebrating the 80+ local food products on the islands. From seafood to tropical fruits, from the mundane yucca root to the exalted cacao, it was a night of food diversity and appreciation.

Entries in the local cooking competition at Earth Hour Galapagos (3/19/16)

David Ibarra’s Waterfront Inn restaurant is another sign of hope on Santa Cruz. After noticing the local produce highlighted on a restaurant menu in Puerto Ayora, my sister, Katie, and I asked some employees about the chef. We were directed to David at his new restaurant across the bay. We hopped in a water taxi and found that David was in an “important meeting” when we arrived, but he invited us back for dinner the following night. We showed up Friday night for an amazing locally sourced meal that would put any San Francisco farm to table restaurant to shame.

When he finished cooking, David came out to talk to us about the extensive contacts he’s made among island farmers and fishermen since arriving a little over a year ago. Inviting us to continue the conversation at a popular local bar, he went on at length about his views on the value of sourcing food from local farmers. He has big plans to increase local consumption through his “Cocinas de Evolución” project, a cooking class that infuses local ingredients into fancy French and European cooking methods popular worldwide.

Katie and Laney at Milton's farm, Finca de Guadalupe​

Milton Aguas’ eco-farm on San Cristobal, La Finca de Guadalupe, is a final example of inspiration from our island-hopping food tour. We traveled with Milton and his wife Norma to their farm. It was a bumpy ride down unpaved and washed-out roads.We braved the bugs of the jungle to hike to their waterfall-shower and sweated through the process of pressing sugar canes into juice by hand. We made dinner of freshly harvested coconut milk and herbs over fish with rice and fried plantains. Afterwards, we processed coffee beans and made passion fruit juice until past midnight. "Fresh fruit doesn’t wait," Norma reminded us.

Coffee project demonstration

Milton shared stories of volunteer groups and university students that have come to the farm to help out and learn from his sustainable agriculture practices. Milton would like to make the farm completely “clean” and self-sufficient by generating his own electricity and processing sugar cane into biofuels. (A future ERGie project or group community service trip, perhaps?! Sugar cane biofuel production on Milton’s farm – Spring Break 2017!) Those who love coffee as much as I do are almost obligated to come: the volcanic, earthy flavor of his coffee is truly “único en el mundo,” like drinking from a river of gold, in Milton’s poetic Spanish phrasing.

My journey to the Galapagos was an eye-opening encounter with interesting plants and people. It was not always comfortable or "Edenic," but rather showed signs of struggle for local sovereignty and sustainability. Investigating local food production on small islands may often be this way, and now I know a little more about where the "farm" in "farm to table" is coming from.

Katie and Laney pressing sugar cane into juice on the Galapagos


 [Cecilia Han Springer, ERG graduate student] 

“What our students found was pretty shocking. In just a few short weeks, and without fancy statistics, they were able to highlight some major diversity-related problems on campus.” 

ERG students, in collaboration with groups across Cal, start a new data science course focused on diversity. ERG grad student, Cecilia Han Springer, shares their fascinating results and how they made this happen. For more information, please go to http://datadiversity.berkeley.edu.

Cecilia and Pierce at the Synberc's Expanding Potential Workshop

Our course started as a fledgling idea talked about in the ERG Reading Room. Before we knew it, Pierce and I were presenting before dozens of inspiring change-makers from all over the country. We never knew that our Data and Diversity project would go so far. 

Why data and diversity?

The first seeds of the Data and Diversity project were sown in an ERG Student Diversity Committee meeting. We were discussing the idea of “quantitative privilege,” wherein attention and funding tend to flow towards those who possess more quantitative skills and focus on quantitative methods.

Unfortunately, though, fluency with quantitative concepts often falls along lines of race, gender, and other identities, based on entrenched societal norms that affect students early on in their schooling. By graduate school, this disparity was already clear to us. Thus we asked the question: could we do anything to shore up these leaks earlier in the educational pipeline? Could we make sure that people of all backgrounds and identities feel comfortable with quantitative skills?

Around this time, Synberc announced a call for Seed Projects focused on increasing diversity in STEM fields, and it was clear to us that we might be able to do something impactful. We focused on data science for two reasons. First, it is a critical skill for both interdisciplinary and STEM research. Second, for better or for worse, quantitative data is very persuasive, and we thought we could use it to bring attention to diversity issues on campus.

