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The Graduates

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The Graduates is the talk show where we interview UC Berkeley graduates students about their work here on campus. Hosted by graduate students Ashley Smiley, Andrew Saintsing, and others, The Graduates airs every other Tu
Latest Episode8/3/2021

Kavena Hambira

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Kav Hambira from the Department of Art Practice. Welcome to the show, Kav.Kavena Hambira: Hey, Andrew. Thanks for having me.Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. I'm really interested in learning more about making art. You're actually wearing a sweatshirt that says “Creative Director.” I really like that. You're just really advertising what you do. Did you pick that sweatshirt up or did you get that custom made?Hambira: You know, it's… I have to say my ex-girlfriend gave me this sweatshirt, and I, you know, I, I can't hate on it because I love it so much even though she's my ex-girlfriend. I have to, I have to wear it because it’s such a nice sweatshirt. And no, I don't also really feel like a creative director all the time, so it's literally a hoodie that like empowers me when I put it on. Kind of, when I have it on and I do feel like creative director. Wear what, um, you know, not what you're currently doing, but what you think you'll be doing in the next couple of years kind of thing.Saintsing: All right, for sure. Okay, so we've said you're in art practice and I guess people can now gather that you're doing something with film if you're wearing a creative director sweatshirt. But could you tell us a little bit about, you know, who you are, what you're doing? Just to get started.Hambira: For sure, yeah. So, you know, so my name is Kavena, Kav, and I'm a contemporary Namibian artist and filmmaker based here in in Oakland. And I'm currently in the MFA program at Berkeley, and I'm currently an MFA ‘22 candidate. So, I just finished my first year. I initially came to the US on a Fulbright many, many years ago in 2012, and after that experience I went back to Namibia and got into civil society. I guess here you refer to it as non-profit work. And it was really just a continuation of some of the volunteer work I was doing here in the Bay Area. I volunteered as a videographer for a few organizations, and some were art-based organizations, some of those organizations were unions, particularly ILWU, International Longshore Workers Union, here in Oakland, Local 10. And the Love, Not Blood campaign, which is run by two really incredible activists, civil rights activists here in the Bay Area. Referring specifically to Cephas “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, and Beatrice Keaton X, and they both have been instrumental in really the work that I've been doing because through them I've connected with other families that have been impacted by state and community violence and really documenting their work around those issues.Saintsing: So, you have your interest in… Most of what you're doing is to focus on these issues of state violence.Hambira: Yeah, you know, I have to always throw out this disclaimer, because I never wanted to misrepresent myself, you know, as an African man living in the diaspora. You know I'm really interested in using the poetics of film to ask political questions but also provide opportunities for the exchange of public opinion. And you know a lot of my practice draws from my vantage point, again, as an African man. And not growing up in the US, I really had a very linear view of the American experience, and it was filtered through, you know, limited information. I grew up in the 90s, you know, pre-internet and, you know, I was really influenced by pop culture. America's number one export really is just popular culture, and I think my perception of the black experience was very far removed from the reality on the ground. You know I had this idea that America, you know, was always sold as this kind of land, the City on the Shining Hill, and, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats. But when I came to the US on a full ride, I really, you know, found it was a very different experience, and it wasn't really until the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin's killer, when I really was exposed to this great injustice that's occurring in the streets of the United States, particularly as it relates to gun violence both in communities, but also by the state, particularly through the police force. And working with these families really awakened a thought around, you know, why it is perhaps we are not as exposed to these issues across the Atlantic, and I just felt there was a need to really digest and systematically lay out these issues, and it's with the idea that you're not just understanding, but also creating general awareness around these issues. And I didn't know how to express myself in a conventional way working in non-profit, civil society. Certainly couldn't do it in the corporate industry, so coming to art school pursuing an MFA was an opportunity to really incubate those ideas. And this is how I ended up at Berkeley.Saintsing: You came here to pursue a graduate degree before the Berkeley degree? Or were you in a undergraduate program before you were in this program now you're at with Berkeley?Hambira: That's correct. Not the latter, but the former. I came on a Fulbright in 2012 in a completely different field of study. You know, my focus was more on labor relations, cognitive resolution at the time. Not in the world peace, but more kind of organizational human resource space. And I really wasn't conscientized until I started volunteering. I, you know, picked up my camera. I picked up a camera, and I started filming, and I ended up in an art collective. Shout out to Inks of Truth in San Francisco. And I really just started familiarizing myself with the camera. And I mean I was filming everything. Just, you know, protests, shows, events. Like if they were opening an envelope, I was there.Saintsing: Right. That was like your first experience filming?Hambira: Yes. Mind you: I grew up with a camera. So, my father was a photojournalist. My father was the official between 1978 and 1984, he was the official photographer of the People's Liberation Movement in Namibia, and so I always grew up with a camera around. But I never really pursued it because, you know, I grew up in a society that prioritized material science over the arts, right? So, you know, “You're not gonna get a job if you go to art school.” Like this was the kind of very traditionalist society I had grown up in, and I think to a certain extent, you… Some of these things, you think about and you live through, and it's not really until something occurs or some sort of rupture happens when you like understand, like there's really an opportunity to wake up every morning and pursue something with meaning. And I think that like it was very meaningful to pursue this work. And I found it almost like it haunted me, you know? Like I kind of felt like, in many ways, this is like, you know, (I don't want to sound spiritual, but, you know) it's like this is in my DNA, right? And it's only because I, you know, I didn't have access to the same opportunities. It's only because I wasn't exposed, you know, to an art space early on that I wasn't doing it early on. But now that I was in that space, now that I was living in a cosmopolitan city, and never mind state, like San Francisco. You're exposed to art galleries that you never were exposed to. You're going, you know, to screenings, to art spaces, and here in Oakland, there's a, you know, huge art community that I connected with. You know, meeting artists, Black artists, you know, it was like a kid in a candy store. And you know, that really is what shaped my experience outside of academia. It wasn't even… This was not what my Fulbright was about, right? And so, going back to Namibia, I understood that, you know, (and this was after my Fulbright), that there was still a lot of work that had to be done. Of course, I maintained relationships with a lot of, especially, the impacted families that I had worked with. When I'd come back to visit after one particular, I think, two years after my departure, I'd come back to visit, and I could still see you know that the situation hadn't really changed. In fact, I think at that stage much of the movement had subsided. I just continued to hold on to a lot of the footage, and I didn't know how to really pursue it further unless I was able to really kind of have a space to really incubate my ideas and produce the work. And coming to Berkeley allowed that. In fact, this year I produced my first short film, titled The People's Uncle, and we screened it in February, and it centered around this work.Saintsing: Well, congrats on getting that film made and screened!Hambira: Thank you!Saintsing: Do you feel that you needed help with the craft of making films and that's why you're in this program now? Or this is kind of a space that's affording you opportunities to pursue projects that maybe you wouldn't have had a chance to pursue if you weren't in this program?Hambira: Yeah, I think, I mean, I think it's a little bit of both, you know? At the at the very core, I'm a storyteller who produces work that unearths caveats that are suppressed by dominant narratives, meaning my work doesn't always have to take the form of a documentary film. I want to believe that a lot of my work is research-based. It's a research-based social practice, and in order to really understand and get to the core of some of these ideas and challenges that I'm exploring, I needed to be in an institution that has a research facility, that has research facilities. The Pacific Archive, of course. The Berkeley, th BAMPFA, and its specific archive at the Berkeley Museum. And it's an immeasurable resource. It's an immeasurable resource. It's also very costly to produce film. So, just things like having access to equipment, the right equipment, the right camera equipment, lights, audio, studio to mix sound. These are all resources that are available to me now where I never had them before. And that's just like, that's just the reality. I mean, if I'm filming in Namibia, and I crack my Canon 70D, there's like one official Canon provider who'll quote me and then tell me to come back after two months to replace the lens because here we have to order the part from South Africa. So, like, you know, we, living in a developed country and growing up in a developing country, it gives me, you know, two very unique experiences. And I think that's also what I can talk about, that vantage point. I struggled to mix, I was really struggling to make sense of all of that because, you know, I'm trying to connect these dots that are related not just to my own personal history, but to a collective history. Black history is global history, you know. So, just being close to institutions that have the required archives that i need to reference so I could actually see them and feel them and touch them. You know, a good example is a Marcus Garvey archive, you know. And so, yeah, you know, as I'm exploring the space between Africa and its people in the diaspora, I did also find (and I think this goes to the second part of your question) like I needed to be here physically to produce this work. And I just happened… Obviously, I don't want to say, but I’ve come at the right time because I've been documenting some of these families for almost eight years. And so, you know, you incur a debt. You incur a debt, and I wanted to do good by that promise, you know, because a lot of these families, they trust you to come into their space and help them tell their story about their lost loved one as they continue to pursue justice. And so, I felt it was important to really honor and honor them by producing work with care, and that's why I needed to enroll in a program. Because I just, I was lacking, like I said the research and just access to resources to complete this work.Saintsing: I'm really interested to know more about this film you made, just actually the content of it. But I also am just interested also in the program that you're in. Is art practice very heavily focused on film at Berkeley? Is it just kind of lots of different media, and you're one of several filmmakers among various artists?Hambira: I’ll tackle your second question first because I can remember that since you asked it last. But no, yes. So the Art Practice Department at Berkeley is by far one of the best in the country, and that's primarily because it's structured like an art residency. And you're correct, Andrew, in that you have a really a gaggle of different artists. And you know, we all have different forms. We'll produce different work, but this is really… I see a very common thread where really this year we're the first, probably the most diverse cohort in the history, the 50+ years history of the Berkeley MFA program, you know. BIPOC, intersectional group of students. I'm one of two filmmakers in a cohort of six. We have, you know, artists that come from different parts of the country and different parts of the world, from the UK, Namibia, where I'm from in southern Africa, and here in California. And that, you know, I think going through COVID with this group, with this cohort has also been really important. I think it's an important experience because it's unique in many ways that we develop these relationships, really meaningful relationships, without physically being in the same space, having a group show without being physically in the same space. So, there were unique challenges we've had to overcome, and I think that's really created an even more exceptional bond, created deeper more meaningful connections. And to your second part of the question: You know, I really appreciate you asking because you know this work, this particular film is my central focus at Berkeley, and I really wanted to use the next, or I wanted to use the two years that I'm here to experiment with different forms, particularly narrative and an installation definitely interrogating the white cube space in a gallery. And then of course this is the documentary, my most preferred form. And this film really is about the life of Cephus Johnson and Beatrice Keaton, affectionately known as Uncle Bobby and Aunt B. The married couple, particularly Uncle Bobby, who is the uncle of Oscar Grant, was really a systems engineer from Silicon Valley, from San Jose when his life took a really sharp turn after the murder, the killing of his nephew Oscar Grant in January 2009. And understanding that they were really the first family, this was the first case in the state's history, in the history of the state of California, to have a police officer not only arrested, tried, and convicted, but also sentenced. Many other families around the United States looked at them and the Oscar Grant case almost as a blueprint to seeking justice for their loved ones that have been killed in a similar way. And understanding that there is this unfortunate need. A lot of families started reaching out to them for help and assistance, and through that they developed the Oscar Grant Foundation, and now the Love, Not Blood Campaign, which embraces families from around the country that have been impacted or that are suffering from police and community violence. And they really have been doing this work selflessly and without seeking any sort of praise or acknowledgement. And around the time I started volunteering for the organization as a videographer, I remember going to Chicago in 2015 for the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till's death and meeting all of the other families, the other impacted families, and hearing their stories. And you know, really because when we spent an entire weekend together and I was documenting them in these different spaces, I started really seeing them beyond the symbolism, right? You know, I was almost trying to understand how they've become these symbols, but especially their children have become these symbols, and we look beyond their pain, we oftentimes no longer see them any longer. And it made me think about, especially experiencing that weekend with the families, it made me think about the work that still to lay ahead for them as they sought justice for their loved ones, and I thought it was really important for folks to understand what happens when an issue is no longer trending, when the hashtag fades away. These families are still left with this pain, and they still are pursuing justice for their loved ones, and I really wanted to shed light. And this is what this film and the work that they do is all about.Saintsing: When you make a film, when you make a documentary, what do you see as your role after it's made? Do you think… I guess as an artist more generally, are you showing people things and then trying and then hoping that now that people's eyes are opened, they will pursue action? Or do you see a place for yourself then actually pursuing action based on the films that you made?Hambira: Yeah, like, again I think it's brilliant. It kind of speaks to… It's a brilliant question, and it kind of speaks to what we spoke about early around this vantage point, you know, this idea that I am really operating as a conduit, you know, between southern African, as an African, and the African diaspora. And so, I'm speaking to multiple audiences, and I think because we live in such a time of disinformation, you need to be able to filter your information through facts, and by supplementing that evidence with the work, the hope is that, I'm providing an opportunity for the exchange of public opinion, you know, I'm using the poetics of film to ask political questions, but, you know, I don't necessarily have the solutions. But what I do want to be able to do is bring my work into spaces that typically won't be having these conversations and activate those spaces. I grew up in Namibia. For those that don't know, Namibia at one point was part of South Africa. Up until 1990, we were literally by a mandate. And this mandate, I don't want to go down the rabbit hole here, emanates from the League of Nations after, since we're a former German colony, after Germany lost the World War, we basically got incorporated into to the South African Union, and we grew up under apartheid. Our parents were political exiles that were fighting to emancipate, and they used their youth, the best years of their lives to help liberate their country. And so, growing up under that duress, understanding how it's displaced people within my own family, myself, my own person (I grew up in East Germany, right? I was displaced in that way.) You start to infer trends, and I really wanted to explore some of these broader issues because police brutality is really just a manifestation of a broader system, right? Like this police brutality is one manifestation of a white supremacist system. Now what happens if we explore the Black experience in Southeast Asia? What happens if we explore the Black experience in East Africa? What happens if we explore the Black experience in Bakersfield, California? I mean, you can infer the similar trends. There are many similar trends, and my goal is to connect these dots. I want folks to, even if I'm, and this is why when I talk about unearthing caveats that are swapped over by dominant narratives, I'm talking about these stories that may be perceived by someone on the other side of the world as being insignificant or unconnected to their own struggle. And this is why I say Black history is global history. So, you know, this work and during my time at Berkeley, I want to really go deep. I want to really find how these struggles are connected, and when you watch the film, you'll see there's a montage in the film that I literally refer to as a Sankofa moment, and it takes it back to Africa. It takes it back to Africa, and it's that portion of the film that speaks to what I’m talking about now.Saintsing: Would listeners be able to watch the film? Is it available widely?Hambira: Yes, so because the film was, the show was… The first year MFA show was hosted during COVID-19. We had a virtual exhibition, so you are still able to go to the website, the exhibition website, and that website if you'd like, the details are whenthingsgetbacktonormal.net That's one word. whenthingsgetbacktonormal.net You'll be able to see the work of not just myself, but all the other six artists in the show. Let me maybe just quickly give some space and share a little bit about their work. The first artist is Erica Deeman. Erica is a visual artist from Nottingham, from the UK. And Erica's work intersects race, gender, and the hybridity of Black identity. Then there's also Edgar Fabian Frias. Edgar's from Los Angeles and is a non-binary, queer, indigenous, and brown, multi-disciplinary artist, curator, educator, and psychotherapist by the way. The third artist is Hala Kaddoura, and that's also the other filmmaker. She has a film background, but Hala is a Palestinian-American artist, a community builder, social impact initiator, and is also an educator. You have Ahn Lee, from Los Angeles, a non-binary, queer, Cantonese artist and researcher. And then we have last, but not least, is Rivka. And Rivka, also known as Kakou, is an Oakland-based mixed media visual artist, writer, educated performer, and community organizer. So, I really encourage you, if you haven't had an opportunity already, go to whenthingsgetbacktonormal.net, check out all of their work. You'll also be able to catch my film there. And if you want to just go directly to my website as well, you'll be able to watch the film, and that's kavcavalier.comSaintsing: Unfortunately, it looks like we are running out of time on the interview. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Hambira: Yeah, I think I personally just want to thank you being an audience member, if you're listening you are an important member of the community and just understand that you equally have a role to play, however big or small, and don't underestimate that role.Saintsing: Today, we've been speaking with Kav Hambira from the Department of Art Practice. Again, thank you so much for being on the show, Kav.Hambira: Andrew, I appreciate that.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
8/3/2021

