[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.


[Niklas Lollo, ERG graduate student]

One of my very first ERG experiences was a colloquium in spring 2014. On stage was a towering fellow I had met once before by the name of Joe Kantenbacher, PhD. His talk: It’s about time: Linking happiness and the pursuit of sustainability, struck all the right chords in my heart. I had been very focused on work-life balance in what little time I’d had to either work or live. (I’m a spritely 25 year-old!) There’s compelling evidence that life balance has many ancillary benefits, including for your heart, your family, your community and the environment.

Not surprisingly, I have followed the work of Juliet Schor and Giorgios Kallis, both major academic advocates of worktime reduction, for years. Last year, I worked on a campaign that helped pass a flexible worktime policy in the city of Berkeley. In my free time, I swoon over the workplace policies in Europe.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that this semester has been wildly different from my romantic pre-conceived visions coated with naïveté.
With this in mind, I entered graduate school thinking it would be the serene experience I had romanticized for years: I would blend rigor and pursuit of my passion within a nurturing environment that understands the beauty of balance.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that this semester has been wildly different from my romantic pre-conceived visions coated with naïveté.

The beginning of the semester launched me into the wild west of selecting classes, going to different lab groups, talking to professors across campus, picking up skills at the D Lab, plotting student groups, toying with the idea of clubs, fiddling with photography, meeting new friends, doing course readings… the list stretches and tumbles. The dust will settle… I was told.

Except that, when the dust settled, rather than finding a field of daisies, before me was a valley of fires. Every task surged with urgency—learning R was no longer one of many programs to mess around with, it was THE one and I needed to do THE analysis right NOW. And the problem sets kept piling, the tasks kept stacking, the bureaucracy kept flowing… until the mother of all stress-inducing activities reared its grotesque, warted head: the NSF GRFP fellowship application.

...I began to wonder (perhaps the first time all semester I was permitted to wonder so freely), what is the nature of this stress? Will it ever end? What might be its functional form?
It was precisely a week ago, as I sat on a plane whipping across fourteen time zones safely freed from my laptop and internet, that I began to wonder (perhaps the first time all semester I was permitted to wonder so freely), what is the nature of this stress? Will it ever end? What might be its functional form?

Full disclaimer: This activity of modeling stress in this blog isn’t entirely removed from the Willy Wonka’s everlasting task-list I describe above—I am in John Harte’s modeling class and we are strongly encouraged to write for this blog.

My first impulse was, Aha! It’s the logistic. So, I drew upon Core Model #2 which is a carrying capacity model. The per capita stress rate depends on the carrying capacity of stress, which is moderated by the physical capacity of projects you could take on. If X were stress and K were carrying capacity of stress (projects), the equation would look like:


Which is represented by the graph…

So, you see that over time stress reaches a maximum (your limit) and then coasts. This appears reasonable, until I thought, Hey, what about when projects are done? Stress must decrease at that point. To which fellow newbie ERGie, Dan Aas, listening nearby to my thought process, noted, “Maybe it’s sinusoidal.” Which would graphically look like a perfectly wiggled snake.
In order to graph this movement, I figured I might shift to Core Model #4. I wondered if this phenomenon wouldn’t be better modeled as a Lotka-Volterra set of equations. Stress would be the predator (Y) and tasks would be the prey (X).

dX/dt = aX – bXY
dY/dt = cXY – dY

Since the project population tends to experience perturbations from external forces (such as: professors slipping a task or two your way on Friday afternoon), a stability analysis might be able to tell us new information about the resilience of the stress-task ecosystem. I specified the equations (you’ll have to trust me on the math here), and the eigenvalues were both > 0… which looks like this…

Which partially makes sense, the projects do tend to increase in importance over the course of time, but I don’t imagine relaxation also increases with each periodic cycle. Maybe if the periods were semesters, but that resembles a tangent function with vertical asymptotes and I’m not sure we’re making this model as simple and effective as possible.

In any case I lack experience with the end of semesters, so I ventured to ask a few second- and third-years nearby.

“I spent 30 hours per week last winter break glued to Kahn Academy learning statistics while I recovered emotionally from my GSI work and feverishly worked on my Switzer.”


I considered adding in time lags of guilt, but then it hit me: maybe the answer has been right in front of my face. And maybe that answer is the one function that Professor Harte says has no representation in nature.