Pierce leading a design thinking session

We began brainstorming about new ways to teach data science to a diverse group of undergraduates. Introductory computer science classes can be intimidating, and we saw the need to create a collaborative classroom environment that would foster diverse perspectives instead of intimidating them out of the pipeline. We also wanted to promote hands-on learning through analyzing data on diversity here at UC Berkeley, using new and innovative sources of data.

Each graduate student brought some unique skill to the class.

That was last spring in 2015. We worked all summer to design the class, with Yang Ruan (MS/MPP ‘15) building us a web platform and helping us choose a thought-provoking reading list. Current ERGies Grace Wu, Michaelangelo Tabone, and Pierce Gordon talked to groups all over campus — from the Berkeley Center for New Media to the Office of Faculty Equity and Welfare — to get their input on how to design the class. We recruited graduate students from Physics (Jesse Livezey), Integrated Biology (Dax Vivid), and ESPM (Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes) to help us mentor the students who would ultimately take the class. Each graduate student brought some unique skill to the class — from experience teaching Python to Pierce’s design thinking sills.

Ultimately, the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS) and the Berkeley Division of Equity and Inclusion (E&I) were happy to work with us as clients for the students’ data analysis projects. Anthony Suen, the Data Science Fellow from BIDS, was interested in promoting diversity and inclusivity for BIDS programs across campus, while E&I’s research analyst Andrew Eppig advised us on Cal diversity data sources and analysis.

The class

Our first class begins!

With seven extraordinarily bright undergraduates from a wide range of backgrounds signed up for the class, we started with the basic building blocks of data analysis using Python. Later we taught intros to data scraping and data visualization. Critical to the course, as well, was holding discussion sections on various themes around diversity, including microaggressions, stereotype threat, and unconscious bias. The Geoff Marcy scandal in the middle of the semester provoked a heated discussion on gender in STEM fields.

Once we laid these foundations, we drew from the field of design thinking to have brainstorming sessions on project ideas to apply our data and diversity skills to issues on campus. We went through several rounds of brainstorming — and hundreds of post-it notes — to generate as many creative and diverse ideas as possible. We then narrowed our ideas down to match the issues students cared about to the tools and data they had access to within the time we had in class.

Student presentation

What our students found was pretty shocking.

Toward the end of the semester, we let the students use class time to work on the projects they chose:
(1) the effect of “weeder” courses on diversity in STEM classes and
(2) where female applicants are leaking out of the faculty hiring pipeline.
What our students found was pretty shocking. In just a few short weeks, and without fancy statistics, they were able to highlight some major diversity-related problems on campus.

Student Project 1: Student diversity and “weeder” courses

The group analyzing weeder courses developed a list of criteria to identify the most notorious STEM weeder classes at Cal. They then used both the quantitative analysis of enrollment data and qualitative interviews to paint a stark picture of how weeder courses flatten diversity. Female underrepresented minorities suffered the greatest dropout rates while male non-underrepresented minorities had the lowest dropout rates — a trend that was consistent across all the weeder courses they analyzed.

They hypothesized that students from underrepresented backgrounds, in addition to being a visible minority in classes, also encountered a strong difference in prior experience with the subject as well as experience taking advantage of resources on campus (office hours, tutoring, etc.). To counter this problem, our students proposed miniintroductory STEM courses, a well-developed resource on finding fellow minorities in STEM courses, and increased diversity amongst GSIs.

"Weeder" course project graphs

Student Project 2: Gender and faculty

The group doing the gender and faculty analysis had similarly salient results. In developing their research question, they quickly found data to show that bias in hiring practices is NOT what is driving the gender disparity in faculty positions, as they had initially hypothesized. Rather, they saw a major difference in the number of female Ph.D. candidates graduating each year and the number of female applicants for faculty positions.

Women were self-selecting out of the academic pipeline. Our students designed a survey to find out why and sent it out to graduate departments across campus. They pulled in an impressive 478 responses, which they then analyzed qualitatively and quantitatively. They disaggregated responses by self-reported gender.

Gender and faculty graph

They found that, even when men and women expressed the same amount of dissatisfaction with a certain aspect of academia, many fewer women within that group intended to pursue a career in academia. Women reported higher dissatisfaction in the following areas: failure to connect with peers, lack of confidence, fear of consequences of having children, lack of representation in graduate school, stress, and unfair salary compensation.

Gender and faculty diagrams

The students’ research was well received.