Kavena Hambira

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Kav Hambira from the Department of Art Practice. Welcome to the show, Kav.Kavena Hambira: Hey, Andrew. Thanks for having me.Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. I'm really interested in learning more about making art. You're actually wearing a sweatshirt that says “Creative Director.” I really like that. You're just really advertising what you do. Did you pick that sweatshirt up or did you get that custom made?Hambira: You know, it's… I have to say my ex-girlfriend gave me this sweatshirt, and I, you know, I, I can't hate on it because I love it so much even though she's my ex-girlfriend. I have to, I have to wear it because it’s such a nice sweatshirt. And no, I don't also really feel like a creative director all the time, so it's literally a hoodie that like empowers me when I put it on. Kind of, when I have it on and I do feel like creative director. Wear what, um, you know, not what you're currently doing, but what you think you'll be doing in the next couple of years kind of thing.Saintsing: All right, for sure. Okay, so we've said you're in art practice and I guess people can now gather that you're doing something with film if you're wearing a creative director sweatshirt. But could you tell us a little bit about, you know, who you are, what you're doing? Just to get started.Hambira: For sure, yeah. So, you know, so my name is Kavena, Kav, and I'm a contemporary Namibian artist and filmmaker based here in in Oakland. And I'm currently in the MFA program at Berkeley, and I'm currently an MFA ‘22 candidate. So, I just finished my first year. I initially came to the US on a Fulbright many, many years ago in 2012, and after that experience I went back to Namibia and got into civil society. I guess here you refer to it as non-profit work. And it was really just a continuation of some of the volunteer work I was doing here in the Bay Area. I volunteered as a videographer for a few organizations, and some were art-based organizations, some of those organizations were unions, particularly ILWU, International Longshore Workers Union, here in Oakland, Local 10. And the Love, Not Blood campaign, which is run by two really incredible activists, civil rights activists here in the Bay Area. Referring specifically to Cephas “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, and Beatrice Keaton X, and they both have been instrumental in really the work that I've been doing because through them I've connected with other families that have been impacted by state and community violence and really documenting their work around those issues.Saintsing: So, you have your interest in… Most of what you're doing is to focus on these issues of state violence.Hambira: Yeah, you know, I have to always throw out this disclaimer, because I never wanted to misrepresent myself, you know, as an African man living in the diaspora. You know I'm really interested in using the poetics of film to ask political questions but also provide opportunities for the exchange of public opinion. And you know a lot of my practice draws from my vantage point, again, as an African man. And not growing up in the US, I really had a very linear view of the American experience, and it was filtered through, you know, limited information. I grew up in the 90s, you know, pre-internet and, you know, I was really influenced by pop culture. America's number one export really is just popular culture, and I think my perception of the black experience was very far removed from the reality on the ground. You know I had this idea that America, you know, was always sold as this kind of land, the City on the Shining Hill, and, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats. But when I came to the US on a full ride, I really, you know, found it was a very different experience, and it wasn't really until the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin's killer, when I really was exposed to this great injustice that's occurring in the streets of the United States, particularly as it relates to gun violence both in communities, but also by the state, particularly through the police force. And working with these families really awakened a thought around, you know, why it is perhaps we are not as exposed to these issues across the Atlantic, and I just felt there was a need to really digest and systematically lay out these issues, and it's with the idea that you're not just understanding, but also creating general awareness around these issues. And I didn't know how to express myself in a conventional way working in non-profit, civil society. Certainly couldn't do it in the corporate industry, so coming to art school pursuing an MFA was an opportunity to really incubate those ideas. And this is how I ended up at Berkeley.Saintsing: You came here to pursue a graduate degree before the Berkeley degree? Or were you in a undergraduate program before you were in this program now you're at with Berkeley?Hambira: That's correct. Not the latter, but the former. I came on a Fulbright in 2012 in a completely different field of study. You know, my focus was more on labor relations, cognitive resolution at the time. Not in the world peace, but more kind of organizational human resource space. And I really wasn't conscientized until I started volunteering. I, you know, picked up my camera. I picked up a camera, and I started filming, and I ended up in an art collective. Shout out to Inks of Truth in San Francisco. And I really just started familiarizing myself with the camera. And I mean I was filming everything. Just, you know, protests, shows, events. Like if they were opening an envelope, I was there.Saintsing: Right. That was like your first experience filming?Hambira: Yes. Mind you: I grew up with a camera. So, my father was a photojournalist. My father was the official between 1978 and 1984, he was the official photographer of the People's Liberation Movement in Namibia, and so I always grew up with a camera around. But I never really pursued it because, you know, I grew up in a society that prioritized material science over the arts, right? So, you know, “You're not gonna get a job if you go to art school.” Like this was the kind of very traditionalist society I had grown up in, and I think to a certain extent, you… Some of these things, you think about and you live through, and it's not really until something occurs or some sort of rupture happens when you like understand, like there's really an opportunity to wake up every morning and pursue something with meaning. And I think that like it was very meaningful to pursue this work. And I found it almost like it haunted me, you know? Like I kind of felt like, in many ways, this is like, you know, (I don't want to sound spiritual, but, you know) it's like this is in my DNA, right? And it's only because I, you know, I didn't have access to the same opportunities. It's only because I wasn't exposed, you know, to an art space early on that I wasn't doing it early on. But now that I was in that space, now that I was living in a cosmopolitan city, and never mind state, like San Francisco. You're exposed to art galleries that you never were exposed to. You're going, you know, to screenings, to art spaces, and here in Oakland, there's a, you know, huge art community that I connected with. You know, meeting artists, Black artists, you know, it was like a kid in a candy store. And you know, that really is what shaped my experience outside of academia. It wasn't even… This was not what my Fulbright was about, right? And so, going back to Namibia, I understood that, you know, (and this was after my Fulbright), that there was still a lot of work that had to be done. Of course, I maintained relationships with a lot of, especially, the impacted families that I had worked with. When I'd come back to visit after one particular, I think, two years after my departure, I'd come back to visit, and I could still see you know that the situation hadn't really changed. In fact, I think at that stage much of the movement had subsided. I just continued to hold on to a lot of the footage, and I didn't know how to really pursue it further unless I was able to really kind of have a space to really incubate my ideas and produce the work. And coming to Berkeley allowed that. In fact, this year I produced my first short film, titled The People's Uncle, and we screened it in February, and it centered around this work.Saintsing: Well, congrats on getting that film made and screened!Hambira: Thank you!Saintsing: Do you feel that you needed help with the craft of making films and that's why you're in this program now? Or this is kind of a space that's affording you opportunities to pursue projects that maybe you wouldn't have had a chance to pursue if you weren't in this program?Hambira: Yeah, I think, I mean, I think it's a little bit of both, you know? At the at the very core, I'm a storyteller who produces work that unearths caveats that are suppressed by dominant narratives, meaning my work doesn't always have to take the form of a documentary film. I want to believe that a lot of my work is research-based. It's a research-based social practice, and in order to really understand and get to the core of some of these ideas and challenges that I'm exploring, I needed to be in an institution that has a research facility, that has research facilities. The Pacific Archive, of course. The Berkeley, th BAMPFA, and its specific archive at the Berkeley Museum. And it's an immeasurable resource. It's an immeasurable resource. It's also very costly to produce film. So, just things like having access to equipment, the right equipment, the right camera equipment, lights, audio, studio to mix sound. These are all resources that are available to me now where I never had them before. And that's just like, that's just the reality. I mean, if I'm filming in Namibia, and I crack my Canon 70D, there's like one official Canon provider who'll quote me and then tell me to come back after two months to replace the lens because here we have to order the part from South Africa. So, like, you know, we, living in a developed country and growing up in a developing country, it gives me, you know, two very unique experiences. And I think that's also what I can talk about, that vantage point. I struggled to mix, I was really struggling to make sense of all of that because, you know, I'm trying to connect these dots that are related not just to my own personal history, but to a collective history. Black history is global history, you know. So, just being close to institutions that have the required archives that i need to reference so I could actually see them and feel them and touch them. You know, a good example is a Marcus Garvey archive, you know. And so, yeah, you know, as I'm exploring the space between Africa and its people in the diaspora, I did also find (and I think this goes to the second part of your question) like I needed to be here physically to produce this work. And I just happened… Obviously, I don't want to say, but I’ve come at the right time because I've been documenting some of these families for almost eight years. And so, you know, you incur a debt. You incur a debt, and I wanted to do good by that promise, you know, because a lot of these families, they trust you to come into their space and help them tell their story about their lost loved one as they continue to pursue justice. And so, I felt it was important to really honor and honor them by producing work with care, and that's why I needed to enroll in a program. Because I just, I was lacking, like I said the research and just access to resources to complete this work.Saintsing: I'm really interested to know more about this film you made, just actually the content of it. But I also am just interested also in the program that you're in. Is art practice very heavily focused on film at Berkeley? Is it just kind of lots of different media, and you're one of several filmmakers among various artists?Hambira: I’ll tackle your second question first because I can remember that since you asked it last. But no, yes. So the Art Practice Department at Berkeley is by far one of the best in the country, and that's primarily because it's structured like an art residency. And you're correct, Andrew, in that you have a really a gaggle of different artists. And you know, we all have different forms. We'll produce different work, but this is really… I see a very common thread where really this year we're the first, probably the most diverse cohort in the history, the 50+ years history of the Berkeley MFA program, you know. BIPOC, intersectional group of students. I'm one of two filmmakers in a cohort of six. We have, you know, artists that come from different parts of the country and different parts of the world, from the UK, Namibia, where I'm from in southern Africa, and here in California. And that, you know, I think going through COVID with this group, with this cohort has also been really important. I think it's an important experience because it's unique in many ways that we develop these relationships, really meaningful relationships, without physically being in the same space, having a group show without being physically in the same space. So, there were unique challenges we've had to overcome, and I think that's really created an even more exceptional bond, created deeper more meaningful connections. And to your second part of the question: You know, I really appreciate you asking because you know this work, this particular film is my central focus at Berkeley, and I really wanted to use the next, or I wanted to use the two years that I'm here to experiment with different forms, particularly narrative and an installation definitely interrogating the white cube space in a gallery. And then of course this is the documentary, my most preferred form. And this film really is about the life of Cephus Johnson and Beatrice Keaton, affectionately known as Uncle Bobby and Aunt B. The married couple, particularly Uncle Bobby, who is the uncle of Oscar Grant, was really a systems engineer from Silicon Valley, from San Jose when his life took a really sharp turn after the murder, the killing of his nephew Oscar Grant in January 2009. And understanding that they were really the first family, this was the first case in the state's history, in the history of the state of California, to have a police officer not only arrested, tried, and convicted, but also sentenced. Many other families around the United States looked at them and the Oscar Grant case almost as a blueprint to seeking justice for their loved ones that have been killed in a similar way. And understanding that there is this unfortunate need. A lot of families started reaching out to them for help and assistance, and through that they developed the Oscar Grant Foundation, and now the Love, Not Blood Campaign, which embraces families from around the country that have been impacted or that are suffering from police and community violence. And they really have been doing this work selflessly and without seeking any sort of praise or acknowledgement. And around the time I started volunteering for the organization as a videographer, I remember going to Chicago in 2015 for the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till's death and meeting all of the other families, the other impacted families, and hearing their stories. And you know, really because when we spent an entire weekend together and I was documenting them in these different spaces, I started really seeing them beyond the symbolism, right? You know, I was almost trying to understand how they've become these symbols, but especially their children have become these symbols, and we look beyond their pain, we oftentimes no longer see them any longer. And it made me think about, especially experiencing that weekend with the families, it made me think about the work that still to lay ahead for them as they sought justice for their loved ones, and I thought it was really important for folks to understand what happens when an issue is no longer trending, when the hashtag fades away. These families are still left with this pain, and they still are pursuing justice for their loved ones, and I really wanted to shed light. And this is what this film and the work that they do is all about.Saintsing: When you make a film, when you make a documentary, what do you see as your role after it's made? Do you think… I guess as an artist more generally, are you showing people things and then trying and then hoping that now that people's eyes are opened, they will pursue action? Or do you see a place for yourself then actually pursuing action based on the films that you made?Hambira: Yeah, like, again I think it's brilliant. It kind of speaks to… It's a brilliant question, and it kind of speaks to what we spoke about early around this vantage point, you know, this idea that I am really operating as a conduit, you know, between southern African, as an African, and the African diaspora. And so, I'm speaking to multiple audiences, and I think because we live in such a time of disinformation, you need to be able to filter your information through facts, and by supplementing that evidence with the work, the hope is that, I'm providing an opportunity for the exchange of public opinion, you know, I'm using the poetics of film to ask political questions, but, you know, I don't necessarily have the solutions. But what I do want to be able to do is bring my work into spaces that typically won't be having these conversations and activate those spaces. I grew up in Namibia. For those that don't know, Namibia at one point was part of South Africa. Up until 1990, we were literally by a mandate. And this mandate, I don't want to go down the rabbit hole here, emanates from the League of Nations after, since we're a former German colony, after Germany lost the World War, we basically got incorporated into to the South African Union, and we grew up under apartheid. Our parents were political exiles that were fighting to emancipate, and they used their youth, the best years of their lives to help liberate their country. And so, growing up under that duress, understanding how it's displaced people within my own family, myself, my own person (I grew up in East Germany, right? I was displaced in that way.) You start to infer trends, and I really wanted to explore some of these broader issues because police brutality is really just a manifestation of a broader system, right? Like this police brutality is one manifestation of a white supremacist system. Now what happens if we explore the Black experience in Southeast Asia? What happens if we explore the Black experience in East Africa? What happens if we explore the Black experience in Bakersfield, California? I mean, you can infer the similar trends. There are many similar trends, and my goal is to connect these dots. I want folks to, even if I'm, and this is why when I talk about unearthing caveats that are swapped over by dominant narratives, I'm talking about these stories that may be perceived by someone on the other side of the world as being insignificant or unconnected to their own struggle. And this is why I say Black history is global history. So, you know, this work and during my time at Berkeley, I want to really go deep. I want to really find how these struggles are connected, and when you watch the film, you'll see there's a montage in the film that I literally refer to as a Sankofa moment, and it takes it back to Africa. It takes it back to Africa, and it's that portion of the film that speaks to what I’m talking about now.Saintsing: Would listeners be able to watch the film? Is it available widely?Hambira: Yes, so because the film was, the show was… The first year MFA show was hosted during COVID-19. We had a virtual exhibition, so you are still able to go to the website, the exhibition website, and that website if you'd like, the details are whenthingsgetbacktonormal.net That's one word. whenthingsgetbacktonormal.net You'll be able to see the work of not just myself, but all the other six artists in the show. Let me maybe just quickly give some space and share a little bit about their work. The first artist is Erica Deeman. Erica is a visual artist from Nottingham, from the UK. And Erica's work intersects race, gender, and the hybridity of Black identity. Then there's also Edgar Fabian Frias. Edgar's from Los Angeles and is a non-binary, queer, indigenous, and brown, multi-disciplinary artist, curator, educator, and psychotherapist by the way. The third artist is Hala Kaddoura, and that's also the other filmmaker. She has a film background, but Hala is a Palestinian-American artist, a community builder, social impact initiator, and is also an educator. You have Ahn Lee, from Los Angeles, a non-binary, queer, Cantonese artist and researcher. And then we have last, but not least, is Rivka. And Rivka, also known as Kakou, is an Oakland-based mixed media visual artist, writer, educated performer, and community organizer. So, I really encourage you, if you haven't had an opportunity already, go to whenthingsgetbacktonormal.net, check out all of their work. You'll also be able to catch my film there. And if you want to just go directly to my website as well, you'll be able to watch the film, and that's kavcavalier.comSaintsing: Unfortunately, it looks like we are running out of time on the interview. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Hambira: Yeah, I think I personally just want to thank you being an audience member, if you're listening you are an important member of the community and just understand that you equally have a role to play, however big or small, and don't underestimate that role.Saintsing: Today, we've been speaking with Kav Hambira from the Department of Art Practice. Again, thank you so much for being on the show, Kav.Hambira: Andrew, I appreciate that.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
7/6/2021

