Woods Institute builds green bridges

Nov. 3, 2010, 1:01 a.m.

“This is a fight about how we participate in a revolution,” said Tom Steyer M.B.A. ’83. He spoke on Oct. 20 at a weekly energy seminar hosted by Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. That week, graduate students interviewed private equity entrepreneur, Stanford trustee and major donor Steyer, as well as former secretary of state and Hoover Institution fellow George Shultz, about their campaign against Proposition 23. The measure, which failed in Tuesday’s election, would have suspended the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, and opponents said it could have affected the spread of clean energy in California.

Weekly energy seminars are but one of myriad functions the Woods Institute serves. The institute, founded in 2004, focuses on interdisciplinary research with the idea that only by reaching across multiple disciplines can environmental challenges be solved.

“Whatever you want to pick, any of those major environmental challenges, there’s no way you can just…take the knowledge of one discipline and apply it and come up with a solution,” said Woods co-director Jeff Koseff M.S. ’78 Ph.D. ’83. “So our philosophy is to bring people together who have very different backgrounds and disciplinary knowledge [and] put them together to solve these problems.”

Before the Woods Institute was founded, Koseff, along with several other faculty members, felt an auspicious absence of a group on campus that could facilitate communication and action on environmental work among departments. Starting in the early ‘90s, this small group of faculty continued to push for such an organization until the University granted their wish in 2004.

“We’d always felt that we wanted something at Stanford that transcended the departments that we all had,” Koseff said. “So we needed some other entity that could pull the different departments, departmental or disciplinary knowledge together.”

The Woods Institute focuses on five areas of environmental research: land use and conservation, fresh water, climate change and energy, oceans and estuaries and the human-built environment. The group collaborates within and outside of the University, and has forged alliances with organizations such as Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, the Stanford Student Green Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“A lot of what they’re trying to do is leverage all these incredible intellectual capitals that we have here at Stanford to solve the world’s problems,” said Woods program manager Leigh Johnson, “and to do that you need partners.”

Support for Student Research

One of the ways students get involved with the institute is by taking advantage of the student grants Woods funds.

Ocean biogeochemistry graduate student Kate Lowry ’10 worked in conjunction with environmental earth system science professor Kevin Arrigo this summer on a project funded by the Woods Institute’s Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Program. The project took her research group on a 37-day, NASA-funded oceanography mission to the Arctic with 50 other scientists and more than 80 Coast Guard members.

Lowry’s group was there to conduct fieldwork on the ecological impacts of melting sea ice through the Bering Strait and Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. She helped with the data collection.

“The Woods Institute helped me prepare for my research both financially and academically,” Lowry said in an e-mail to The Daily. “With funding from the Woods Institute, Earth Systems, and the Undergraduate Research Program, I was able to pay for my plane ticket and many of the expenses related to conducting fieldwork in freezing Arctic temperatures.”

The Institute’s Mel Lane Student Program funds five to six student projects each year. With funding provided by the family of Mel Lane, a deceased Woods Institute council member, the program gives out up to $10,000 a year. Funded projects include last spring’s Future Fest, Sustainable Fashion Shows and Stanford Scientific magazine.

Josh Chan ’11, a human biology major with a concentration in environmental change and global health, has worked with the Woods Institute in a different capacity. Since this past summer, Chan has been a writing intern at the institute, combining his science background with writing. Much of Chan’s work entails broadcasting the Woods Institute’s work to the public.

“We know that there are a whole bunch of scientists doing good research here,” Chan said. “But, like my boss has told me many times, it’s not very useful if it stays with scientific journals and doesn’t get out to the community.”

Through his internship, Chan witnessed political and social undertones to environmental dilemmas as he attended clean energy summits and prepared briefs for Woods fellows, who were heading to Washington, D.C. to speak to senators about the public’s perception of climate change.

“That was actually interesting, because when I signed up for the job I never really realized how much of a political aspect there was to Woods,” Chan said.

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