Synberc, BIDS, the Division of Equity and Inclusion, and others who attended their final presentations were quite pleased with the work by our students. The faculty and gender study group went on to present their results at the Expanding Potential conference organized by Synberc in a presentation and a poster. Pierce and I also presented general lessons from the class at the conference.

The weeder courses study group is continuing to work with BIDS. At the Expanding Potential conference, Pierce also ran a design thinking workshop to get conference attendees to apply our methods to analyze diversity issues in their own institutions. The workshop was a great demonstration of how our class could be scaled to different settings.

Pierce at the design thinking workshop

We all learned a lot from running the course. We tackled a massive range of topics and methods, and while we may not have knocked every single one out of the ballpark, the stellar reception that the students’ projects received indicated some holistic level of success.

Still, if we do it again, we want to do it better.

It turns out that our original goals and our sub-goals flipped over the course of the semester. We originally focused on teaching data science, however, the diversity data projects ended up becoming the highlight because of how much our students were interested in them. From the feedback they gave us, students generally felt that readings and discussions were covered well, but the programming sessions could have been better planned. In the future, we intend to teach the data section better without sacrificing any of the perspective gained from exploring diversity issues in our discussions.

Do you want to be a part of the next round of Data and Diversity?

Or, do you want the course materials and syllabus for your own organization? If so, let us know! We’re in the midst of figuring out next steps and new ideas for the course, such as pairing students with private sector clients to analyze diversity within companies. We welcome your time, energy, and ideas!

Please email Cecilia.h.springer@berkeley.edu if you want to get involved.

Special thanks to all those mentioned in the article who helped with the course, as well as Shaila Kotadia and Kevin Costa at Synberc, and Duncan Callaway, our faculty sponsor at ERG.


[Britt Shaw, ERG graduate student]  

ERG grad student, Britt Shaw, explains how she built a graywater system and turned "gray" into "gold."

When I first laid eyes on our spacious, but bone-dry backyard, my mind was filled with big ideas – the kind you see in those summer hardware store commercials with smiley DIYers. I dreamt of a garden, and my housemates were also sold on the idea of creating one that we’d sit out and read in, eat from, and enjoy. My only hurdle in this grand effort (other than precious free time) would be water.

Our "bone-dry backyard"


Part 1: The Drought and the Renter

Even with native, drought-resistant plant varietals and efficient drip irrigation, a medium-sized edible and floral garden would require a major increase in water use from our baseline — particularly when considering that our outdoor usage back in August was for about 10 small-potted plants. With the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) goal of reducing demand by 20% from 2013 usage and institution of Stage 4 drought surcharges, my first thought was to see where we might cut down our water usage in the home so that we could shift that usage to the garden.

However, I soon found that my housemates were already pretty sparing with water and even saved some graywater from the kitchen in a container to water their potted plants. Then, I ran my first load of laundry at the house… bingo — so much useful graywater being wasted!

We have an older, inefficient washer with a wastewater hose that drains straight into a laundry sink next to it. I would venture that our top-loading washer uses an average of 30 gallons of water per normal size load of laundry through the wash and rinse cycles.

Eyesore or gray gold?! (Author's photo)

Now, you may have the same idea I did: “If the landlord were willing to replace this washer/dryer with more energy- and water-efficient models, we’d save resources and money” (we pay for water as well as gas and electricity).  But, alas, that was not an option for us. So, in lieu of that, I decided to design a graywater system to channel all that wasted water out to the garden without displacing any sheet rock nor otherwise involving my landlord.

A note on El Niño:  Yes, Californians, it’s raining more often this winter (and snowing!), and that is a glorious turn of events.  However, as EBMUD reported, though average precipitation in the utility district was 126% of “normal” as of December 23, the total system storage (EBMUD reservoirs) is still at only 46% of capacity.  Through this wet winter, I won’t likely be using much of our laundry graywater. Those hipster-beloved potted succulents can drown, especially without proper soil drainage, people – move ‘em someplace drier or lose ‘em. When the storm season ends, our little backyard reservoir will become pretty essential again.

Part 2: Build, Own, Operate

There are many designs for super efficient, low user effort graywater systems that are integrated into the plumbing of a building. These require some holes in the wall, plumbing work, plumbing know-how (not in my wheelhouse… yet), a permit from the city of Berkeley, and patching or rebuilding of interior and exterior wall sections. This may be a great option for homeowners but isn’t always an option for renters with little to no income.