Selim Goncu

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Selim Goncu from the Department of Music. Welcome to the show, Selim.Selim Goncu: Hey, thanks for having me here.Saintsing: So, great to have you here. I'm really interested to learn more about music. To start off, like what are you doing? What is your program? You're studying music composition, right?Goncu: Yes, so I am doing a PhD in music composition, which is a little bit of a weird concept in itself because not only am I a fake doctor, I'm kind of like a fake fake doctor, you know? Not even a fake doctor in the real sense, but a fake fake doctor, you know?Saintsing: What do you mean?Goncu: So, what I mean by that is of course like the broad scope of PhD is now so wide, right? So, I mean, you could have your doctorate or research in any field but what makes sort of a music composition PhD a little bit like weird sounding is that it's, for some of us, it's… writing music is less tied to research. Although, there are many colleagues and many other composers who are really research oriented people, but I am not really one of them. So, for me it's even worse, you know. It's like there is another doctorate title for musicians, though. It's called DMA, so Doctor of Musical Arts, so some other universities only give that title. So, in Berkeley, it's PhD, but I guess there's not much of a difference between the DMA and PhD. Like, they're the same thing.Saintsing: Okay, so I'm interested in the more research-oriented side, but I'm also interested in your side. So, let's start with you. So, you say you're not really doing research. So, are you essentially in your degree program is about creating your music essentially?Goncu: That's true. I'm by no means, and well of course it also depends what you uh consider to be research, right? I mean there's some search first of all, right? Like, there's some search for whatever you want. Like, it could be the kind of language I would like to have, or there's the maybe kind of a search, for instance the kind of chords I would like to use in my music or the kind of instrumental timbres. But there's also a search for meaning, right? Like there's also a search of meaning because there's something weird about the like the whole musical thing in itself. I don't want to digress but what I sometimes tell people when I talk or also students is is there meaning to music. So, I mean, does music tell you something that you could express verbally? It's as if i were to have a like, you know, when I had like my classes at UC Berkeley, I sometimes tell them for instance if I were to give you one week and you have to read Waiting for Godot by Beckett, and you have and you come back after a week, and you know I make an exam and let's say you know you're like me and you haven't of course read the thing, and you just you know ask you know colleague, “Hey, what is it about?” Of, course it's hard. Okay, when it's about Beckett, it's a bit hard to say. But, you know, I mean, you could possibly pass that exam. Maybe you know you could say, “Okay, but if I were to say let me pick something for instance a musical example that doesn't have any text because with text there's language in our sense coming to the picture, right?” But when I say, “For instance, okay, so we are going to listen to the Seventh Violin Sonata by Beethoven. Come back and tell me what you know.” I mean, so it's really hard, right? I mean even if you have listened or not listened, how are you going to express what happened in there with words?Saintsing: Yeah, I would… I have no idea would you say. The research aspect is kind of delving into these musical pieces and then trying to find the words to describe them trying to find the meaning of music. Is that?Goncu: That's not… For me, that's more like, for instance, the area of a music theorist, right? Or I mean in other senses for instance ethnomusicologists for instance. They would be the real PhD people, you know. Like because they, you know, know how to do proper research, you know how to write scientifically. But with me it's like, with me what also got me into music of course, I mean I wasn't thinking about it back then, but like there's something about music that defies being expressed with words. It's like music is showing you the middle finger, and saying, “Okay, you are not going to tell me what I am. You are not going to be able to express me with the language you think that helps you communicate with others.” So, whenever I try to speak of my own music, which is sometimes a disaster, you know. But also, other like, it's such a weird feeling because really, I don't know what to say. As if with every sentence I built, I'm wrong.Saintsing: Music: it's its own language essentially, and you struggle to translate from…Goncu: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean also in that sense, but you know, let's not get there but you know is music a language? Because a language has to be translatable. What are you going to translate? Like if I go to, you know, native Australians and show Kendrick Lamar, I mean I don't know what they're going to think of that, you know? I mean, so is music translatable? Also, it's a different story, but I mean for me, it's a little bit of, I mean why I make music… I mean where, maybe I'm digressing but, like one: it gives me joy, right? Like just also like writing or also just purely playing music, and it's also some sort of um like you're creating your own world in the meaninglessness of life, you know?Saintsing: The meaninglessness. Are you, would you say music gives a meaning?Goncu: Oh, no. No, I mean it's just like, you know, I mean it gives my life a meaning, you know. It gives my life a meaning, maybe. Maybe in that sense, you know.Saintsing: Like you don't have, you can't see a meaning until you apply one, and music is a way to do that maybe?Goncu: I mean in a very just like a little bit of a just like philosophical way, maybe. Yeah. But you know… because there's meaning you know. There's meaning. There's food for instance you know. That's enough meaning for me. You know I just had great Indian food, for instance, that was great you know. There's this place called Satkar, and they don't even deliver. They say, “Corona, we don't care. You come here. You pick up.” Like, it's been like this for a year now. But what I mean is I don't know how I even got into it, but it's just I don't know. It's just like as if you want to create your own world, as if like you're still a child and playing with your own toys, you know?Saintsing: Right, no, yeah. Would you say the degree is essentially granting you the space to look for that world?Goncu: So, there are a couple of things of course. Number one it's very difficult for I mean many researchers or musicians especially. Like especially composers because you know your income right is not really stable. Like as either you get commissions or you get you know grants, fellowships. But you know when you do your PhD… so, here says, for instance, Berkeley says, “Hey, you have time and space here for five years, you know. You come here without worrying too much about your finances and you're going to study with people who you want to work with, and they hopefully want to work with you as well.” If you want, if you want to get a lot of teaching experience, that's one of the great things about, for instance, Berkeley Music Department, we get to be instructors. Like, we are not TAs or anything. Just we teach the classes. That's really very good about it because many colleagues that I know, they just do TA work and which is just like basically like correcting homeworks. Like here, like one-on-one against these you know great students of Berkeley, you just like have amazing connection.Saintsing: And when you say study with someone, what do you mean by that? Like you have an advisor, a main advisor?Goncu: Yes, and it doesn't have to be one person. It's actually, well you can do whatever you want actually, you know? You can just go and study with one person from the beginning till the end, but it's generally encouraged that you study with you know two, three different people, you know. You just meet with them. So, the reason why I came was there were like two great musicians that I knew that I wanted to come and study here with. So, it's actually still the master and apprentice relationship. You get one-on-one you know lessons, which is also a weird thing in itself like because composition lesson is a funny thing.Saintsing: Yeah, what's a composition lesson?Goncu: Like, yeah, what's a composition lesson? You know it's just like a composition lesson is difficult because it's really hard to teach the thing, right? It's really hard to teach composition I mean you could really teach songwriting. For instance, you could say, “Hey, here's your verse and your chorus and maybe this is how you connect them together. Hey, maybe here the chorus came back twice, but should it come a third time?” You know stuff like that are… So, maybe it's… so there are is like, there are really things to learn, right? Like you learn things about like harmony, right? You know how chords go together, how to harmonize a melody, you know. But composing and the way you develop your own ideas is a really difficult thing to teach right? And like many composers also… you know I mean of course you teach some like what you call handcraft. That's something you teach, but then the composition lesson becomes I mean at this doctorate level maybe more of, “Hey, we could do it this here or this here. What do you think of this idea?” So, it's just like really it becomes a discussion between you know advisor and you know the doctorate candidate. And of course sometimes, sometimes we even just like end up watching a movie or something, you know? Like the teacher says, “Hey, you know I'm going to show you something. This could be interesting for, you know, what you're thinking of.” And just like we'll spend an hour of nothing to do with music. I mean nothing to do with the piece. Well, of course it has something to do, but you know we won't even talk about it you know.Saintsing: Right, so before you get to the PhD, you've already kind of done the work of learning like the harmonies, the scales, like of the building blocks of like writing music, right? And so once you get here, it's mostly about those interactions where the advisor is trying to push you further maybe? Like show you things you might have not seen before, and then once you actually have something written down and you can play it for them, then they're essentially acting as an editor?Goncu: Yes, so first they check, oh, for instance they check sometimes like from like the most basic things sometimes. “Oh, you know, with these instrumentation here, the saxophones wouldn't sound from those things, you know, because like their experience speaks, right?” I mean, maybe, I have written like two works in that instrumentation, they did like seven, ten, you know? So, I mean they know, right? That's… from there until like the overall picture of things, but like what is great about like the doctoral studies here is, it's as if you are in a residency, you know? As if you get, because they're like these artist residencies, you know? Like there's one that I've been to that was in New Hampshire, and it's called MacDowell. It's a huge place like with a huge forest, and there are 32 little cabins, and an artist is in there, you know. And it's like, here's like that, you know, you're all, you are free to do whatever you want, you know? Of course, like your output, like your creative output is encouraged, but nobody says for instance, “You have to have a lesson with me every week” or something like that. So, they try to support your artistic goals, and of course, they also do some career advice and everything you know that's also something that needs to be said but yeah i did the the other stuff. I mean before, and of course, it's a never-ending thing, but so I studied in Europe, so my bachelors and masters, I did in Austria, so there's a bit of a difference. We should talk about this maybe, if you don't mind. There's a difference between approach to music and musical composition in Europe and the States.Saintsing: Oh, like how does, how is it different?Goncu: Yeah, but I'm going to exaggerate a bit, okay? I mean like for simplicity, okay? So, there is something in Europe that says, “We are the tradition. Learn your tradition. Like, learn your Beethoven symphonies. Learn to do this, this, this, this, and then knowing the tradition, come and do your own thing. Like, break the tradition and do your own thing. Or stay in the tradition. Whatever you want.” In the States (again very superficially put, okay?), in the US, it's like, “You come up with what you want to come up with, and then we'll work on that. Don't deal with, ‘I have to know everything in the past’ because that might handcuff you.” Okay?Saintsing: Yeah, that's interesting. that definitely doesn't seem surprising to me, but yeah, I guess… Is that, you think, that's more intimidating? In America?Goncu: Okay, for me? Okay, for me, I am glad that I did my doctorate here. Okay, so I would have, I would have… I mean my ways like, I like that. Maybe it's the way I'm raised, but if I were to, for instance, begin… Of course, there are like institutions who… I don't know how Berkeley does it with composition bachelors or something, but I'm glad that I got that handcraft first and then built upon that. But I mean both can be very dangerous, too, you know? Versus, if you… I remember I had a… it wasn't a composition teacher of mine. I had a teacher in Austria, and he knew so much music. So, whenever he would speak of an idea, he said, “Oh, yeah. This sounds like this. This sounds like that.” So, whenever he would come up with like five seconds of music, he knew, “Oh, this sounds like that.” So, he would like scratch and start over again, so it was just really not enabling him to move further. The other thing is like, “Okay, let me express myself. Whatever, whatever I do, it's good.” That's also something weird because then the problem is you might be really repeating something exactly. There's nothing wrong with like writing in a certain style or something like that, you know? You don't have to go, you know, avant-garde the whole time, you know? But it's good to… But for me it's good to know what came before because I mean that's also something I enjoy, you know?Saintsing: Yeah, that's like most degrees, right? Like, you need to establish that understanding of your field to be able to build something new. Although, I guess with music it's interesting because I guess, you know, in terms of research, right, like I'm in a science PhD and I guess we kind of think of a progress of knowledge, right? Like of building on to get to something that humans didn't know until now, right? Whereas with music, I don't know. Is there necessarily kind of that idea of progress? Like does that even make sense in music? Do you… Do you need to push forward? Or are you always trying to… Everyone is trying to find something that maybe everyone who's ever been writing music has been trying to find and it's just something hard to express like you were trying to express?Goncu: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I completely understand what you mean. It's, it's, it's, that's a really difficult… I mean, it's not difficult. I mean it's difficult for me at least to express. Again, again, you know the language barrier right here. But there's some, and we can talk about some sort of a progress, but I mean not progress in a scientific way because you know like it's I'm speaking of maybe a progress of, for instance, let's say like in the time of Bach like, you know, you know, like mid 18th century, he passed away. So, 18th century and before, for instance, not every (because we have 12 keys, right?) I'm not, not… 12 possible pitches, right? And scales, like 12 times 2 let's say in the western music. Not every scale was usable in his time because, you know, because of that the tunings were different and stuff. And then slowly music started spreading like and became more flexible with harmony. It's not that it's better or something, but there was a progress in the harmonic use for instance. And that took us to all this, you know, crazy stuff that happened, you know, in the 20th century. But of course, there's a difference, and that also comes… Maybe that is not necessarily because it's like more developed or better but, for instance, orchestras grew bigger, you know? Like a baroque orchestra is very, very small and then, you know, classical is a little bit more, and then with romantic you have trombones, and then 20th century you have huge percussion, and now maybe you have like electronics and stuff like that. So, it's weird. Like the tendency is to grow, you know? It's just like something, you know, accumulates, right? But there have been enough, there has been enough proof that, well, it doesn't necessarily have to be bigger or more complex. For instance, one of the most known like living classical composers of, you know, right now is an Estonian composer called Arvo Part. Maybe you've heard of the name? And he writes very simplistic music, and he also comes from the school where he wrote all this crazy stuff. But he just like, I think, said, “All right, no. I'm just going back.” And he even, like, his music even went back to some kind of a Renaissance-like mood. But of course now from the kaleidoscope of a contemporary, you know, composer. But, but the last 50 years, for instance, is a little bit more now. You have more of a, for instance, especially let's say like what's more popular. There's a little bit of this fashion, and contrast like, you know, 50s, 60s music is more like the birth of pop, like radio-friendly, two/three/four minutes songs, verses and choruses. And then some people got tired of it, and there comes Pink Floyd, and they say, “We're gonna write like 18 minute long songs. ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ will have like seven minute intro” or something like that. And then they, they grow more and more, you know, like complex music. And suddenly comes punk, you know? And it says, “All right, the hell with them.” Where everyone is able to do music, you know? Nobody needs to be a virtuosic. And then back to like garage kind of playing, you know? It's just like, there's like these ups and downs of the whole thing, but the times are changing really fast. Like music fashion changes very quicklySaintsing: I was thinking it's like less like studying evolution and more just like evolution where you just…Goncu: Exactly, yeah, yeah.Saintsing: What do you think drives changes in music?Goncu: I think we humans tend to exploit whatever we find, you know? Some, let's say, some good mind came up with a great idea, let's say. Okay, and that it gets exploited so bad, you know? It's just like, you know? And you know, people who do in the similar style come up, and just like, that gets exploited, exploited, exploited until nothing else is left, you know? And then a change needs to happen, you know? And we are exploiting at such a fast rate, you know? We're really exploiting at such a fast rate that it's really weird to see these changes.Saintsing: You think that just has to do with accessibility? Like the amount of people who can make and produce music?Goncu: I think so. I think so, yeah, yeah.Saintsing: So, we kind of like talked about what in general happens in the program, but I was interested to know what is the end point? Do you produce a piece of music? Is that like your dissertation essentially?Goncu: So, there are different ways, I think, and maybe while I answer this one, I could also, you know, answer your question based on research. We are basically… We can do two things. (I might be wrong, by the way.) But anyway, so what I'm going to do is I have a dissertation piece, right? It's a piece that I'm writing. So, you hand it to the jury, and that's it. So, my piece is my dissertation. But you can also write a thesis. I mean, you know, why? Let's say you're composing, but you say, “Okay, I want to write a thesis.” You know, I mean, maybe you like it, or maybe you just want to, whatever. That's also possible. Maybe you could, let's say, maybe you use a newly found, maybe, like maybe, you're, you're researching to make instruments. There are some colleagues who use electronic means to create some instruments. For instance, some gloves with some, and as they move, sound comes out, you know? Like, there are people who work with stuff like that. And that could be then your research. We have maybe even more than 50 percent of my colleagues spend a lot of time at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at Berkeley. CNMAT for short. And they are, for instance, more, for instance, research-oriented than maybe I am. Not that they don't write music. They of course do, but some of them just, for instance, work with electronic devices and how to, for instance, create instruments or how to, for instance, change sound and work with sound. Or, you know, now that, for instance, you know, just like we could right now add some video effect on zoom, right? You have different glasses and stuff like that. You know these things, so now our computers are able to do these things. So, can they do it with audio. So, while, you know, let's say a rock band is performing. You know, a DJ somewhere could push a couple of buttons or change some knobs and the sound changes. So, there are a lot of people who are doing research on live music processing, live audio processing, you know? So, that would be a more like, “Oh, yeah. Okay, I could see that being a PhD kind of attitude” you know?Saintsing: Right, and the thesis, if you were to write one there, it would entail something like that. Like there would have to be…Goncu: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah.Saintsing: So, you wouldn't write anything about the dissertation piece? Like, that's not part of…Goncu: I asked, but no. No, we don't.Saintsing: I guess the music just speaks for itself. It's the world you created like you were saying.Goncu: Exactly, exactly. But of course, I mean it's like because the department is not… I mean, it's not a huge department, so there are like two or three people admitted every year. I mean to the composition PhD. So, everybody knows, like the whole faculty knows what every individual is doing. So, I mean they're always looking, “Okay, maybe this person is more like creative output-oriented.” Or you know, they're like, you know, they're, “Your performances and stuff.” So, they're aware of what's happening. If I were to come here and do nothing, I mean, this would… it wouldn't take me too long to get kicked out, you know?Saintsing: Yeah, i wasn't questioning the degree or anything. I was just…Goncu: I am. I am.Saintsing: But yeah. I was kind of interested in like what happened. You just hand them some music. Do you perform it? Or do you record it and like give them a recording? Or do you write and you…Goncu: So, you write the score. You hand in the score. Sometimes it gets performed. For instance, my dissertation was supposed to be… the dissertation piece was supposed to be premiered like a month ago or something like that, but of course that got postponed because ensembles cannot operate as well. So, it was for an ensemble. So, it's like 16 players playing at the same time. So, it's going to be next year. But I mean in cases where it cannot get performed, I mean your score sort of speaks for itself. Of course, they would prefer to hear it, of course. But I mean, it's also like, there's this personal relationship with the faculty as well.Saintsing: I guess that at that point you've been speaking with all the faculty, and so, they've all kind of given their input if the music is finished at that point. So like, essentially it's just like, “Yeah, now we… Now you're done. Yeah, we knew you were.”Goncu: Yes, but I mean, I don't know whether every PhD has this, but we have this qualification exam, right? I mean, so there you have a lot of analysis to do. So, analysis of works. So, the jury gives you three works, and you pick three works that you have to analyze and come back and just like talk about them, you know? And they really give you a hard time on in. There, like they really give you a hard time, you know? When you are just like talking about these pieces, you know?Saintsing: And that's where you kind of get at that issue that you're talking about at the beginning that how do you put music into words?Goncu: Yeah, yeah. I remember, for instance, there's this Italian composer I picked the music of. And then one of the teachers said… So, the Italian composer's name is Sciarrino, and one of the, you know, faculty members said, “Um, so Selim, why do you think… Let's say you have a composition student. Why do you think it's important for him or her to know Sciarrino?” So, that was the question I had in the quals. And I just, and I said, “It isn't important. It doesn't have to be, you know? You don't have to know.” But I mean, you know, so you get really like these tough questions, you know? But what I really loved was I was always looking forward to teaching. I was really looking forward to teaching. That was one of the things that really made me happy, too. And every time I went to teach, I was quite, even on the days… Did you teach as well?Saintsing: Yeah, yeah.Goncu: So, you know, there are days where you don't want to go and teach, right? But I would go into the classroom, in five minutes I would be just like, like in the zone, you know? Like would be… So, I really loved teaching a lot, and there is this something, like quite fundamental, there, right? Like, you know, you're sharing that experience with them, with the students, and you cannot believe like how, oh, what amazing ideas they come up with.Saintsing: So, you're teaching composition?Goncu: Not like, no. I wasn't teaching composition here. I was teaching more like, you know, introduction to music or sometimes, you know, how to harmonize melodies and chorales and stuff like that, you know? That has been really rewarding for me I have to say.Saintsing: Yeah, and do you think that's going to be something you keep doing after the…Goncu: I would love to keep teaching, yes. I would really like that. The thing is, first, some people say they don't want to do it, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's a little bit of, how should I say? Unless you're a superstar, it's very hard to have a stable income without a, like, position. Not that it has to be an academic position, you know? That's not the only way to live, but, you know, I, even if I were, let's say a superstar, let's say. Okay? But I would still love to teach. I would then say, “Hey, I'm teaching one day a week, okay? That's it.” But I would still love to teach because it's like, because they show you so many things as well.Saintsing: So, unfortunately it looks like we're running out of time. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Goncu: Don't zap your music. Don't zap your movies or books. Take the time to listen to an album or a piece from beginning till the end without being interrupted. If you watch a TV show, don't text. Observe it without dealing with other stuff that's around you. That's all I can say.Saintsing: Today we've been speaking with Selim Goncu, from the Department of Music about what even is a PhD in Music Composition. Thanks so much for being on the show, Selim.Goncu: It's been my pleasure.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
6/22/2021