But my economist friends know about exponential growth.

And since I’m pretty confident in the robustness of this model, let’s go back to Joe’s research. What does this say about our happiness and our environmental footprints?

While stress might be increasing, we still need to figure out one crucial thing, and it truly is the unsettled debate of graduate school: are we time affluent or time poor?

Yes, there’s boundless time and open schedules, but with so many great things happening at Berkeley, you just keep can’t keep your hands out of the cookie jar until its too late and the sugar coma hits you.

[Top image source: Sara V.

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.


[Daniel Aas, GSPP-ERG graduate student]

The Fall 2015 Newbie cohort at ERG (of which I am a proud member) is 17 strong, 4 of whom are dual Goldman School of Public Policy (GSPP) students. Based on the cohorts above me, and a rough accounting of dual-degree alumni from years past, this represents a new high water mark for combined GSPP/ERGies since a linkage between the two programs was formalized.

The apparent increasing popularity of the dual degree has led me to reflect a bit on why I made the choice to double up in my graduate education.

In deciding to apply to the dual degree, I found it to be relatively straightforward to tell the story of why ERG and GSPP are complementary programs. In my telling, ERG offered the opportunity to gain depth on the energy and resource issues I care about, while GSPP would provide me with the facility to translate substantive depth into actionable policy recommendations. If you’re guessing that most of the previous sentence was cribbed from one of my application essays (or at least an early version of one), you would be absolutely correct. It’s a neat little story, right?

... my misperception [was] that ERG is a place of specialization, while GSPP offers a more general curriculum. In fact, I have come to realize that... quite the opposite is true.
Having spent a year at GSPP and a month as an official ERG student, I’ve started to notice some of the seams in that story. To start, ERG is an academic group, GSPP is a professional school. The difference between those two concepts can best be described with the terminology staff at the school use when referring to students. At GSPP, students are frequently referred to as analysts in training. The implication is that GSPP graduates will be spending our careers working to ensure that public policy is just a bit better informed by evidence-based approaches.

At ERG, the presumption is that many of the students are future academics or, if not, will work in research oriented fields where they expand the boundaries of interdisciplinary energy and resource knowledge. These terminological differences are directly reflected in the courses you take. GSPP courses tend to focus on an ability to leverage others' work to evaluate impacts of policy alternatives, while courses ERGies take often focus on building foundational graduate-level disciplinary skills that might inform a future dissertation. 

The second seam in my story stems from my misperception that ERG is a place of specialization, while GSPP offers a more general curriculum. In fact, I have come to realize that, in certain dimensions of each word, quite the opposite is true. While the subject matter of ERGies’ work tends to fall in a limited number of buckets, students’ approaches vary from environmental science to video game design. Students at GSPP, in contrast, have a wide variety of topical interests, but the school itself emphasizes fairly uniform approaches to policy analysis, mostly focused on economic analysis of allocative efficiency (equity gets mentioned now and then as well).

... my coursework at ERG is not just an opportunity to gain technical depth on energy, but to also gain valuable perspective on the non-economic, interdisciplinary approaches to a wide variety of energy and resource issues.
With these seams in mind, does the story of my application essay fall apart? Despite the preceding two paragraphs, I think the answer is no. Instead, my story has just metamorphosed a bit. Where I once saw GSPP as a source of topical variety, I now see its emphasis on economic efficiency as a grounding criteria to keep in the back of my head as I go up the learning curve on the physical aspects of electric power at ERG. I’ve also come to realize that my coursework at ERG is not just an opportunity to gain technical depth on energy, but to also gain valuable perspective on the non-economic, interdisciplinary approaches to a wide variety of energy and resource issues.

What, if anything, does this recontextualization of the dual degree mean? I have to confess that I don’t know. I suspect that it implies some trade-off between breadth and depth, but as I described above that trade-off isn’t necessarily easily split across departments. Perhaps the trade-off will fall more neatly into those courses that prepare me to be an analyst versus those that develop skills better suited to an academic setting.

What will probably happen, though, is that some new narrative will emerge that ties together my graduate coursework, extracurricular, and work experiences. The only thing I know about that story at the moment is that it is in progress.

Learn more about the MPP-ERG concurrent degree here.

Top image source: Steve Day

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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