Grace Wu: Alumni Spotlight

Grace Wu (MS‘13/PhD‘18) is an Assistant Professor in the Environmental Studies Program at UC Santa Barbara. Her research is focused on the dynamics and drivers of land use change, climate change mitigation, and advancing our ability to plan for sustainable, multi-use landscapes that protect biodiversity and advance climate goals. She uses spatial science approaches to identify and understand the co-benefits and trade-offs between climate solutions and habitat conservation. She teaches courses in GIS and spatial data science, quantitative thinking in environmental studies, and climate change mitigation.

What have you been working on recently that most excites you? What gives you hope?
Given the growing number of siting conflicts we’ve been seeing in the U.S. (i.e., wholesale bans on utility-scale wind and/or solar development in certain counties), we need to identify innovative ways to develop renewable energy faster, with lower environmental impacts, and with greater community benefits. I’m working with a diverse team of researchers (including another ERGie, Jim Williams) on a national-level study to examine the extent to which renewable energy siting strategies and technological advancements can reduce the land use needs and conservation impacts of large-scale renewable energy needed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions goals in the U.S. I’m excited to see whether some of these strategies (e.g., co-location, agrivoltaics, wake steering) can help achieve sustainable innovation.

What were you doing before ERG?
I was a research technician at the Lake Michigan US Geological Survey working on understanding the impact of climate change on the survival of the endangered Karner Blue butterfly. In my first year at ERG, I learned that the subpopulation I had been studying at the Indiana Dunes (which was already fairly small, fragmented, and vulnerable as the southernmost subpopulation) suddenly became locally extirpated (locally extinct). That was a watershed moment in my decision to work on advancing climate solutions as a conservation solution. Before that stint at USGS doing applied research, I spent a lot of time studying wing pattern evolution in tropical butterflies, first as a masters student in England and then as a research technician at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. I was a classically trained entomologist/biologist and was (and still am) fascinated by insects!

What was your ERG experience like?
Throughout my time at ERG, and especially in the first few years, I was in constant awe that I was surrounded by purpose-driven, earth-saving, social justice heroes who were also wicked smart and kind. I took cues from those before, around, and after me to explore, think broadly yet deeply, and work in service of a cause. With the freedom afforded to me, I was able to topic-shop for several years. I probably took a course in every major building on campus. Ultimately, after quite a bit of struggling and a bit too much navel-gazing, I found my footing and a niche. A wise older ERGie shared a little nugget of insight with me on his ERG experience: it is an exercise in self-determination. Paradoxically, this has been both true and false for me. My choices, seemingly limitless at the time, were shaped, inspired, and enabled by the advice and experiences of ERGies around me.

Grace and now husband, Dr. Ranjit Deshmukh (PhD’17), with ERGies at their wedding in India (C. Hyun 2016)

What was your career trajectory like after ERG? What were your challenges and successes?
Shortly after graduating from ERG, I started a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at UC Davis at the John Muir Institute on the Environment. In hindsight, I wish I could have taken some time off! Because I was not able to defer my second fellowship, about six months later, I started the Smith Conservation Fellowship with The Nature Conservancy working on developing tools for land use planning that addresses the competing uses of land needed for climate solutions, food, and conservation.
Though not directly career related, being pregnant and caring for an infant during the pandemic was the most challenging (and rewarding!) aspect of my career in those years, and it meant that I ended up taking nearly a full year of unplanned maternity leave. Fortunately, the fellowship leadership was very understanding of the situation. I’ve continued to work on the projects I started as a Smith Fellow and have some interesting (and hopeful) results coming out in forthcoming papers.

What lessons, experiences, or opportunities from your time at ERG have you found to be most valuable in your career?
Pretty much everything. There is NO WAY that I would be where I am today had it not been for ERG and ERGies–mentors, advisers, colleagues, and friends included. The problems and projects I’ve worked on and continue to work on, the internships, the consulting side gigs, and the fellowships—those were all enabled through ERG connections and recommendations. And all those small experiences added up in a way that became greater than just the sum of the individual parts (to quote Dick Norgaard) to put me on my current career trajectory.

If I had to choose some of those experiences as being particularly formative for my research, it would be doing a research project with The Nature Conservancy in my second year of the PhD program that my adviser, Margaret Torn, and ERGie Jim Williams made possible, taking a GIS class in my first year, and working on a project with stakeholders in several Eastern and Southern African countries that started out as a side project. In teaching, I use systems thinking, tools of the trade type approaches, and back of the envelope calculations. In fact, I just introduced my students to box models in a lecture yesterday. The example problems I’ve written are inspired by all the problems that ERGies worked on in the time I was a student: soils, food waste, pollutants, biodiversity loss, wildfires, energy, water use, climate change. I’m using my job to spread the ERG perspective far and wide through my students.

In the US, May was Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. What role do you think your background as an Asian-American woman played at ERG, in your career, and/or in environmental spaces?
ERG was one of the first communities in which I didn’t feel out of place in my academic and career related pursuits because of my personal identity. I was definitely the only Asian-American student or employee in previous graduate or professional settings, and I often found myself gravitating towards other Asian Americans who chose similar career paths (or were similarly lost!) wondering, “Why did you do this instead of going into medicine?”

Grace Wu and team presenting results of ERG’s first community climate survey (C. Hyun 2015)

When I started at ERG, there was a critical contingency of us interested in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the department, in the environmental community, and in the academy writ large. A small group of us started the ERG student diversity committee, and thanks to ERGies in subsequent cohorts, it’s taken on a life of its own. This sense of belonging, enabled by the support for and camaraderie around diversifying those interested in environmental issues, inspired me to take a more active role in advancing DEI efforts at ERG and beyond. I’ve applied several of the DEI strategies we implemented at ERG to help advance DEI in the Smith Conservation Fellowship, and it’s also translated into some of the research that I do. I’m a co-author on a recently published paper investigating the extent of place names that are racist, derogatory, or settler-colonial in US national parks, and it’s helping to provide some quantitative evidence in support of a names-changing initiative.

Any personal or professional suggestions or encouragement for current or future ERGies, ERGAN alumni, or any other comments?
If you found something amazing, don’t take it for granted. If you’re lost, take the next best step.