Rachel Hammond

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Rachel Hammond, from the School of Public Policy. Welcome to the show, Rachel.Rachel Hammond: Thanks, Andrew. Thanks for having me.Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. So, Rachel you're in the School of Public Policy. Why don't you start by telling us like a little bit about what public policy is, what it means to you, and what it entails?Hammond: Sure, public policy is a lot of different things, which I kind of learned once I got here. But the Goldman School kind of treats public policy as two-fold. One: it's quantitative analysis and using data to inform decision making. And then two: it's really the qualitative side of understanding what people need and what governments can do to help meet people's needs and how we can make better decisions to help our country and the world kind of continue to improve and help people at the best that we can.Saintsing: Okay, so you're figuring out, yeah, like how the government and people interact and then backing that up with like statistical data essentially? Or figuring out like how best to apply the help that you can using like sound statistical data essentially?Hammond: Yes, and the Goldman School is famous for what they call the Eightfold Path. So, one of our old deans came up with this method for policy analysis where there are kind of eight steps you take. So, it starts with defining the problem, and you kind of figure out what it is that you're trying to address. You get very specific and then you gather some evidence to figure out why is this problem happening, what's kind of driving it, and where are the intervention points that maybe we can address some of the problems. And then it's a lot of analysis of coming up with different options and then kind of trying to evaluate different policies and project how you how we think they'll perform if they're actually implemented and what the actual outcomes will be. And then kind of figuring out how do we… the final step is telling your story. So, how do you actually communicate this with other people who have the power to make changes and how do we get these things put into action?Saintsing: So, when you say communicate this to people who have the power to make changes, I guess when you operate in the capacity that the school is training you for, you're kind of like more in like think tank areas, and like areas where you're just kind of doing research on problems and not so much actual policy makers, the people who actually are implementing the things that you think would be helpful for the government to do?Hammond: I think it's a mix of both. You know, in the classroom setting you kind of feel more like you're in the think tank world, but then in reality for projects that folks do throughout the time they're in the school and then the internships people do and what we do after we graduate, a lot of people work as advisors to folks who are actually making, who are actual policy makers. There are people who work on the ground and are kind of implementing different programs or ideas, so it's a wide variety of things, and it kind of depends what you're most interested in what people end up doing.Saintsing: So, like what kinds of things are people working on in the program?Hammond: Oh my gosh. So many things. It's amazing how much. So, being Berkeley, there's a huge push for social justice, racial equity that a lot of my classmates spend their time on. One example is we have a faculty member who runs an organization called One Fair Wage, and she fights for a minimum wage for tipped workers that's equal to minimum wage for every other worker. So, not the $2.13 that they get paid in a lot of other, in most states. And she has a lot of students who work with her and she teaches an undergraduate class that a lot of folks GSI for. So, that's one thing that some of my classmates are interested in. There's a pretty strong international presence in our program, so a lot of my classmates, there are a good number of them who are from India, and they've been working to organize COVID relief over the past few months, and kind of applying some of the skills they learned in class to help spread the word and organize and reach out to people who can actually help. and then there's the People Lab is part of Goldman, and that is what I would say is like a really applicable example. And people work with local governments trying to improve various aspects of their operations. So, they've done a lot of work for example with the city of Denver and some of their equity work within local government. So, folks are kind of out there doing all sorts of things.Saintsing: So, I was struck by, you know, you're talking about all different levels of government and like different areas, different localities. Does it matter that you're working in different areas? And do you get trained differently depending on where you plan to go, or are these just like you get… there are fundamental principles that you're learning that are applicable across all of these different levels of government areas and then you just kind of, have to once you get into a professional setting learn the area that you're in?Hammond: Yeah, it's a very generalist program. So, everyone kind of gets the same training, and I think a lot of the skills they would use at the more local level, for example, like the city of Oakland, would also apply if you're working for the state of California or if you were interested more in the federal level of government. It's just a lot bigger scope and that changes, but a lot of the things that they teach you in class will apply everywhere, I would say.Saintsing: What about like internationally? Is it at all… Do people have to think differently in different countries?Hammond: Yeah, I think that's one thing the school is working to improve because we do have a good number of international students every year and I think the strengths of the program are certainly domestic policy, but that's not to say that like the US is the only place working to improve the way the government works for its people. So, we do have i mean a really strong group of students who are interested in how can we make this more applicable to people outside the US and how can the school continue to kind of teach about policy making on the international scale compared to more domestic policies. But it's a hard thing to do because you know the us government is so complicated in itself, and there's so many intricacies just to, you know, making policy here in the states, so there are a lot of different you know cultural things to consider if you're making policy say. You know, I have a classmate from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is really different from the US, so I think it's you know something that the school is working to improve on, and it's really great to get to hear from people who are from outside the US.Saintsing: Yeah, I guess that's like really helpful to have that different cultural perspective and even if it's not as directly applicable to some of the policies, that can help you reframe how you're thinking about the policies that you're thinking about.Hammond: Yeah, exactly. And again, since the school is generalist, they do try to like teach you frameworks that will apply in any situation. But most of, you know, the examples and applications that we get to do as students are more domestically focused.Saintsing: Okay, so you've told us different examples of things your classmates are doing. What exactly are you doing? You've done some internships, and you've done a capstone project. You're actually done now with your program, right? So, congratulations on getting your degree.Hammond: Thank you.Saintsing: Yeah, what were your projects that you worked on to complete your degree?Hammond: Yeah, so when I came into school I was really interested in policies that impact families with young children and how the social safety net, so programs like SNAP, which is food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, housing vouchers, how those impact families. So, the first kind of project that I got to work on, it was actually a real life application of some of what we were learning in school. I worked with three classmates to analyze SNAP expansion or Calfresh in the state of California to a new population of eligible people. So, prior to 2019, if you received SSI in California, you weren't eligible to receive Calfresh benefits, and then they changed this rule. SSI, Supplemental Security Income, so that applies to a lot of older folks or people with disabilities who are receiving these benefits and weren't able to also get food stamp benefits that they're eligible for based on their income. And the client we worked for was the California Association of Food Banks, and Calfresh is administered at a county level. So, they wanted to see how different counties across the state were reaching out to this newly eligible population of people and making sure that they enrolled and received benefits that they were eligible for. And you know, there are a lot of barriers that come up when people are enrolling in social safety net programs. There's, you know, an information barrier. Online applications are very new, and when you're talking about supplemental security income it's a lot of elderly folks who maybe aren't as comfortable signing up for something online. So, really trying to figure out how do we reach these populations. So, my classmates and I spoke to people who work at the different county social service departments. And then we also analyzed some data that we had looking at what the actual take-up rates were. So, we were able to kind of see: here are the counties that had really high take-up rates and here's what these counties were doing to help make sure that they reached all these people. That was kind of my first foray into policy work.Saintsing: Did you put together a report on all of that?Hammond: Yeah, so we wrote up some recommendations about what other counties can kind of try to do to continue to increase their take-up rates because at that point at the time we were doing the project people have been eligible for about nine months but not everybody who is eligible have been enrolled. So, it was kind of putting together recommendations for the California Association of Food Banks, so they could kind of bring out the counties and say, “Here are some other ideas for you as you try to continue to enroll people in Calfresh.”Saintsing: You were looking you said at Alameda County?Hammond: The entire state.Saintsing: Okay, were you looking at like success stories or like you were seeing like where things had gone wrong or like what yeah like we were looking at?Hammond: We were looking at both. Part of it, so we we're doing this project right as COVID hit, you know. So, originally, we had aspirations of talking to a lot of different counties, and it wound up being kind of who we could get in touch with. But for example, San Francisco County was a huge success story. They had enrolled 95% of the people who were eligible, whereas some other counties were only around 30%. So, we talked to folks from San Francisco, and they told us about different outreach methods they had done in the city. They actually had kind of enrollment sites just out on street corners and areas where they knew a lot of people lived who were probably eligible, so we were trying to talk to people, yeah, about what they thought maybe their success stories were and how they had planned for the expansion and kind of try to tie together some common themes that we heard from different counties.Saintsing: And then you actually like provided actionable steps in this report for the other counties?Hammond: Yeah.Saintsing: And do you know what's happened with that report?Hammond: I don't. I know that we prepared it for the California Association of Food Banks, and I know that they used it in advocacy efforts and an outreach to various counties across the state to kind of share information. And they posted it on their website for people to read. Yeah, that's all I know.Saintsing: So, you just gotta make the report and hope it gets into the right hands I guess?Hammond: Yeah, I think that's one of the limitations of, you know, we were doing it for a class, and you know, in the real world I would have tried to do more follow-up and kind of see how things were going. I think that's a challenge with policy making, too, you know. You kind of can either be on the high in the sky kind of thinking and analyzing things and then you can also be on the ground trying to do the implementation. And I think it's rare to find a role or a job where you're doing both, and so sometimes it's difficult to kind of bridge that gap and, you know, be both. Have the ideas and kind of do the analysis, and actually handle the implementation.Saintsing: Do you have a sense of which side you want to be on?Hammond: I go back and forth every day, you know. I came to policy school because I was volunteering at a shelter for families experiencing homelessness and I felt like I wasn't doing anything to, you know, solve some of the situations those families were in, and so I wanted to be more on the academic side and figuring out how can we improve services for families. And then I came to school and I kind of learned more about that, and then I was like, “Wow, now I want to be back on the ground and like actually try to you know implement some of these things.” But it's hard. So, like I've been interning for First Five Alameda County for the past year, and First Five is funded by tobacco taxes in the state of California, and each county has their own office, and they run programs for families with children ages 0 through 5. So, the first five years of a kid's life. And they do a lot of things to promote, you know, kindergarten readiness and health for children and supporting families in kind of any way they need. And part of my job since I started was COVID relief efforts, and it was really, you know, getting on the ground and just like doing things as fast as you can. Trying to respond to immediate needs. And there hasn't been the time to kind of sit back and reflect on, you know. I want to be able to think more about what kind of impact are we having, how can we improve, you know, the relief effort, like our relief efforts and the services we're providing for families. And I kind of wish I had, I could step back and, you know, kind of think more deeply about things, but the need is so great. So, we kind of just have to keep moving forward. And so, it's really hard to find that balance. So, I go back and forth between what I want to do every day.Saintsing: Yeah, that's tough. That’s what you're doing now, that's what you said? You're doing COVID relief for families is that uh something you're continuing now like at this point after you've graduated from school?Hammond: Yeah, I'm continuing to do this for a little bit, and what it kind of is and what we're trying to do at First Five is, you know, families have a lot of tangible needs that they just maybe can't provide for themselves. So, for example there's a huge need for diapers. Diapers are expensive, and a lot of the families we serve are maybe people who have lost their jobs or frontline workers who are at higher risk or have been impacted by COVID. So, we're trying to provide things for them like diapers and, you know, gloves and disinfectant wipes and masks. We've even had hundreds of thousands of masks to families, and so I've been working with 10 distribution hubs we have set up across Alameda County who are really ingrained in the community, and so I'm going to continue to work on that going forward. We work with the broader First Five California organization, and then again with a lot of organizations at the county level. So, continuing to communicate with them and work to keep getting supplies out as COVID continues to linger around.Saintsing: As we try to get more people vaccinated, right? As we've moved towards, you know, like the CDC has now issued the no masks outside for people vaccinated, so, you know, in general I guess people are moving towards a head space where it seems like COVID is hopefully becoming less prevalent, have you noticed any changes in your work? Like has it seemed to slow down and like given you some space to breathe at all?Hammond: Yeah, I think it really hasn't expect I think some of the needs that we're addressing… For example, diapers have been a huge need for families before COVID, during COVID, and will continue to be in need after COVID. So, what we're trying to do, a lot of the funds we've been using are COVID-specific, so maybe we won't have the budget for that going forward, but we're trying right now to think about how can we continue to provide these items to families who need them even if COVID is not in the picture. So, a lot of thinking about what are the items that families are going to continue to need even if they're not you know… Maybe if they are vaccinated, and they don't need to wear a mask outside every day, what are the kind of the type of things that they still need that we can support them with.Saintsing: Yeah, that's interesting. Like the diapers, that's something that's completely not COVID related, like that's something that people just need, right? Is that… So, is that a case where maybe the driving force was the appearance of the money from COVID relief almost as much as like actually the crisis? Like you suddenly went into overdrive because you suddenly had this opportunity to address these needs that are always there but you had to act quickly to actually get those funds and use them?Hammond: Yeah, I think that's something we've seen with COVID across the board. It's kind of revealed inequities that we, maybe some people already knew existed in society, but made it really hard to ignore them. You know, a lot of tough things have happened in the past year, but yeah one thing is we have been kind of able to lift the needs of families and say they needed these things all along. Now we had some funding that we could use to support them and here are some ideas for how we can do that forward. So, right now First Five is sponsoring kind of a review of Help Mother Out, which is a diaper bank located in San Francisco, and there we are going to use that to advocate to the state government to try to kind of create a permanent source of funding to provide diapers to families in need.Saintsing: I guess since these funds suddenly were there, and so, this is kind of like a program that you've all had to work together to set up on the fly. Do you feel it moving towards something that's like more established and requires less like hands-on constant managing?Hammond: That's what we're striving for. That's what we we've been kind of, you know, when we originally started these efforts last April, we thought they would be done in June, you know? And it continued to evolve, and once we realized we would be doing it for longer we tried to figure out how what's the best way we can kind of systematize this and make it easy to kind of continue doing it. We kind of do our efforts like every month, so every month we're trying to do the same thing, and then, you know, in the last November, we got a million dollars to continue our supply efforts from the county of Alameda, and so again it was, “Okay, we have this funding. How can we kind of ingrain this into what we're doing and continue it through into 2021?” So, yeah there's been a lot of thought about how we can, you know, make this less reactive to COVID, and kind of more proactive going forward and ingrained into what First Five does.Saintsing: And so, that's kind of getting at like, you were mentioning this divide between hands-on and like up like looking at broader issues. So, I mean you've kind of got that I feel like. That like making this less reactive and more proactive I guess is kind of getting at that divide, right?Hammond: Yeah, it's nice to be able to kind of you know think more about what we've been doing and try to be more thoughtful in our efforts. So, yeah, no, you're right. I am able to kind of bridge the divide and do a little bit of both.Saintsing: Well, you've talked about two projects but this isn't even… Neither of those are the projects that you did your capstone project on, right?Hammond: Yeah, at Goldman when you're doing your capstone you generally do it for a client. So, last fall I spent time interviewing kind of like a, you know, a job interview, and so I wound up working for the Low Income Investment Fund, which is a CDFI headquartered in San Francisco, but they work across the country, and they are really interested in the idea of co-location, which to them that means, “How can we incorporate child care facilities into affordable housing development to both serve, you know, the families living there if it's a family-oriented development and also the broader community?” Because there is a huge need for child care across the country, which again is something that we kind of knew and has been exacerbated by COVID. But 50% of families don't have access to the care that they need for their children across the country, and so the Low Income Investment Fund thought it would. You know, they do a lot of work in the child care space, and they also do a lot of work in helping build affordable housing, and so they thought, “How can we unite these two to better serve families and make sure that they're having access to the, you know, the child care they need?” And how access to care and access to housing can kind of both promote economic stability together, so what I was looking at for them is, you know, what are some roadblocks that people run into when they're doing developments where they try to include child care. It's a relatively… I don't wanna say it's a new idea because it's been happening you know for a good while, but no one's ever really sat down and you know really seriously thought about it. And it's work that they're trying to advance in this space. So, my project was kind of a jumping-off point for them to start you know thinking more seriously about this.Saintsing: Great, so what is your, I guess, what were the things that went into your project then?Hammond: Yeah, so it was a lot of talking to people. So, I spoke with a good number of affordable housing developers, some of whom, you know, had included child care facilities in developments they had built before. And I was really interested in knowing, you know, why they did it, where the idea first came to them, why they were successful, and how they partnered with a child care provider, and where they got the funding for it, and you know also what are some obstacles you ran into along the way that kind of made it hard to complete this development. You know affordable housing developers are really good at building affordable housing, but when you ask them to try to incorporate child care which comes with its own long list of regulations and rules that they have to follow that can sometimes be really complicated. So, I was really interested in learning more about that, and then I also spoke to some developers who you know had thought about doing this and then they ultimately decided not to. And with them I was really interested in learning you know what would it take or what ultimately did you need that you didn't have to make these kind of developments come to life. So, that was one step. I also spoke with people from state housing finance agencies, so these are the people who administer low-income housing tax credit, which funds a majority of the affordable housing built across the country. And so, speaking to them about, you know, what are the kind of rules that developers have when they're building and financing their projects with this tax credit and how does child care fit into that space and how could we maybe unite the two. And then finally I spoke with you know just other people in the space who have been thinking about the same thing and seeing what they had learned and trying to you know tie some common themes between what I heard from developers, what I heard from the state agencies, and what I was hearing from other people who had maybe you know been adjacent to a project and helped find the child care provider or help find some funding to get these things constructed because the biggest problem that folks kind of run into is that it's expensive to build a child care facility. It can cost over a million dollars to build space that will serve about 60 kids, and child care providers, you know child care is historically very underfunded. Child care providers are paid very low wages, and so if you own one of these businesses you might not have the capital that you need to fund the building of a brand new facility, and the housing developers you know don't necessarily want to pay for it out of their own pocket. And so, folks end up trying to you know cobble together different grants and different loans from organizations such as the Low-Income Investment Fund, but you know it was kind of trying to think through you know what are some ways that we can find maybe some permanent sources of funding or make it easier to kind of finance the build out of these facilities.Saintsing: Does the report have… You like highlight specific recommendations in your report?Hammond: Yeah, so I think with something, you know, kind of as complicated as this, I started thinking about what are some federal level policies that we can do, and I wound up coming up with recommendations for every level. So, here are things we can do at the federal level, here are things we can do at the state level, and here are some things we can do at the local level. And my client was very interested in, you know, how can we incentivize developers to want to do this. So, you know, some of the recommendations were, you know, at the local level, if a housing developer wants to include childcare space, can we give them a density bonus or a height bonus so they can build their development maybe taller and you know add some extra units which will give them extra income and make the development more profitable for them? But you know they're adding that extra space for a child care facility you know. I also looked at the state level, how can we make child care providers a more viable business and make developers want to work with them and ensure that they have the funding. So, can we change the way that child care providers are reimbursed for care if they're serving low-income children whose families pay with child care vouchers? One thing that's happened since COVID is states used to reimburse child care providers based on attendance. So, say you had 10 kids enrolled in your program and nine showed up on a given day you would get paid for providing care for those nine children, but you don't get paid for the kids who didn't show up even though you had saved them the space. And since COVID, when a lot of parents were keeping their children home, states kind of changed the rules and would reimburse child care providers based on just how many people were enrolled in the program, so they would have been paid for all 10 even if you know two showed up. And so, one of my recommendations was states should keep this permanent, so that child care providers have a steady source of income that they can rely on and it's not going to go down if the kid just doesn't show up one day for whatever reason. And then, at the federal level one thing that the Low Income Investment Fund has really been advocating for is you know a designated source of funding to build more child care facilities across the country. And we've kind of seen some of this in Biden's infrastructure plan. So, building off of those efforts and talking about you know if we had a designated source of funding for child care facilities we could use this to build them in affordable housing developments and bring those services directly to families. So, those are three of the recommendations that were built into my report.Saintsing: It's wild to me that attendance… attendance had to be a certain number of days in a week? Or like you know I mean like what if some of the kids like missing a couple days a week or…Hammond: Yeah, I know, they get paid per day of care. So, if someone shows up, if someone has their child enrolled you know in a program, that's five days a week being you know they drop them off every day for work and they show up all five days and the provider gets paid for all five days. But if they only show up three days one week, you know maybe they're sick and their parent keeps them home or you know something else comes up, then the provider only gets paid for three days of care that the kid, the child was actually there. And so that really kind of limits what they can plan on doing in the daycare because they don't know necessarily how much funding they'll get. Exactly, and you know it's where you send your child to care is very a very personal decision for families, so you know you kind of find your place that you feel comfortable sending your child and you stick there, so it's not like you know one day, one child doesn't show up, so they can just go find somebody else who wants to send their child to that provider. So, it's really difficult for people to you know kind of plan for financial stability and know how much money they're going to make on a given week.Saintsing: So, throughout this discussion of your capstone project you've referred to a client. I'm wondering like, is it like a company or…Hammond: So, it's the Low-Income Investment Fund, and they're a community development financial institution, or a CDFI, so they provide two of their main focus areas are child care and affordable housing, but they you know help provide grants and financing to folks working in the space and they work with affordable housing developers. They work with child care providers, and so this project unites a lot of the work that they're doing. They also chair an organization called the National Children's Facilities Network, so it's a group of over 30 CDFIs, like the Low-Income Investment Fund and other entities who are really interested in building out the infrastructure for child care across the country. So, this report, you know, they used it internally at the Low-Income Investment Fund, but they also want to, they are also sharing it with the National Children's Facilities Network so that other organizations who are interested in the same thing can kind of read the report and use it in the work that they're doing as well.Saintsing: Are these the kinds of bodies that are generally funding this type of public policy research?Hammond: I would say this is kind of unique. The policy team at the Low-Income Investment Fund is actually quite small, and so I think that they were interested in having you know someone come on and do this project for them because they didn't necessarily always have you know the staffing capabilities to look at this. I was grateful that they were interested in having you know a graduate student come look at this for them. I learned so much from you know working with them and speaking to people who work there. You know I was able to interact with maybe like 15 people who work for them, and you know it really depends who's funding the work you know. There's a think tank called the Bipartisan Policy Center, and I spoke with three women who work there, and they are also funding a lot of work in the childcare space. So, it's a team effort.Saintsing: Well, unfortunately it looks like we're running out of time on the interview. Is there anything you'd like to leave the audience with before we go?Hammond: Yeah, you know, we talked a lot, a good bit about childcare, and I think that's just one point I wanted to emphasize is that the pandemic has made it very clear how important it is that families have access to childcare they need. We've seen a lot of people you know come out of the workforce, especially women, who instead of like you know working, they've had to spend a lot of more time dedicated to taking care of their children. And I think this has highlighted how important that sector is. Childcare has been severely underfunded throughout the United States’ history, and I think the last thing I'll push for is you know there's a lot of great work being done in the childcare space right now. I just want to emphasize how important it is, and I really hope that we continue to see attention being paid in this space.Saintsing: Today I've been speaking with Rachel Hammond from the School of Public Policy. Thanks so much for being on the show, Rachel.Hammond: Thanks for having me, Andrew.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
6/8/2021