My goal was to make the least expensive, least invasive (construction-wise) graywater system possible that would still sustain a small edible garden and drought resistant shrubs, flowers, and ground cover. Conveniently, Berkeley does not require a permit for graywater systems using laundry exhaust water nor other electric pumps. (See“laundry to landscape.”)

Step 1: Assemble parts for graywater bin – Trash bin, EarthMinded DIY Rain Barrel Diverter and Parts Kit
I picked my simple system design based on some web research, a low budget, and advice from a very helpful employee at Orchard Supply (thanks, Willy!).  I bought a 32-gallon animal-proof trash bin (more secure lid) with no wheels, and therefore no holes in the bottom of the bin. This is the cheapest way I found to make a safe storage vessel for the graywater. That is, it’s “safe” as long as it doesn't sit around in the bin in the sun long enough to grow scary bacteria.

I also bought a kit, which included some circular saws for a power drill, a spigot, a rubber stopper, a plastic hose, and a sticker telling me not to drink the water.  You could assemble this kit at a hardware store for way less than the kit’s price tag ($27), but I was lazy and a “noob.”

DIY Rain Barrel Diverter and Parts Kit

I drilled three circular holes into the bin and attached:
  1. a long plastic hose to attach to the washer drain-spout,
  2. a small stopper to let out water at the bottom of the bin when necessary, and
  3. a spigot, sized for a garden hose about a foot from the bottom of the bin 

Step 2: Drill holes and screw in attachments. Ta-da! It’s really that easy.

Now to get the water to the bin without carrying it in buckets, I bought a long (8 foot) plastic hose to connect the washer hose to the trash bin. The washer and wastewater hose is conveniently located next to the window that can be seen just above the bin in the first picture in the “Step 1: assembly” set.  Because I can’t drill through my exterior walls to make this hose connection permanent, I’m going to run the hose through the open window and connect it to the bin only when we are washing clothes. Yes, it certainly does require more effort than the integrated graywater plumbing system shown below, but for those on a tight budget with uninterested landlords, it works!

Example of  an integrated, untreated graywater system for irrigation. (Source: Crook, J. and Rimer, A.E. (2009) “Technical Memorandum on Graywater”, Black and Veatch Technical Report, p. 4.)

To make this design work better for me, I bought a small-wheeled dolly that the bin will sit atop, so that I can roll it from the window to the edge of the back deck where I will attach the drip irrigation lines and water the plants. Because there will be a five foot drop from the spigot to the ground, where I’ll be growing veggies and herbs in planter boxes and non-edible drought-resistant plants, there should be enough downward gravitational force to draw the water from the bin to the plants without any additional energy input. (This is perhaps a good back-of-the-envelope problem for another time.)

Drip irrigation systems are more efficient than watering plants with a regular garden hose. Tiny spigots along the plastic drip irrigation hosing feed water more slowly down to the roots of a plant. This is opposed to spreading water thinly across exposed soil and leaves only to have a large proportion evaporate before reaching the roots. You can also purchase timers to turn on water at specific times of the day (before 9am or after 6pm, for example), or while you are away from the home.  I haven’t yet built my planter boxes, so the drip set-up is still under construction, but I’ll be using the remaining winter months to prep the soil and planters for early spring sowing.

Part 3: Is it safe?

Common sense and the sticker on my graywater bin tell me that I probably shouldn’t drink this water. But, can I eat what it helps me grow?  My goal in this project was not only to create a cheap graywater system that would produce enough water for my garden, but also one that would yield safe water for my edible plants.  There were three potential problems I foresaw with our laundry graywater:
  1. chemicals from laundry soap that might be harmful
  2. high alkalinity (because soap is typically alkaline or basic)
  3. clothing fibers, especially synthetics

The issue of chemicals was a relatively easy problem to begin tackling. I already use graywater-safe laundry detergent and my housemates are willing to switch brands, which cuts out many of the non-natural cleaning chemicals that would concern me. Still, I read up a little more on my detergent’s ingredient list (see below) and found some information on the natural surfactants (or dirt-lifters) derived from coconuts and other “natural” sources. While these plant-derived surfactants are more environmentally friendly than the commonly used surfactants, i.e. sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), the key ingredient listed on my detergent, “Plant Based Surfactants (Coconut),” is pretty darn vague.

