Joanna Hsu tells us about meeting the Secretary of Energy, her work with a West Oakland food market, and her advice to incoming graduate students

August 07, 2012
joanna hsu


Second-year graduate student Joanna Hsu, of the Suding Lab. She is currently working on several projects, including a cross-site analysis of the impact of climate variability on plant communities, and research on food distribution models for a grocery store that will serve low-income neighborhoods. Joanna also recently met the Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

A belated welcome to Berkeley and ESPM! Why did you choose ESPM for graduate school?

I knew that living in Berkeley and being in ESPM would give me opportunities I wouldn't have elsewhere and that made me pack my bags for California. As a graduate student in ESPM, I have access to world-class resources in just about every field of study, the Jepson Herbarium right next door, and beaches and mountains within a half day's drive. I was excited about working with Katie Suding, excited about living in the Bay Area, and of course, I deeply desired to be in a department with a 13-syllable name. The clincher was that joining ESPM would give me chances to meet those people I had heard so much about -- I think they are called social scientists? ;-)

Since coming to ESPM, I've come to see that the people are the department's strongest point, starting with the graduate students. My classmates are incredibly smart, passionate people from a variety of backgrounds.

What led to your meeting with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu?

This spring, I took a renewable energy policy class that was cross-listed between the public policy and law schools. One of the professors in that class was Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan. She had a lot of connections -- we even had Al Gore on Skype one day! -- and she got us some face time with Secretary Chu. Our class had spent the semester working on state- and regionally-based renewable energy plans, under the assumption that federal-level policy is more difficult to achieve politically. It was cool to have an audience with the Secretary. Of course, we don't expect him to agree with or endorse the entire stack of proposals we gave him, but hopefully we planted a few ideas in his head.{C}

You are working with Professor Suding, a restoration ecologist. Why do you see ecological restoration and management to be especially important now?

Because there is so much restoring to be done. The human footprint is so extensive that no ecosystem is untouched.  And it is so deep that when we are through, ecosystems often will not recover on their own. That's why science-based restoration and management is so critical. I'm reminded of a question once posed to Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA: "Why do we always use war metaphors such as 'fight' or 'defend' when we talk about the environment?" Jackson's response: "In today's economy, clean air and clean water don't happen by accident." The same is true about healthy ecosystems post human use – they don't usually get there by themselves.

This became very apparent to me the few months that I worked at Crystal Cove State Park after I graduated from college. That's where this Asian girl whose mother wanted her to be a doctor learned to use a chain saw, weed whacker, and heavy duty weed sprayer. In addition to battling the weeds - yes, war metaphor is very appropriate for what we did - I also sowed seeds and put hundreds of native plants in the ground, reclaiming land that had been a sewer system leach field. It was a lot of effort and I remember wondering if what we were doing was actually going to work (and thinking how ill-prepared for manual labor my undergraduate education had left me).

That's why what our lab is doing is so important. Among other things, restoration ecology evaluates the efficacy of restoration practices and the feasibility and desirability of specific restoration goals. The reality is that “natural” and restored ecosystems exist within a landscape engineered to meet human needs and that some battles cannot be won and maybe some should not even be fought. Some of the invasive species are here to stay, and perhaps we should learn to maximize the beneficial changes they bring and reduce the impacts we don't like. In some cases, our time and money may be better spent conserving less impacted lands rather than trying to return an ecosystem back to its original condition. Land managers have a tough job, but hopefully the type of work our lab does is helping them make good decisions.

What kind of work are you doing with the People’s Community Market?

I'm very excited to be working for People's Community Market, which will be an independently owned grocery store in West Oakland, a low-income community without enough access to fresh food. I’ve always liked food, but my interest in food distribution systems is pretty new. If you don’t count grocery shopping, farmer’s markets, or drive-by tree and crop identification in the Central Valley, my only real knowledge on the topic before coming to ESPM was in the form of a Michael Pollan book and a few short pieces on Monsanto and agribusiness. After arriving in Berkeley, I received an introduction to food distribution systems in our fall ESPM 201A class, where I listened to my classmates debate whether we were growing enough food to feed the planet and whether the food security problem was chiefly a distribution problem

This summer, I'm working with a graduate student in the public health department to research product sourcing options for People's Community Market.  While getting produce directly from farmers to stores sounds like a great idea, it presents certain challenges for independent grocers, who buy in smaller quantities than chain grocery stores. Direct sourcing entails labor-intensive product procurement and requires logistical, technical, and infrastructure solutions that are usually provided by a wholesale distributor.  (But it can be done! Case in point, Monterey Market in Berkeley or Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco). We are interviewing independent grocers experienced with alternative food distribution models to see whether direct sourcing might make business sense for PCM.

Any tips for the incoming graduate students of Fall 2012?

My biggest recommendation would be to take advantage of all that UC Berkeley, ESPM, and the Bay Area have to offer. Don't let grad school just be a single-minded pursuit of the answers to the five questions that your dissertation research aims to answer. You're here because you love to learn, so be open to learning about something you may not have expected and don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Take a class in another department or at the law, public policy, or business schools. Teach a class even if you don't think you'll like teaching. Learn how to fit a Bayesian model to your data or how to Balkan dance. Form a collaboration with folks from another lab. Explore the Berkeley hills on your bike. Talk to someone who is voting for Mitt Romney!

I'd also remind them to be invested in people and not just ideas, research outcomes, or even planet earth itself, as important as all of these things are. Environmental science is conducted by people, environmental policy is crafted by people, and environmental management is carried out by people. Don't leave them out of your time at ESPM. Oh, last thing. Remember that they didn't admit you by mistake. You have something to offer here and have earned your place.  

This interview was edited and condensed.


Related links:

Joanna's blog post on meeting Secretary Chu

Suding Lab Website