Adam Uliana

Saintsing:Hi, you're tinted to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing. And this is the graduates. The interview talks share with respect to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Adam Uliana from the department of chemical engineering. Welcome to the show Adam.Uliana:Thanks. Thanks for having me.Saintsing:So great to have you here. I'm really looking forward to talking to you. You're the first person from the college of chemistry that I've had on the show. So we'll get to talk some chemistry, um,New Speaker:Pretty exciting. Yeah. You are in the news actually, because you just got a paper out about a new technique for desalination, right?Uliana:Yeah, yeah. That's right.New Speaker:Yeah. Why don't we just get started by like talking a little bit about this new publication you have outUliana:Before I get into the details, I'll just say that this was a collaboration and all of the coauthors that are listed should be acknowledged. So Ngoc Bui, who is now a professor at University of Oklahoma, actually, and same with Jovan Kamcev who's on University of Michigan. Now he's professor Mercedes Taylor who's a university of Maryland professor now, and then a group at LBL Jeffrey Urban's Group. And then my PI Jeff Vaughn. So actually I'm the only one here right now. The other ones have gone out into academia, which is a unique experience. But yeah, the work is on desalination and capturing selectively, uh, specific ions in water works or salutes. So this is both to do both at the same time.Saintsing:Like what, what ions, what salutes. Are we talking about?Uliana:So what we looked at are neutral and catatonic salutes, and these are really contaminants. So water-borne contaminantsSaintsing:Neutral, no charge and cat ionic are positive. Okay. Right.Uliana:Yeah. And so we looked at some problematic contaminants that are in water. We looked at four more, uh, more or less as a proof of concept. So one of the biggest ones that we looked at is mercury, which I'm sure most people know is quite toxic. You don't want to be playing around with that. Yeah, actually it was a little scary for me to work with at first. Uh, yeah, luckily it paid offSaintsing:What'd you have to do with it.Uliana:So I never had to work with liquid mercury, which is like in a thermometer or they don't allow them anymore, but these are, these are, uh, salivated, mercury ions. So it's mercury in a, like a water solution. And so everything that's in the paper I had to handle, you know, with like gloves, obviously, uh, it's still toxic even in low concentrations, nothing too bad, but definitely enough to be a bit spooky.Saintsing:Was that like the first time you had worked with something like, you know, that you knew was really toxic and your, uh, research career,Uliana:I'd say before I came here, I worked with some things that were a little toxic, but I think now that I'm mostly in a chemistry group yeah. Definitely have worked with a bunch of toxic chemicals, mercury being one of them. I think it's been a unique experience in that regard.Saintsing:Yeah. Okay. So you, or working on this technique to get, uh, mostly to get our neutral saw Utes and cat ions out of water and you're specifically focused on mercury, how does it work?Uliana:Yeah, so it combines a couple of different types of technology all in one without needing additional units. So usually in like a water purification plant, you'll have a lot of contaminants in water. So for example, you'll have high salinity levels, but also these water sources often contain these trace contaminants. And these are things that are very toxic. So something like mercury or other ions that we looked at were copper and also iron. So even at their lower concentrations, they are toxic. Usually in water purification plants, you have to separate one of those types of contaminants at a time. And we created a way to do it all in one step. And that's, what's pretty new. Yeah. The technology is based off of something called electro dialysis. So electro dialysis is actually in industry right now. Like it's, it is used and this is a desalination, uh, approach all start as a comparison with the reverse osmosis, because I think more of us are at least aware of that or like a LifeStraw if you've ever dealt with that or any type of filter.Uliana:So like in reverse osmosis, you do have a membrane. What that is is like a really thin film. So I'm talking on the order of like smaller than 100 microns or like smaller than 0.1 millimeters. And so you'll have this film that's really dense there aren't pores in them actually. And you basically apply a huge pressure to basically force water molecules through this film. Only the water molecules can pass through the film, but all of the other charged species. So like those contaminants are salts, they don't pass through. And basically then you get pure water on the other side of the membrane. Cause only the waterSaintsing:Can pass. Sorry. And why is it called reverse osmosis?Uliana:Oh yeah. Cause, um, it's so there's something called osmosis or like osmotic pressure. So like if you have, um, if you've ever seen like a dialysis unit or, or like a membrane in our bodies, so sometimes they'll have like this, the semipermeable barrier, uh, this is something we might've learned in like, I don't know, high school biology basically if there's a concentration gradient along them. So basically if there's like a solid you some type of component in the water, that's higher in concentration on inside, it'll pass through naturally through that filter and go on the other side, similar to like, if you're ever dissolving, say sugar in water, the sugar will disperse out rather than be concentrated in one specific section in reverse osmosis, you're doing the exact opposite, uh, in your like basically concentrating the feed even more with salts by removing water from it.Uliana:So it's the reverse of naturalized Moses. So then for this electro dialysis approach, which is another desalination approach, it's kind of the opposite idea. This time you don't push water through you push ions through the membrane. So this time you apply an electric field and that causes only, I only charged molecules in water. So like assault, which is dissociated. Uh, so assault will, uh, have ions, which only the charge species will basically be effected by the electrodes. Something like water is neutral, it gets just H2O. There's no charge on it. So that won't move at all, but the ions will move toward the electrodes and basically be moved away from the water, which is left behind. That's what you end up drinking after Electra dialysis.Saintsing:Okay, cool. So you basically just are just like calling anything with a charge out of what you said. You're also getting out neutral items.Uliana:Yeah. So how does, yeah. Yeah. So it's funny how you were asking about osmosis because the removal of the neutral species is actually based on that exact principle. Basically you can't apply an electric field just like you were saying. Uh, but there is a concentration gradient still. So like if you have, so what we're doing is similar to something called forward osmosis. I don't know if people know about that, but it's this one technique where you can have, you can basically purify water, like in, in a campaign environment by having like a sugary solution on one side and you basically pull water from like a river and then have this like little film where only the water will pass through that's based off of osmosis, which is how we're removing neutral species. So what it is is a concentration gradient in your feed water. So like safety water, you basically expose that to a membrane which then the neutral species in the feed will migrate across or sorry. Well, um, travel across the membrane from a concentration gradient, just like how I said that things will want to move from a high to a low concentration. Just like if you're dissolving sugar right here now, rather than having a bucket of sugar water, you have a film in the middle where only where basically the neutral species transports across of that film.Saintsing:So you've got like this filter, I guess, that you've set up, that's applying both the electrical charge and it's got this film. And so you're just like having both of these happening simultaneously, but they're separate processes essentially.Uliana:And really what is the new advances that the membranes we're using actually have selectivity for only the toxic contaminant. So actually in, in like any of the different processes that I just mentioned, like reverse osmosis, electrodialysis osmosis, anything right now in say industry, they don't have selectivity activity toward say only your toxic ions or toxic contaminants. So what we did was we spread out these selective particles throughout the membrane. So we basically have this film, that's like a hundred microns inside of that film are all of these little beads that are on the order of like 200 nanometers. So that's like, uh, over a thousand times smaller than a millimeter. So we have all of these little beads that are very selective for those specific toxic contaminants. So now where I mentioned that all of the ions are, are pulled apart of the water in electro dialysis, usually in regular electric dialysis, all of the ions will pass through the membrane and basically leave behind pure water.Uliana:But then like the so-called brine stream, that's basically the soup of all the items that were rejected or removed from water just has the toxic contaminant. If you don't have any ion to ion selectivity, all of that huge volume is it say that there's mercury in the water and you reject it into the brine, all of that water or the Bryon stream is still considered mercury containing waste. And then you still have this like huge amount that like, what do you do with it? But we have is that when all of the ions travel across the membrane, the toxic ones are selectively stuck. They basically stick to the membrane because of those beads, they stick to the beads inside of the membrane, and then you no longer have those toxic contaminants on the other side of the membrane. And then you can dissolve it and have like a low, a low volume, a waste stream that will be easier to work with.Saintsing:Yeah. And so the having the soup people don't really have a good plan for disposal of the, of the toxic, right?Uliana:Right. Not really in general, like anywhere that has desalinated water, we'll do this quote unquote like filtering process where all ions are removed. And, um, usually what's done is that the, that in the case of like reverse osmosis is literally just sent back to the ocean and you'll like slowly concentrate the ocean. As an example, with all of the salts in a place that has say somewhere like Flint, Michigan, if that was handled responsibly, then what they would have done there is have a ton of different say adsorption columns, where they remove the toxin in addition to say, doing desalination. And if they do, it requires like a ton of new steps, like an individual column for each. And then obviously that's a lot more expensive, a lot larger footprint.Saintsing:And so, and then you were talking a bit about, um, desorbing things from, um, filters and that's kind of what would happen at the end of the, uh, filtering process that you've laid out with this electric dialysis,Uliana:Right.Saintsing:Are the materials that we get, uh, from the filtering process, are they, so once we've got them and now we have this toxic waste, is it D are they like just toxic waste? Like, can we, would we be able to use them repurpose them for anything?Uliana:Yeah, that's, that's a great point. So actually the idea is that because you're isolating only one say molecule, like one type of molecule, like, like mercury, if you're only isolating mercury from all the other, the soup that we were talking about, then potentially once you desorb it you only desorb, you basically have a solution of only mercury in say water, and then you could just isolate, that's all isolated. And then you can reuse the mercury. I mean, for something like mercury, I don't know if you would reuse it, but there are other compounds that are in water, even like seawater has actually a lot of gold, a lot of uranium things that can be reused. And that is also the idea of this process.Saintsing:Yeah, for sure. Is that, um, is that something that people are like actually looking into as a way to actually get a bunch of gold a bunch of years?Uliana:Yeah, actually it's been. Uh, I don't really like using this word because I think a lot of people use it for fake purposes, but it's really honestly like a holy grail of a lot of these like resource recovery or like extraction people, uh, because actually uranium, I think there's like 1000 times more uranium actually in seawater than there is in any geological reserve. And obviously we need uranium to power say like power plants and we only rely on gr like a geological reserves. So tapping into that would be really useful. Same with gold obviously.Saintsing:Yeah, definitely. Okay. So this is this cool new technique. Uh, what does it look like? What are you, what is the thing that you made? Is it like, you know, what does it look like?Uliana:Yeah, that's a good question. So the film itself that I mentioned that has the beads inside of them, it's, uh, it's really looks kind of like a saran wrap. That's a little colored or just like a plastic sheet. And actually it feels like that too. So yeah, it's really thin, like a, like I said, 0.1 millimeters around there. So really small, you can hardly even see the thickness and it's, it's like a sheet, so it's expanded out, um, kind of like a piece of paper, the actual electric ion capture electro dialysis unit. That's what we call it is basically these glass cells. So it's like two different compartments, uh, that look almost like a, like a little cup that's attached together where the membrane is between two cups that are kind of attached together.Saintsing:So this is the, what you were working on in the lab. It was relatively small.Uliana:Yeah. This one was definitely smaller. So I developed a few or actually in the college of chemistry, we have a glassblower, someone who makes custom glass and both of us made it together, really him mostly, but I helped him with it. Yeah. And we made these that are like, uh, 45 milliliters on, on each side. Like each of those cups that I mentioned is like 45 milliliters. So pretty small.Saintsing:But, uh, I guess the theory, uh, so you've like worked on showing this theory, this works. Um, but you know, moving forward, if you were to put in, do you, so you could really make something a lot bigger that would actually, uh, you know, help supply a district municipality, whatever with water?Uliana:Absolutely. And actually the idea was that all of our design was really trying to carefully design the membrane films, such that like the ion selectively that I mentioned goes into the film itself, not the whole process. So actually these films could be implemented directly into exist in electric dialysis units. And really the big development that's needed is just a scale of the membranes. Not, not like anything else too much.Saintsing:Is like it being scaled up, you know, something that will happen?Uliana:Yeah. Honestly, I think that it could happen without all that much difficulty. The beads that I mentioned that are really selective, those ones are really, really good materials, but that also means that they're really not easy or inexpensive to make. So if there were ways to scale up that, then there definitely would be ways to scale up the membrane. And you can also replace these beads with lower performance ones, such as ones that actually you could buy off of like Alibaba or probably even like Amazon. So theoretically they could probably be scaled up pretty quickly. I've just never done it. And no one in our group has. Yeah.Saintsing:Is that something you think about with the research that you do, um, being able to make things that you can scale?Uliana:Yeah, definitely. I think that that would definitely be a strong desire moving forward, especially to, you know, actually help people with this. Hopefully.Saintsing:So we've mostly been talking about this, um, paper, is that, uh, most of what your doctoral research has been about? Yeah.Uliana:So it's been a huge chunk. The paper itself was honestly a ton of work, which I'm glad to put behind me, um, to an extent. So I'm a fourth year PhD student and, uh, that was it wasn't, it definitely wasn't all of my PhD work, but it was definitely a big trunk. I've also developed different types of beads that I mentioned without putting them in membranes and also different types of membrane applications that are related to this whole technology. But this is yeah, definitely the major part of my PhD work. Yeah.Saintsing:The beads. Um, so you're saying they're selective for particular, uh, particles or molecules. What do you do to make a beat that's selected for something?Uliana:Yeah. Yeah. It requires a lot of synthetic chemistry. What these beads look like is actually that we really tune the pore site. So these are poorest. They have little poor pockets and that's actually where the, the ions like mercury where that actually travels to and ends up getting captured. So it's kind of like a net lake material, but on the really small scale. So actually one of these pores, like one of these pockets where the ion binding happens is only like one nanometer in diameter. So it's really small. So it's not that much bigger actually than an atom itself. Maybe like less than an order of magnitude. And so what we do is we create this like net like backbone, which is basically just a polymer that we synthesize and onto that we basically append on these binding groups. So they're like these little claws that are really selective. So based off of the chemicals that make up the call, they're very selective toward one type of species. So like there are certain ones that are really selective for only mercury and not anything else. Then there are also some that are selected for only like boron, but nothing else. And so it's really about that. And that actually allows us to tune the selectivities based off of the quality you put on.Saintsing:Is it like a lot of upfront like theoretical work? Like this is what it would have to look like and then synthesizing it as kind of like, then it's just like the process and making sure. Or is it like a lot of like making it and like finding out it doesn't work and then going back and forth? Yeah. Like what's the, is it all the front end? The backend, where's the, like all the work.Uliana:Yeah. It's a little bit of a combination of both. Really, really, it's more like a say that usually how I approach this research is I have a certain target in mind. So like something like gold or something like mercury. And then I look up on the literature, like what other people smarter than me have published, you know, stuff that show that it's really selective for this. And then I see what's possible what could possibly fit in one of these nets and also actually chemically be appended onto it. And then that part of actually trying it and testing its properties to see if it is selective, definitely some trial and error with it. And a lot of times just being in the head against the wall. Yeah.Saintsing:When I mentioned, uh, that some initial questions that I had to you in an email, um, you told me that you were a chemical engineer instead of a chemist and I was really interested, um, why, uh, felt the need to make that clarification. I guess it's like, it's clear from what you've been telling me about your research, that it really does sound like you're doing engineering stuff. Right. Like applying chemical knowledge to make something, but yeah. Why is that? Why was that important to,Uliana:Yeah, that's a good point. Uh, it's kind of funny within the like college of chemistry world, which actually only consists of the department of chemical engineering and the department of chemistry and like any chemical engineer and chemist. There's a huge distinction that everyone always make sure to point out because it really does base. It really does dictate how we think about things, but it's funny. It honestly doesn't matter at all. And actually when I go home to visit and no one that I like, none of my friends at home or my family at home has any idea what a chemist or a chemical engineer does. I'm like, they usually, I mean, like my brother said that I was an electrical engineer recently and like, see, it doesn't matter. The distinction doesn't matter at all. Right. But yeah, definitely the way that you think about things and the background is a bit different actually in chemical engineering versus chemistry.Saintsing:So like what are, what are those differences?Uliana:Yeah, I would say that in general, obviously it depends on the person. In general, actually chemical engineering though, like classes that you take and everything you learn, it's actually way more math and physics than chemistry. Uh, and actually a lot of people don't realize that. Um, and the way that chemical engineers think is usually much more applied, kind of like what you just said about the paper, it's really like, how can we apply this chemistry into something? Whereas a lot of chemists they'll think really on the fundamental level and they'll wonder like, why does that work? Uh, and let's figure out why a little bit more in depth.Saintsing:Right. I got you. So it's kind of like how people might think about physics versus engineering, but specifically in the context of chemistry. Right. Why did you gravitate towards chemical engineering over chemistry or is that like kind of like it happened or was there a specific choice?Uliana:Yeah, that's a great question. Uh, really where my real interests lie or kind of right in the middle. I always like to say that chemistry is more interesting to me. Like I, I'm just really fascinated by how chemistry works and all of that, but I'm much more motivated on the application side. So like if, if all of my time, if I need to spend all my time on something and really what motivates me is how can I actually help people with what I'm doing? And I think that in my opinion, chemical engineering fits that bill a little better. I see. Or at least more directly I should say.Saintsing:Right, right. If you were a chemist, maybe you would be doing something that would really inform some of the things that as a chemical engineer, you're like putting out there.Uliana:Right. And like both are equally as important to the world, but yeah, when you get to see the effects more or more quickly, and more, obviouslySaintsing:You say you like how chemistry works, like, what does that mean to you? Like, what is this, how chemistry works? What is chemistry?Uliana:It's a great question. To me. Chemistry is really about how the world works on a scale that smaller than we can see. That's what really fascinates me things that you can't see that aren't tangible to the eye and why they actually work. It's really interesting to me. So like for example, why is the sky blue is something that I thought of all the time as a kid and stuff like that. Like why, why do colors exist? Why is any of this? Like why just all of that type of stuff, stuff that you can't see that isn't really obvious that to me is more of the chemistry. So like on the molecular level, so to speak what actually dictates all of these properties for me, that's what really is interesting.Saintsing:So that's like, yeah, that's a really all encompassing thing. Yeah. Do you run into people? I don't know chemistry, I guess when we think about it and like high school, right. It's like solutions of things. Is that kind of what you encounter when you tell people you do chemistry, it's like much more narrow than you understand chemistry to be.Uliana:Yeah. Usually if I ever tell like someone not at Berkeley, what chemistry is say, like I go and talk to my family. Usually the questions that come up are either like, oh, do you work with anything that could kill you? Or have you blown anything up or started a fire? And honestly, yeah, almost, but, um, honestly a lot of it is a lot of solutions. It's not like as much mad scientist does. I think the media, or at least cartoons like to depict, uh, where you, you know, you just mix a bunch of random stuff together and hope for the best, but there is definitely a lot of that mixing and pretty color looking solutions that definitely is in the day to day.Saintsing:So you kind of talked about, uh, you know, you might be interested in, um, seeing where some of the things you've been working on in your PhD might go eventually. Um, other than that, like what, uh, what do you seem to envision for yourself, um, after grad school? Uh, do you see yourself staying in academic research or, um, maybe doing industrial research or something like that? ThisUliana:Is something that I have really been thinking about actually. So going into grad school, I thought I was dead set on doing academia after grad school. And I would say that's still where I'm leaning toward. Um, but there are definitely other things that are really peaking my interest. For example, like doing a startup actually based off of the paper that we were just talking about and related materials, uh, that definitely is not something that I've, you know, put behind me. Like maybe, maybe I'll pursue that. I'm actually trying to figure that out this summer.Saintsing:Cool. So that's like something that's really on the table, like a startup built around this, uh, technology.Uliana:Yeah, I think so. I think there's a lot of things that really interests me about it and yeah, kind of, like I said, I'm really motivated by trying to get stuff out that can actually help people. And, um, yeah. Being able to do that with something like this, I think would be really a great thing to try.Saintsing:Yeah. Is it, um, fairly common that, um, people moving through the chemistry or maybe more specifically a chemical engineering, um, graduate program kind of, you know, is there like a strong startup culture coming out of it?Uliana:I would say not uncommon, but it's not necessarily common in each co maybe, maybe like fewer than 5% of students will end up doing a startup based off of their university research. Maybe even closer to one or two, but it's never that surprising when people do, because there definitely are a number of people that have done it even in our lab itself. There've been a couple,Saintsing:Well, unfortunately it looks like we are running out of time on the interview. Do you have anything you'd like to leave us with?Uliana:Yeah. I think a lot of the motivation for this work is there's really two things. One is that for water, we really rely heavily on a surface freshwater. So this is something like lakes and stuff like that. Actually I think like 65% of USA's water consumption is from these freshwater sources, but with climate change and stuff like that, and boom in populations, actually these resources are dwindling a lot. And even, even now only less than 0.01% of all of the water in the world is surface freshwater, even though we rely on it so much. So I think we'll be expecting to see much more about desalination and say seawater to kind of fuel us moving forward. And I would say another thing just of motivation is just with trying to selectively remove specific contaminants from water in an efficient way. That's really motivated by just like a lot of the injustices that are linked to some of these places that have high contamination sources and where people just don't have an option to, you know, but to drink those contaminants such as like a Flint, Michigan, or even other places around the world, for example, in Bangladesh, there's like 45,000 people or so that die each year from the arsenic that's in their groundwater, which is what they use for drinking water.Uliana:And that's a huge problem and getting more people that can try to figure out how to fix these problems would be really greatSaintsing:Today I've been speaking with Adam Uliana from the department of chemical engineering. We were interested in talking about his work on new desalination techniques. Thanks so much for being on the show, Adam.Uliana:Thanks for having me.Saintsing:Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of the graduates.
5/25/2021

