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Life Beyond E-IPER: Crossing Boundaries

Graduates reflect on their E-IPER experience and their careers working on climate policy in Washington DC.

Life Beyond E-IPER Two E-IPER graduates discuss life beyond academia as they pursue careers working onclimate policy in Washington DC. Jason Funk (PhD '09), a conservation analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund, works on a number of projects, including domestic and international accounting rules for forest carbon and wetland restoration in Louisiana to mitigate damage from sea level rise and storm surges. Holmes Hummel (PhD '06), senior policy advisor in the Office of Policy and International Affairs at the US Dept of Energy, works on a number of US energy policy issues, including Administration authorities to drive clean energy technologies and the US negotiating position on technology cooperation in the recent COP15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

After a little friendly sparring over whether or not there's any life left for a climate bill pending in the Senate, Jason and Holmes reflect on their training in E-IPER and offer words of wisdom to current students.

On becoming an interdisciplinary researcher...

Holmes: The only possible path to rigorous graduate study in the field of my interest was through an interdisciplinary course. The integration of public policy, energy technology, economics, and the analytic toolkit of modeling is hard to find in any disciplinary program. Even then, if you find a disciplinary program that can support that level of integration, the product of your work is judged primarily through one lens. The strength of my E-IPER education has supported the level of performance I've been able to contribute to professional positions since graduation, including the Office of Congressman Jay Inslee and the Energy Resources Group at UC-Berkeley.

Jason: At the moment I was writing the last few sentences of my dissertation, I felt like all of the boundaries had totally dissolved - it was a body of work that made sense to me, and then it became my job to communicate it to my committee. That's what E-IPER is all about: reaching that point where it no longer really makes sense to talk about one discipline or another and where your work fits in. Instead, at the end I thought "I've answered a set of questions here; I understand how all these disciplines fit in, but it's (a body of work) that has gone beyond the disciplines."

On being a Swiss Army knife...

Jason: My supervisors tell me all the time, "You're worth three people. And we're paying you one salary." But it took them a while to figure out what to do with me. They asked me, "Are you a geographer guy? Are you a social science guy? Are you an economist? Are you a conservation biologist?" So they started plugging me into different meetings. I would show up and occasionally make comments, and then people started to realize 'Whoa, this guy really knows about a lot of different areas.' And then they started realizing how to plug me into programs. By the end of the year (of my Lokey Fellowship) they said, "We can't afford to let you go." It was very validating: it was a bad time (financially) for NGOs, and EDF was having the same challenges as others. But EDF pulled a lot of strings to make sure I could stay.

Referring to the layoffs at many non-profits, Jason concluded, "I think my supervisors had to ask themselves 'When you need to throw out some of the tools in your toolkit, you want to keep the Swiss Army knife, right?'"

On international experiences...

Holmes: I encourage all E-IPER students to seek opportunities beyond the palm trees, enrolling in programs at other schools and in other countries. It's exciting and helps principal investigators at Stanford see where interdisciplinary research has traction.

Jason: Holmes and I both went to that other side of the world for awhile, where the questions crystallized in a way they couldn't under the supervision of a disciplinary advisor.

Holmes: I benefited from the National Science Foundation's East Asia Pacific Summer Institute (at Tsinghua University in Beijing), as well IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, Austria). Through those experiences I was able to access an international network of thought-leaders focused on global sustainability problems and the intersection of energy technology and industrialization with ecological sustainability questions...The international aspects of my education turned out to be some of the most rich learning experiences, and they certainly crystallized the research questions that were worth pursuing.

On personal goals...

Holmes: I had the personal goal of competing for one of two AAAS Congressional Fellowships. It grounded my research with a sense of policy relevance coming down the home stretch. There's decades worth of intellectual products coming out of scenario analysis for energy and technology, but not all of it is policy relevant or has enduring value. Having a vision beyond the horizon of my dissertation helped inform discussions about the audience for my research and inspire its completion.

Jason: Some of us (graduates) could go back and shed some light on current students' anxiety about being an interdisciplinary researcher. They're trying to perform for a set of academics -- for their advisors who are coming from different perspectives. The students feel they have to live up to their advisors' expectations, and that can become a real challenge.

On making an impact...

Holmes: Drawing on scholarly lines of inquiry I explored through E-IPER, I now have a unique opportunity to engage an agency with an enormous capacity to take action based on decisions my research aimed to inform. It is deeply gratifying to participate in deliberations about federal policies and programs so many researchers focused on energy security, energy development, and climate stabilization have worked hard to inform for decades.

Holmes concluded, "There's a new horizon every morning when I walk into the office. It might grow old after a while, but right now every day presents an irresistible opportunity."