Andy Jones: Alumni Spotlight

Andy Jones (M.S. ’07, PhD ’12) holds the unique role of being both an ERG alumnus and an ERG core faculty member. Read more about his journey to ERG, why he came back as faculty member, and what gives him hope during these times.

1. What have you been working on recently that most excites you? What gives you hope?

I recently launched a new project to develop a climate data analytics platform to support electricity sector adaptation and resilience planning efforts in California.  It is a rather unique project that combines participatory social science research methods with technical algorithm development required to process and synthesize vast amounts of future climate projection data.  I like this project because it is aimed squarely at the interface of scientific knowledge creation and decision-making.  My hope is that the tools we create will be useful to a wide range of stakeholders who are hungry for context-specific, regionally-relevant, and actionable climate information. In recent years I’ve participated in a number of science-art collaborations.  One ongoing collaboration with the performance group Fog Beast is using scientific storytelling, song-writing, dance, and theatre elements to examine our human relationships with shorelines, these dynamic boundaries between water and land that change on timescales from seconds to millennia. Our efforts to turn this work this into a live art experience at the Headlands Center for the Arts were thwarted by the pandemic, but we are pursuing a new opportunity to continue developing the work at the shoreline in Richmond, CA.  With any luck, there will be opportunities for ERG students to engage with the project by contributing science and policy insights that inform the artistic content.  With so much attention currently on the challenges that arise from misinformation and scientific denialism, I find hope in both of these projects that we can find creative ways to engage productively with people in all of their cognitive and emotional complexity while remaining grounded in an evidence-based framework for decision-making.

2. What were you doing before ERG? What was your background?

As an undergraduate I studied and conducted research in cognitive science.  I wanted to understand how the brain supports conscious experience, complex thought, and behavior.  This led me to pursue a dual major in theoretical math and psychology. I worked with neural network models to help explain the functional mechanisms behind brain imaging data.  Incidentally, these same neural network models now form the basis of machine learning methods that are revolutionizing data science.  Around the time that I was wrapping up my bachelor’s degree, though, a series of geopolitical events led me to question what sort of impact I wanted to have in the world.  These included the Sep 11 terrorist attack and the subsequent wars that were launched in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had also made strong connections with the activist community in St Louis, MO where I lived.  I decided not to rush off to graduate school for cognitive science.  Instead I spent about 3 years doing community organizing work.  I co-founded a non-profit community arts organization, supported efforts to create a civilian review board for the St Louis police department, worked in a collectively owned bakery, and fed people by participating in Food not Bombs.

3. What brought you to ERG? Why did you choose ERG and what made it unique for you?

The more I engaged as an activist trying to address an unjust and unsustainable world head-on, I found myself confronted with the systemic nature of those problems.  I wanted to understand better where the leverage points are for lasting structural change.  I had a hunch that it involved economics, technology, systems of power, and our relationship with nature.  My inner nerd also craved stimulation.    I don’t remember exactly how I learned about ERG.  Once I did, though, I knew it was there right program for me.  Where else is one encouraged to draw from the full spectrum of what a university can offer to understand and address critical challenges in alignment with the values of sustainability and equity?  That combination of problem-driven inquiry and boundless interdisciplinarity is what makes ERG unique for me.

4. What was your ERG experience like? Any stories or anecdotes you’d like to share?

When professor Alex Farrell died unexpectedly, it was pretty hard on me.  I was in my third year and working closely with him at the time.  Alex taught me to focus on what really matters about a system, and how to think creatively about policy solutions to complex problems. He also provided a model of professional conduct that I’ve internalized in various ways and strive to pass on to my advisees.  Alex’s death was one of several I experienced at that time in my life, and it forced me to examine with fresh eyes why I am doing my work and what I hope to accomplish with my precious time here.

5. What was your career trajectory like after ERG? What were your biggest challenges and successes?

Since completing my PhD at ERG I’ve been working in the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division at Berkeley Lab. While my work is strongly rooted in Earth systems modeling, part of me still identifies as a social scientist, cognitive scientist, activist, and artist.  I’ve had the great privilege to be part of the strategic planning team in our area of the lab, where I have helped to define critical research gaps and launch new research at the interface of Earth science and decision-making, including efforts focused on urban climate dynamics, the resilience of water and energy infrastructure systems, and the role that land use can play in decarbonization efforts.  Some of the most exciting work for me engages directly with stakeholders to co-produce research and generate knowledge in a collaborative, iterative manner.  I think my biggest challenge, like so many of us curious and interdisciplinary ERGies, is to find balance among my various pursuits.  As a parent during the pandemic, this has become an especially salient challenge. Sometimes I wish I could focus on just 1 project at a time for a few weeks until it is complete, then move on.  But then again, part of me thrives on making order out of chaos so it’s a perpetual balancing act.

6. What lessons, experiences, or opportunities from your time at ERG have you found to be most valuable in your career?

So much of what I gained in ERG was from my fellow classmates.  As a newbie student I recall attending the master project presentations from the cohort 1 year ahead of me.  I was blown away by the range of topics and methods represented, which included very technical analyses of the potential for rooftop solar adoption, as well as an examination of the narratives that underlie our public discourse on climate change.  It was surprising and empowering to see this range across the older students, often within individual students.  I thought – if they can pull together these wildly different perspectives, so can I.  This fearless sense of agency to take on wicked problems and use whatever tools are needed is one of the most valuable things I’ve taken from ERG

7. Why did you choose to come back to ERG as a faculty member?

I began advising ERG students several years ago.  Initially this took the form of providing research opportunities on projects that I’m leading.  A few of those collaborations developed into much deeper mentoring relationships that are still ongoing.  It felt like a natural progression to seek out a more formal role within ERG and increase the opportunity space for collaborating with the amazing students in this program. Participating in the educational mission of the university and engaging with the broader intellectual diversity on campus have proven to be extremely rewarding for me.  Last semester I taught a graduate seminar on Climate Science and Society that engaged with key theoretical concepts at interface of science and decision-making, including the interface of scenarios and policy targets, decision-making under deep uncertainty, and the role of cognitive biases in making sense of scientific information.  This was a welcome chance for me to dig into the theoretical context for my ongoing work and enable a peer-learning environment for students to grow and share their insights and experience with one another.   While it’s certainly made my life more complicated to take on this new role, I can’t think of a better opportunity to be part of an institution whose mission and ethos aligns with mine.  As a rare alumnus among the faculty, I feel a sense of responsibility to help keep ERG’s unique culture alive.  I need help from you all in ERGAN though.   I’m grateful for all the opportunities to keep learning from and inspiring one another.