Milind Hegde

Saintsing:Hi, you're tuned in at 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley I'm Andrew Saintsing and this is the graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Milind tech day from the department of mathematics. Welcome to the show Milind. Thanks, bye. So I guess to get started, um, how did you get involved? How did you end up deciding to go into math? Why are you a mathematician today?Hegde:Right. Um, I think when I was a kid, it was a few more of a, a science thing, uh, generally. Um, so my, I want to be a researcher maybe quite early, like seventh or eighth grade or something. Um, mainly cause I just, I just read these popular science books, which does seem exciting. And I didn't know maps, I think at that point I wrote a few popular math books as well, but not, not really. Um, it was only in high school. I think that I started learning about more, more advanced maths, some chocolates and stuff. And I started seeing some more of the depth in the subject. And I think that excited on some level on seeing that there's more happening here, that I could actually kind of do myself on some level.Saintsing:You mean? So like in high school calculus that,Hegde:Yeah, just generally, you know, public till high school math is in some sense, quite boring. You just keep doing these kinds of calculations, which are, you don't know why it's important and you know, there's no real patterns there, but after a point that you come to the part of subject where you can see some patterns it's oftentimes pull, they don't, they don't tell you the patterns, but you can kind of see some patterns. Um, and so for me, kind of seeing the glimpse of these patterns was very exciting and then realizing that there's a lot more richness in the thing where you can find, so I'm using these word patterns to just describe general mathematical kind of properties or structures or needs or something like that. Um, and so seeing that there's a lot more of this French cause there, which you can kind of explore yourself was very appealing at that time.Saintsing:And then, so did you go to undergrad focused on math right from the beginning?Hegde:So, uh, not, well, no. So I think my major, about two years in, but I went to a school where basically you pick from a science major. So it's either physics, chemistry, biology, math, or maybe environmental science, I think. And so I found myself to be really bad at the other lab work. And so I must prefer theory for sure.Saintsing:You mean, you tried to like go into the lab like pipette and it was just like notHegde:Happening. Yeah. I, I, it's not that I was disorganized. It's just that I didn't, like, I felt like I'd rely on certain machines to do jobs correctly. And if the machine failed, I just didn't know what to do, what not for kind of on your own. And so if you, if something fails it's, it's on you. So once is that's bad. Uh, but in another sense, you're not beholden to something else working for you to be able to do something, but that's what you like about math. Yeah, exactly. And you'll get at the research level, you'd go out, you rely on some theorems, which you don't know how they're approved, but it can break. You know, he can't be that you're trying to do something and then the machine fails and then you have to wait for somebody else to fix it. Cause you don't know what's really wrong with it. That was my experience as an undergrad in these labs,Saintsing:How is it to be a mathematic researcher? You have like a particular area of math?Hegde:Well, I worked in, in probability theory, um, just, just sort of stuff, studies, mathematical notions of randomness. And so, you know, there are many years of math is number theory. There's algebra, there's, you know, Fremont analysis, a lot of areas of math. Um, and you don't really need to know most of them to pursue any quicker one, right? It doesn't, which feels somehow more international than others, but even within a field, you then have to specialize into sub topic. So it probably could do it. For example, you have to know quite a lot of, of general theory about probability, but then those were established like 30, 40 years ago. So when you get to stop this happening today, you would go into a specialization within property theory. So what I do is this area called stochastic growth models and what are those? Right? So, so as the, as the name says, it's, it's, it's a model of growth of which will task some of those to random incident stochastic.Hegde:Uh, so for example, there are many real world examples, which are not actually what we study. We study models on that in a very abstract sense, but, uh, but the real world examples are, you know, so you can imagine, you know, for a biological example, you could imagine you have a bacterial cell initially and I get this completely wrong. So please forgive me if I do those, those to begin with. And then, you know, it grows, uh, it divides and it grows, uh, at the colony grows outwards. And so, you know, there is kind of the, the thing we're interested in is the way it grows. So for example, one question might be as the colony grows outwards, it's roughly circular, uh, or roughly kind of yeah. Basically circular. Uh, and so you have on one little, you have a rate, the bloat outwards, how big, how fast the radius grows of the circle.Hegde:Um, and then it's not actually a circle. It has, it has kind of these fluctuations at the boundary, um, away from this kind of nice smooth shape and you get these kind of rough fluctuations. And so one other aspect of interest is to understand the nature of those fluctuations. How big are the fluctuations? Do they have some kind of distribution and things like that? So basically you, you were interested in the growth of an interface between two things in this case, uh, that blue me and the outside. Uh, but also in other settings, for example, a more physically set in physics, the example would be you have some kind of crystal, um, you've if maybe you maybe initially it's kind of a flat surface. And then from this flat surface, the crystal kind of grills upwards into, into some medium, and then you have a boundary between the crystal and the medium, and then which is, which has also grown with time. Um, and so just like the bacterial cells talk back to colonies, uh, raises increasing here, the height is increasing of this crystal interface. Uh, and just as you have fluctuations at the boundary of the actual colony, here are the fluctuations of the, of the interface around the kind of straight line, um, that it's kind of averaging to B.Saintsing:So you're talking about like two, like completely different things, right. But you're saying that the models you're looking at are good for both of these.Hegde:Yeah. Because somehow there's a belief that many, many types of growth, uh, have similar behaviors in the sense of how fast they grow outwards and the fluctuations around a average shape. And so even though, as you said, he's a bit very different physical phenomenon, still the idea is that the same mathematical models kind of capture important aspects of boats handy. The, the models themselves are quite abstract. If you, if I, if I tell you the model, even not say, oh, this is definitely, you know, describing an extra colony or something, but yes. Yeah, right.Saintsing:But you're more interested in the theoretical model then you, the real world applications of it,Hegde:Right? This, this, this, this belief that the same kind of model described by a wide variety of, of phenomenon. It's also kind of, there's, there's a, there's a mathematical aspect of it where many, many different models, uh, which are kind of different in the details, but it's an elevated for models. Still give you the same behavior in some sense. So, you know, you might actually have different if you look at the actual precise details, but you might have a different model for the, the car crystal relative situation and the, um, the bacterial colony relative situation. Uh, but the idea is that nevertheless, you've lived through different models. They events the same behavior in a microscopic sense. So the simple example, which has maybe people more familiar with, would it be, um, is more classical area probability, honestly, the central limit theorem, which is that if you have many, many kind of random factors, which are in which are involved in, uh, some, you know, some bigger, some phenomenon, then that phenomenon will, will display a bell curve.Hegde:I know, to kind of make sense. Uh, so for example, you know, you look at, look at heightened population, he started by gender in the Heights and population. Uh, and then you see this kind of distribution of, of, of Heights, which is just a bell curve because there's some other lot of random inputs in the genes or something, which, which gives you an independent structure. And the important thing is that no matter what is the nature of the, of the input, random input, you get the same thing at the end when you get the same bell curve. So this is what's called universality in this area. And so the idea is that similarly in, in random roads models, many may different models exhibit the same kind of universal features, not the Belker, but some other structures, but nonetheless that's the same for everything. Right.Saintsing:That makes sense. I got you. What are you trying to do though, actually with the model, I guess, like what, what is pushing the boundaries and knowing the theory of this model, um, me maybe, or like definitely in the context of your own research, and then I guess generally kind of what, what aren't mathematicians pushing in these, uh, theoretical models generallyHegde:In this area of ultimate goal is actually to prove some form of universal. Self-esteem some form of saying that no matter what model you have, you get the same kind of behavior across all the months. And that's the ultimate goal. We're very far from that in done. So if I, if I can go back to the central limit theorem example, uh, so we, now we know that so many in general, how you put in the randomness, we get to say bell curve out, but in the beginning, and I think maybe in the 17 hundreds, this was known for exactly one situation. Uh, and this is the [inaudible].Hegde:So if you tell us, uh, yeah, it's a point like a, I mean, a million times some absurdity of number, and you look at the number of heads and you do this many times, uh, you'll see the number of heads is in roughly half, but it's not always going to be, has it been, have fluctuations around, around that task? And you see how many times is it? Is it, is it two more than half times is 10 more than half and you kind of eat plop this and you get developed. And so the very first situation where we knew the delicate horizon wasn't disjointed, and the reason was you could write down a formula for the number, for the probability of getting any number of pants you wanted. So you can say, okay, probably getting a hundred heads out of 300 tosses is exactly this number.Hegde:And so you go, you could get this exact formulas and then you could, you could analyze those formulas to say, okay, 90 that's where you see this bell curve coming up, but these farmers don't hold for other situations for you have different forms of randomness that aren't so simple, like acquaint tusks. And it took a long time to overcome that difficulty and develop a theory which could handle all kinds of randomness. And so now within stochastic models, we're kind of in a similar situation where he had a few nice models where you can write down fullness for things exactly you can handle them and you can get your limiting behavior, which is, which is universal, but you can't expand beyond those models because the farmers don't hold beyond those models. And so part of my research has been to kind of step towards a universality, tried to move away from models, which are, you know, exactly solvable because they're can exactly write down formulas for their solutions. I can try to move away from exactly solving models towards it's like a more robust approach to proving universality. That's kind of the short description of what I'm trying to do.Saintsing:Okay. I guess, like, what would that mean? If you couldn't write down a formula? Like what, what would you be doing then?Hegde:It's hard to say what you'd actually be analyzing without the formula. So there's a part of the problem. You know, you have to invent something which captures important aspects of the model without requiring you to be able to write down something exquisitely about it. So in the case of the, um, the central limit theorem, the bell curves, uh, this, the thing that was invented was the four-year transform. So if we were friends for me, you could write down for random burglar what it is, but maybe you can't actually calculate it. But the way to present the limit there was to use this object. What you kind of came out of nowhere. Nothing. If you look at the, you know, the point is you don't really see any 40 transforms involved, uh, but you could still introduce the transforms that you can analyze that thing to get the Velcro. And so there's no kind of analogous object, which we can say, oh, if we understand this thing very, very well, then we can prove universality in show category. So it's a good question. I mean, I don't have a succinct answer except that as part of the problem to know, to what to look at,Saintsing:For sure. I see. So, but that's kind of, um, something like the 48 transform is what you're moving towards with the goal to,Hegde:In a very analogous sense. Right. But yeah, something which could play the role. I mean, I don't know if there is such resistance, not such a sense that there's such a single object because somehow this situation is a much more complex situation than a developer, but somehow something analogous to, in terms of its role, the, for the customer would be something you could try to get towards and hedging. My, what I'm saying is simply because there are way more things happening here. So it's hard to, hard to imagine that you have to capture all of it with one object. Um, but maybe several things like, like the furniture transform,Saintsing:Right? For sure. You're almost done with your dissertation, where have you pushed these boundaries? Like what, what have you found on these problems?Hegde:So, because we only have a few models where we can say anything, which would be exact, is all available models. Right now the general strategy has been to work with these models, but to write down assumptions, which are kind of halfway abstracted away from those models. So your regular was obviously what you know, to be true in those models and no other models, but what you still hope to be true in other models, even if they're different, even if the models themselves are different. And so the idea has been to write down two assumptions, which, you know, to be true in these malls and then derive consequences of those assumptions using methods, which don't require formulas. Okay. So in a way to kind of move past, take limited is that it's also will input. And then from then on use only more robust techniques to drive new prediction or new and new results,Saintsing:Be able to walk it, like tell us an assumption, or would it be like too theoretical?Hegde:Oh, the assumption. So, so in the central limit theorem, you know, if you take, if you toss the coin and times and can be like any number that it's known, that the, the, so you're going to be around and by two, that's your number of heads typically, but given our fluctuations around that, and we know that the size of the fluctuations is, uh, is, uh, is, uh, is around the square root of N. Um, so this is a very important aspect of the central limit theorem, but your fluctuations around me are of order the square root of the number of trials in