Companies aren’t currently required to explain the composition of these surfactants on the label. Without more information on which chemicals make up the surfactant, it’s hard to know whether it is safe to put on the plants and indirectly ingest.  That said, I’m pushing forward knowing that my body is already taking in whatever is in my soap through my skin. If you are interested in graywater safe cleaning products, check out the Ecology Center’s page on the subject here.

Trader Joe's Biodegradable Laundry Soap ingredients label. Several of the ingredients are vaguely defined (surfactants, fabric softener, and optical brightener). I plan to research further whether this will have an impact on my food quality.  (Author’s photo)

As for graywater acidity/alkalinity, I anticipated that my graywater, which contains soap and clothing fibers, would be basic on the pH scale (i.e. greater than 7.0). In addition, our machine spits out water in three different bursts: post-wash cycle, post-rinse cycle, and post spin cycle.  By doing a little experiment with the graywater, I thought I might be able to determine if I should only be reserving water for the plants from one or two of the laundry cycles instead of all wash wastewater. I decided to take separate samples from each of these three water output cycles and test them for pH and total dissolved solids (TDS).

Three water samples from the laundry cycles in covered containers (Author’s photo)
My chemistry knowledge was very rusty for this endeavor, so I had forgotten that a TDS meter measures the amount of ions in a solution, including salts, minerals and metals in parts per million (ppm). Thanks to Chris Hyun for clearing things up for me! I would have liked to measure the amount of clothing fibers and other solids in the graywater, which would have been Total Suspended Solids (TSS), but unfortunately was not able to access the equipment to test for TSS.

Given that, I’ll just mention that clothing fibers and various solids from my dirty laundry will end up in the soil. I anticipate that most will settle at the bottom of the barrel, making it easy to clear them out periodically, but it may be prudent for me to add a mesh cloth over the entry to the spigot to filter out larger particles from the solution before it enters my narrow drip hosing.

I was lucky enough to have one of my housemates test the pH of the samples in her climate controlled molecular biology lab with fancier equipment on campus, so I’m fairly confident about those values.  My hypothesis was that the post-wash cycle would yield the most alkaline liquid (thinking that more soap would come out after the wash cycle than the rinse and spin cycles). I also hypothesized that the post-spin cycle liquid would have the highest TDS content.

This is what my digital TDS meter looks like - it is accurate to 3 significant figures and was rinsed with lab grade distilled water between readings. (Author’s photo)

Cycle type in order
TDS (parts per million)
Post-Wash Cycle
Post-Rinse Cycle
Post-Spin Cycle

I was delighted to find that the pH levels of my graywater would be safe to use on the plants, and that they won’t likely have a large impact on the soil pH for the roots.

Contrary to my hypothesis, the pH values for the samples were in fact slightly acidic until the spin cycle.  Another lazy science admission: I hadn’t measured the pH of my tap water to see what the acidity of the effluent would be without soap and soiled clothing (ugh, silly me!). It’s highly unlikely that the city water entering my washer is perfectly neutral, so that could have been a factor. In addition, I think the post-wash and post-rinse cycles may have been slightly acidic because sweat and some other human body fluids tend to be acidic (see here for an interesting study on pH changes in thermal induced sweat versus hormonal induced sweat).

As I found in my quick research on optimal soil pH for various plants, the edible plants I’ll grow (tomatoes, green beans and lettuce, to name a few) “prefer” soil pH levels in the range of 5.5-7.0.  I can adjust the soil pH if needed by adding rock powders, sulfur or limestone, but am hoping I won’t need to.

The TDS readings were also a relief to see, since they translate to about 37 milligrams of dissolved solids per kilogram of water. This means that there is a low number of ions in the solution (including salts and minerals from the soap and soiled clothing), and I anticipate that they will have negligible effects on the soil.

From this little experiment, I have concluded that it will be reasonably safe to use the wastewater from the entire wash process in my plants.

In the spring, I hope to follow this up with a check in on how the plants have fared with graywater (which I’ll gauge by having a control area watered with potable city drinking water and rainwater).  I also hope to find a way to run tests on any toxins that may be in my homegrown vegetables, perhaps at the College of Natural Resources’ Oxford Tract. Stay tuned!


[Christopher Hyun, ERG PhD student] 

At times it’s difficult to explain the ERG student experience -- even to other grad students at Berkeley. But it’s not so different from other grad students when you think of it in terms of “the Force.”