stochastic role models. It's very different. You don't see a square root or her fluctuations. You see if you have pen, uh, it decides your system is N not the end point doses. Then you would see fluctuations of order. And to the one, this is just the reasons why I see one third, basically, you see, you see the end of the one-third hundred. So it's a smaller amount of fluctuations. And this is known only for like a few models. The fact that it's entered the one-third, this is a very basic fact, but you not only for these kinds of very few models, so one assumption it's exactly that the fluctuation of our order enter the one-third nice.Saintsing:Okay. So you're saying like, um, cause you have these models, there are some models that we have for stochastic growth that we already know. And so since we have them, we can analyze them and we can say these fluctuations are under the one-third, but you want to be able to like, say essentially the goal is to say like, this is just a fact for all, even if you don't have the models, what is the thing that you do to get from that assumption to like the research that's pushing it.Hegde:Okay. So maybe now maybe I could tell you a model, hopefully, without getting too much technical stuff, but basically it it's pretty simple actually. So suppose you have a grid. Okay. 2d and the grid size is, and like N squared number of points in the grid at Eddie's corner, in your grid, you have one cortex. Okay. Just like maybe you can imagine some dots, you associate to each verdict or random number. Okay. And that's going to be like a award if you go through that. Perfect. So you can't even really imagine it like in like a, you know, a city chronicity. So you swing print and you've got to start at the bottom left corner of your square. You're going to go to the top right corner by going at the people, you can go to the right and you can go up at each intersection, as you, as you go from you, can't go back.Hegde:You can't go. You can't put down, you can't go left. You can only go up. And right. These are, these are the allowed ways of movement in this grid. And depending on which path you take, you're going to pass through these, these, these intersections would each have a random number associated the reward of that intersection. And you collect the rewards as you pass from here to here. So then you are told reward based on how you went through the, through the grid, which is the sum of each reward yet you actually went through. And now we're gonna, we're gonna look at the best way to get from bottom to top. [inaudible] the maximum reward. And this is the model we want know, we'll go out to know what is the best award and from what, from bottom to top. And we want to know, uh, what is the, the shape of the path, which achieves this maximum best reward and notice because the, because the rewards are random, the total reward, the total Alaskan award is also random. And also the, the best path is random. And so here you can see the end of the one-third fluctuations of what it means in this context is that the maximum reward, which is random, it's going to fluctuate around some mean value by end of the one thing, because it's not your life. Yeah. So this is sorry to make sure I didn't miss it.Hegde:So, and in fact, so you can have different types of randomness at these intersection reward founds, uh, and it's known for exactly two types of randomness that it should be under the one-third fluctuation. So it's known for two cases of the randomness at the intersection values that the rent for the one third, but you expect with basically any can randomness, not just these two, you have the same order fluctuations. Um, and so we, as you, we have that order of fluctuations and we don't assume anything about the nature of the randomness at the vertices. And now you can, you can now hope to move beyond the, the exactly solvable the models by looking at the paths, the paths you see, they care less about in some sense, very vaguely. They care less about the details of the manuals and because they are the best, perhaps they have certain properties, which you can then try to analyze using those properties and the idea that anything you derive with your assumptions and the, and, uh, understanding the past will apply to any other model where you can verify the assumptions. And so this is kind of trying to get, get past formulas because the paths are kind of geometric objects, which, which they're, they're in a formula, but they should be, uh, more G their behavior should be more generally, uh, consistent for different types of randomness.Saintsing:So you are kind of generating a bunch of possibilities based on this model that, you know, and then you can, I guess, have this kind of like a big matrix or something, and then you can look at it with other models and kind of variable. Yeah.Hegde:Yeah. So in this case, the other model would just mean different distributions of randomness at the, at the intersections.Saintsing:Right. And so you would just kind of keep verifying, like, if, if at any point this matrix falls apart, then you would say, well, this assumption or this, I guess the, whatever you were trying to prove with that particular thing would say, that's not pushing us towards the universality. Right, right,Hegde:Right. Yes. That's a very difficult job, which is completely out of, out of, you know, it's beyond army Trek now is to verify that assumptions that I mentioned actually hold for other federal randoms. So we're sidestepping that very difficult issue and saying, okay, let's suppose we knew that then let's use, uh, uh, let's, let's, let's, let's make arguments about the maximizing paths, which are more easy to understand. And, and we'll see what we can get from the next month. YouSaintsing:Need to have like a pretty high throughput computer, basically, to do a lot of the research you need to do.Hegde:So we don't, we don't actually do simulations because I don't know why actually. I mean, it can be useful. So I sometimes do simulations, but my computer is not balanced, crazy fast computer. So usually it just takes a long time, but typically, typically Matthews does not in most innovations. So really it's just a question of paper and,Saintsing:And they're like solving by hand a lot of the time, like, yeah,Hegde:It's all, it's all by hand,Saintsing:Like research time, like when you do research, you're just like sitting at a desk, like writing out equations patients,Hegde:You were going to approve something. And so you'll have, you know, kind of vague ideas of how you might try to prove it. And so you'll, you'll, you'll, you'll roll some picture of, see what you're saying makes juristic sense for maybe you'll actually try to write down as of the proof, and then it might be an equation. It might be, might be just kind of some written like a verbal argument. Uh, you'll get stuck somewhere. And then you think about how you're going to get past that, which maybe you'll just sit there and look at the ceiling, or maybe you'll go for a walk over for walks is quite helpful. Um, the picture people have of mattresses is not that accurate. It's not inaccurate. It really is a lot of just sitting and thinking about stuff or going for a walk and thinking about stuff or reading papers to see what other people, what other people have tried. But it really is a very like low, low electricity job. Yeah. Um, and I should say that, you know, this is something that if it's all not just telling you, you'll be sitting at your desk and you'll think you have an idea currently very often, um, and what you do at that point, cause you go for a walk because you know, you've got to, you've got to appreciate, you're going to enjoy the feeling of having an idea before you try to write it down and see that it's wrong.Hegde:So you really have to go, you know, it usually your idea's wrong, it's wrong. And so you've got to really take advantage of the time when you do it to get an idea before he's musical 50 again.Saintsing:Right. So there are there conferences like academic, math conferences, what is a, what's a math talk? Like, like what does somebody do in a math talk?Hegde:So I have heard from my friends at other other disciplines that math talks kind of break all the rules that they've heard of about how to give a talk. Um, there were basically no pictures for the most part, maybe a few bit depend on depending on the topic, but often the no pictures. Um, and it's usually just like a bunch of bullet points of text explaining the model, explaining the argument, uh, maybe some equations to explain right there. I don't what the actual proof is, but typically, yeah. So it's one person, a slide show and the first two slides within minor, again, it's just to set up the model and then you set up the question, maybe explain what people have done in previous work. And then you're trying to give an idea of the proofs, but it's very different from front that talks to my friends that I've gone to that and I'll put a disciplines and it's way more way more just like sentences on the, on the slides.Saintsing:Well, so now you're all you're moving on after grad school, you're going to be done with grad school. So like what, uh, are you going to go into an academic career?Hegde:Yes, I'm going to, I'm going to try starting a post-doc um, after this. So, uh, so actually Berkeley has this place called MSRA, uh, mathematical sciences research Institute, which is right next to an LBNL on the Hills. And so, uh, NSRA has a, has a program in math every semester, uh, and I, a different area of map. And what happens is researchers from around the world who work in that area, come to MSRR and think about stuff together. And so next semester, the program and MSRA is in my particular area of math. And so I'm going to be a post-doc there for six months because everybody's going to be there, the works in migraine. Um, and then after that I'll be at Columbia. SoSaintsing:Like just a lot of time, everybody's like Sharon whiteboards talking about where is that? Like, kind of like just math, like that's, that's what you envisioned for your career. I mean, there'll be times when it's like you writing on a desk on times writing on the whiteboard, but that's basically yeah.Hegde:Yes. That's about the, that's about the span of it. Nice that as you expand beyond, you know, pure math, but within, within your math, that's definitely the majority of it.Saintsing:Yeah. If you love math, like that sounds like,Hegde:Yeah, exactly. If you're really okay with, before the pandemic started, I would just be sitting in my office the entire day. So this is not that typical, but my two opposites did not come to my office very often. So often I'm just sitting there for the entire day working on something and still independent. I started, it was the same thing, except I do it at home. Now you have to like math to be able to do it, I guess.Saintsing:Yeah. You talk about people needing to love math. How often in your life do you encounter people who just like don't like math and then I guess I'm interested. Cause I always hear people talk about, you know, not being able to do math, which is, I definitely get people not liking math, but the idea that people can't do, math always seems so odd to me. Cause it's like, I mean, you know, you can write down stuff on a paper. Like what do you, what are your thoughts about, um, that, uh, mindset?Hegde:Yeah, definitely. I think they, you know, they don't like mentally, they can't do math and stolen. I personally often think that it's, it's, it's definitely to do with the fact that the math we're taught as kids or students is not that interesting. At least that's my view, mainly because I was going to say before, it's, it's rather wrote, you know, um, you have to figure out the area of triangles, whatever, where you have to compute some integral, you don't really, you don't really see that there's an idea involved in these competitions. So there's this, I think this is a little bit that does it, that there's this essay [inaudible] traditional, which I think is controversial among metrics and by what did they do with the conviction or not, but it's called math, which is a moment where he just lemons that math is taught, not like art, basically.Hegde:So an art, you know, people do, you know, when the kids did, they were kind of awkward, just kind of free paint with their fingers and whatever. Um, it's very fun. There's no real holes to it. Um, and maybe later they, they they're, they're taught some skills, you know, how to, how to paint their evil. Excellent. You have to do about like drawing circles and so on about, about what throughout the thing, you were aware that there are these great works of art around, um, which, which you can look at and you can appreciate if you think, okay, this is what I want to do. This is a step towards that in math, you know, there are also these great works of art that they're doing these kinds of theorems in that there's complicated theorems, but kids don't know that kids are just told, okay, just multiply, learn these notification tables or, you know, do these types of [inaudible] a triangle, like which numbers pick or things like this. And there's no real motivation. Like why would you, why would you care about this in the first place? Nobody knows. I think one reason people don't like math is because this is the impression they have of that. There's no real ideas involved. There's no larger story about what's uh, why people came to these questions. Why do I want to answer them? What's interesting about them. Yeah.Saintsing:That's so, yeah. That's interesting. Yeah, because like, when you talk about art, um, I get that, you know, kids can, it's kind of like a space for exploring and in math, I, you know, that there should be space for exploring, I guess, but also math is, you know, I'm kind of also thinking about it in terms of like learning English or learning your native language in school, you know, you have to like learn these building blocks, like system. And so math has that need for that system. And I don't know. Yeah. It's funny. Cause then, you know, learning the times tables, like, I don't know, is that something that's necessary,Hegde:But I guess that's the issue. If you do need these skills later, you know, to do a map later, but you know, for example, you know, spelling is annoying, grammar, things are annoying, but you read books and you, and you think, oh, well this is, this is what I've gotten out of that stuff that I can appreciate, you know, stories in books, um, which again is not really available. And if, if you're doing math basically until undergrads, I'd say, um, maybe, maybe [inaudible] or something, but for the most part until then, it's really kind of mysterious why this is interesting. Right.Saintsing:I got you. So it's like, if you were learning English, but they just gave you like words and they never actually gave you a book. Yeah, yeah. That does make it sound bad.Hegde:Well, so my personal view is that if it was taught differently, maybe, you know, there are certain skills as you pointed out about modifications that what you do have to do, uh, and maybe, you know, it's hard to, same as everybody can actually enjoy learning that study uniform stuff later. But certainly I think you build a belt better appreciate why this is interesting if it was taught at different times, but that's hard to teach. It's my head start to say as an easy thing to do, unfortunately,Saintsing:We've run out of time for the interview. It has been so much fun talking. Today we've been speaking with Milan Heggerty from the department of mathematics about, um, his research on stochastic growth models. Thanks so much for being on the show, Milind. Hegde:Yeah. Thanks for having meSaintsing:Tune in, in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
5/11/2021