That's what happens when you don't use the Force in grad school! Or is it? (Kristina Alexanderson)

It’s my first year as an ERG Ph.D. student but my third year as an ERGie, so I’ve already gone through a lot of the initial Ph.D. student anxieties: imposter syndrome, adjusting to working beyond a 9-to-5 schedule, and pretending not to worry about grades since “grades don’t matter in grad school.”

However, when you shift from the Master’s program to the Ph.D., there is a shift from structure and requirements to one of striking it on your own and making your own research decisions. I not only ask myself “What is my research question?” but also “How will I answer it?” and “When?”

It feels somewhat like working on a spaceship, learning all the technical details to fixing the ship from the inside out, and then... untethering. I think I feel like this because there’s a sense that I don’t know enough to figure things out on my own. However, my advisor reassures me that I still have time.

I’m going to geek out here (too late, I’m already in the middle of a Ph.D. program). In my own convoluted way, the relationship between a professor and a Ph.D. student seems somewhat like the Jedi Master-Padawan relationship from Star Wars. In fact, to me, grad school seems like the closest thing in the U.S. we have to a Jedi-like phenomenon.

Getting accepted to a Ph.D. program is equivalent to professors saying, “The Force is strong with you.” Then, you connect with your Jedi Master/advisor. From there, they train you in “the ways of the Force.”

I’m not the only one recognizing the connection. Jorge Cham of PhD comics recently put this out:

As I consider this further, there are so many more parallels here. I, the Padawan, have been trained in many tools (and at ERG they get pretty diverse): maneuvering through the asteroid belt that is the institutional review board (IRB), extracting information from people on the field through interviews and participant observation, steering the ship of R programming, feeling my way through regression models and principal component analysis (PCA), and reading through applications for the new Jedi Masters of ERG.

There have been more than a few times when my advisors have asked me: “What do your intuitions tell you?” If that’s not Jedi Master talk, then I don’t know what is.

During the Ph.D., one is to go to the edge of what is known and figure out ways to get beyond it. This unclear, fuzzy world of the beyond is our “dark side.” We shouldn’t give in to ignorance and the complacency of not knowing. Into the wee hours of the night we code, make graphs, organize our Mendeley reference files, and take those final readings.

I recently completed my first stab at PCA on data I have been collecting for the past two years. I now have pretty graphs telling me that my intuitions may have been... somewhat off. This is when I think, “Damn it. The Force is NOT strong with me.”

Will I ever become a Jedi Master?

Well, actually, knowing when your analysis gives you a null result is a huge part of understanding the Force -- though academic journals may not readily acknowledge this.

So in a sense, I AM using the Force and overcoming the dark side! I WILL become a Jedi Master! I think.

Now on to a more pressing question: When do I get my lightsaber?

(Image source: JD Hancock)

Note: The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.


[by Jessica Reilly, ERG Ph.D. student] 

“We need to jibe now!” I yell as an animal the size of our 39-foot sailboat crashes into the water a few feet off our starboard beam.

ERG graduate student Jess Reilly and partner Josh Moman aboard their research sailboat, Oleada

We’re sailing in open water in the Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. The wind is blowing a steady twenty knots out of the north, and the boat surfs down rolling five foot ocean swells. But a frisky humpback whale just moved two-thirds of its 70,000 pounds out of the water and into the air—a dumbfounding event that also spells trouble for our boat in the middle of the sea. Crashing with a distracted whale flying through the air is one of our many potential dangers out here.

My partner Josh and I manage to quickly jibe (move the sails from one side of the boat to the other with the wind at our back,) and skirt the breaching whale. We are on our way to Isla Cedros, about halfway down the Baja peninsula. After sailing through the night, we finally “drop the hook” (set our anchor) on the island’s rugged east side.

A view from an unnamed canyon on Isla Cedros back to our boat, Oleada. The name means wave, swell, or uprising

As we sit in the cockpit in the sun, a bright yellow panga motors into view from the north. A panga is an open boat with an outboard engine, designed by Yamaha in the 1960s to give fishermen access to shallow water while still tough enough to ride over ocean chop. The panga before us is piled four-deep with lobster traps. The fisherman standing at the back motors over and we start to chat.

I learn that this man, Eduardo, has fished here seasonally for twenty-seven years. The racket of elephant seals barking and screaming on the island continues, and Eduardo comments that this is the first year that the elephant seals have come to this part of the island. His style is thoughtful, pensive.

A curious visitor to the boat on Cedros

Since he has seen this island and its changes for a while, my interest is piqued. Without any leading words like “weather” or “climate,” I ask, is it different now here, or the same?

He turns his eyes to the sky and purses his lips, carefully considering my question. I lean forward.

Narrowing his eyes, he replies, “Different.”

“There are far fewer lobster now,” he says. “This year, from the effects of El Niño, the water is warmer, which is good for lobster, but generally there are far fewer now.”

His gaze stretches to the shore as he speaks, sifting through his memory. “Much has changed,” he continues. “For example, in 1997, there were three kinds of abalone: white, red, and black. That winter we had an El Niño, and the black—they disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” I respond, surprised.

“Completely,” he answers.

We chat more about life on the island, then he putters slowly away. With only a few simple questions, this man tied to the cycles of climate and weather recalled the changes to which he needed to adapt.

Pangas anchored in the harbor at the only town on Isla Cedro

So what happened to the black abalone? To Eduardo, the abalone disappeared because of El Niño, the weather phenomenon created by warmer-than-usual water in the Pacific at the equator. Peruvian fishermen noticed the warm water around Christmas in the late 1800s, thus naming it “El Niño” after the baby Jesus. In 1997, El Niño was credited with disastrous hurricanes in the Pacific and a horrendous winter for northeastern North America, among other weather challenges.

El Niño is a natural phenomenon, but climate change drives the frequency and severity of El Niños. Here’s how this works: the ocean is a lot of water (H2O), absorbed carbon dioxide (CO2) and heat (energy!), and it has been absorbing over 90% of the extra carbon dioxide and heat we humans have added to the atmosphere since 1955 (we went from 280 parts per million of CO2 to 401 ppm today.) If you add heat and/or carbon dioxide to water, it expands. When we're talking about a lot of water, like the Pacific, the heat becomes energy in the form of currents, eddies, and storms.

Hurricanes gain strength with the constant heat and moisture from open water, and they start to lose their energy once over land, in part because they can no longer draw warmth (energy) from the ocean. The hurricane season therefore ends as the water cools for the winter in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. But El Niño keeps the water warmer longer in the Pacific, and this has a global weather (energy) impact.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, declared in April that El Niño is officially here for 2015—although Eduardo could have told us that back in December, because he was seeing more lobsters and fewer big fish. Back in 1997, he also knew the fishery was different and the water was warmer, and, it seemed to him, a permanent change occurred as the result of that difference.

If you look up the cause of the mortality of the black abalone, you find Withering syndrome, a bacterial infection that causes the foot of the abalone to shrink, thus making it unable to cling to a rock. For this reason, the black abalone is globally listed as critically endangered. So was it just coincidental that they disappeared from Cedros during El Niño?

The magically iridescent interior of a red abalone, a species still harvested in Baja

As with many diagnoses, the answer is more complex than one cause. Black abalone can live in harmony with this bacteria—it doesn’t affect them. However, as soon as the water warms up even a little bit, they are overcome by this bacteria. Therefore, the abalone at Cedros may have been living with the bacteria, but a rise in ocean water temperature—less than four degrees Farenheit—brought about their collapse. Like a murder mystery, the bacteria is the smoking gun, but it was El Niño that pulled the trigger—and Eduardo lives in the neighborhood and can testify as a witness.

Scientists are calling this year’s El Niño “Godzilla,” and compare it to 1997. Already record number and intensity of hurricanes have occurred in the Pacific as the water warms. These changes impact not only the small abalone or the individual fishers like Eduardo, but the largest mammals ever to live on earth: whales. In warmer, nutrient-poor water, whales, like the one we saw breaching in the Pacific, struggle to find enough food. Whether or not we see them, the whales still exist under the surface, adapting or suffering with change.

From CPC

Much of the time, changes in climate are hidden from everyday view and our lives continue without a breach. But once in a while, these changes explode to the surface to disrupt our view, crashing down with an enormous splash. Indications of these changes are lived and breathed by Eduardo and others who live tied to the coast. We can listen to their observations and take heed of their accounts of the sudden or long-term change. We can learn how to adapt nimbly and with care for our resources. But we must always be on deck to scan the horizon for these events. Eduardo is standing watch at the helm—we just have to listen.

Although I didn’t get a photo of Eduardo, I caught this shot of Don Jose in La Paz. He’s a lifelong fisherman who used to fish by sail. His stories of changes over time have real meaning for the scientific community

For more on Jessica's posts on the sea, go to her personal website Sailing for Climate here.

Note: The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.

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