Kelsey Crutchfield-Peters

Saintsing:You're tuned to the 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley I'm Andrew Saintsing. And this is the graduates, the interview talk show, or we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world today, I'm joined by Kelsey Crutchfield-Peter's from the department of integrative biology. Welcome to the show, Kelsey.Crutchfield:Hi Andrew. Thank you for having me.Saintsing:It's so great to have you here. How has life been for you in these, uh, pandemic times?Crutchfield:Well, I think now that it's been going on for about a year, I have something of routine, but I've been finding ways to kind of spend my time at home. New hobbies, gotten into woodworking, more gardening, but I've also been able to get into the lab and get up to my field site, um, over the last year as well. So I've been fortunate in that regard. What are you doing woodworking wise? So we actually, my partner and I decided that we wanted to start making some of our own furniture and other objects in our homes. So we kind of went on to like Craigslist and next door and found all these secondhand tools and we've since made a coffee table and I made a little excited table. Um, I made a cutting board, we built a cabinet. That's like a, I don't know, it's like maybe seven foot tall cabinet, like two, three feet wide.Crutchfield:And yeah, just kind of like fun stuff like that. I learned a lot actually working when we've taken a little break, um, since the weather's changed and we're starting a garden in our backyard now, cause it's like very limited space, but yeah, it's been really fun. And what are you gardening? Um, so yeah, we have a little food garden that we in the last, like two or three years, we've kind of done different iterations, like kale salad, tomatoes, but then also we have front yard that I'm hoping to kind of revamp a little bit and put some native California plants out front plant, some poppies, which have been making me really happy lately, California poppiesSaintsing:Gardening doesn't feel too close to field work for you?Crutchfield:Well, absolutely I, yeah, so I studied plants, soil interactions and yeah, I think in my free time I also enjoy being in that environment. The digging in particular, I find helpful. I really know how to use a pickax to turn the soil, but yeah, sometimes I'm not in the mood after being in the field for awhile.Saintsing:Yeah. I was thinking about my first question to you just being, did you become a scientist just to be paid to professionally dig?Crutchfield:I've made many jokes along those lines and I've actually when looking back and like, how did I get into soil? Because I was a biology major as an undergrad and I'm still a biologist. I think of myself as a biogeochemist, which is someone who combines biology and geology knowledge, chemistry, knowledge to ask questions about large scale cycles, like the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, um, and how those impact and ecosystems and ecosystem function. And I was always really interested in how plants play a role in biogeochemical cycles and how they're impacted by those cycles. And so I think that when I was an undergrad, I didn't really imagine myself diving into soil, but because soil is such a huge part and this is central reservoir for plant nutrients and water and plays this really fundamental role in ecosystem function. That's kind of where I found myself. So now I dig holes professionally. I call myself a professional dirt bag for, cause I bagged her a lot and yeah, it's been really an awesome experience. So no regrets.Saintsing:Yeah, it sounds great. What are you trying to find in the dirt?Crutchfield:I study how forests that have deep roots. So they root not only into soil, but into underlying whether it bedrock, acquire nutrients and how that's related to water as well. And specifically I'm interested in studying the nitrogen cycle, um, in these ecosystemsSaintsing:And what is the nitrogen cycle?Crutchfield:Yeah. So nitrogen is an essential element to plants and just most organisms need nitrogen, all organisms need nitrogen to make proteins and nucleic acids. And so nitrogen is an essential nutrient and often the most limiting nutrient to plant growth, especially in terrestrial ecosystems. And so by understanding nitrogen cycling, we can also understand limits on plant growth and forest function and both how the plants are responding, but how their microbial communities are interacting with them to provide nutrients and how the soil microbiota and the flora are driving cycles that are sustaining life in these systems.Saintsing:Yeah. So, nitrogen is usually the limiting nutrient, but isn't it like most of the air? Which is a really great question. So nitrogen in the atmosphere, which is the majority of our atmosphere, right, is N two gas. And those two nitrogen atoms are bonded by a triple bond. And that triple bond is a super high energy bond. It's really hard to break. And so though we have an abundance of it in the atmosphere. There are only specific microbes in atmospheric processes that can actually break that nitrogen and then turn it into biologically available for, and those are typically as ions, which are nitrate and ammonium that we typically look at in systems. There are some like microbes and some plants can use small organic nitrogen molecules, but you're right. That's a really interesting question of like, we have all this nitrogen around, but you really need some specific processes that are really specialized to make it available to plants and microbesSaintsing:And those processes, those are mostly being done carried out by microbes. So you're saying.Crutchfield:Yeah. And then sometimes there's some fixation that can happen. This term is called biological fixation where microbes break the triple bond between the two nitrogen atoms and then turn it into the available forms as ammonium or nitrate. And sometimes then of course they'll take it and put it in their own tissues and the form has protein.Saintsing:So we have a bunch of nitrogen in the air and it's got to end, there are microbes in the soil that just kind of grab it and pull it out and turn it into accessible forms. And you're kind of interested in once it's in this accessible form in these microbes and in the dirt, like how is it moving between organisms and the dirt?Crutchfield:I usually say soil, which is an interesting distinction, right? People are like, don't call it dirt, call it soil and soil is this really awesome, incredible heterogeneous mixture, right of organic matter minerals, water gases, and saw Utes. And my research is at the Yule river critical zone observatory. So I come at it from this perspective of a critical zone scientist who, somebody who studies, how the soil and the plants, all those solids, including the nitrogen that's in the air and in the soil interact to drive these cycles that are supporting life on our planet, in the critical zone, which is from the vegetation canopy all the way down to the base of weathered bedrock. So my dissertation is kind of not only looking at soil and how the typical interaction that we understand of plants and soil being like major pathway through which plants derive their water and their nutrients, but going beyond soil beneath the soil, into the weather bedrock where you have these systems are fractures and this rock, um, is both partially Waterfield, partially airfield, just like the soil.Crutchfield:And it's a really important reservoir, especially in dry systems like we have here and coastal California, that seasonally experienced drought where you have large periods of no rain in the summertime. And these roots rely on these deep sources to sustain transpiration of water and then to also support other functions of their roots. So I'm kind of feeling that gap in knowledge where it's like, we've understood traditionally that plants derive most of their water and nutrients from soil. But now recent research has shown that the reservoir of weather bedrock is really important, not for water and driving carbon, but I'm adding the component of like, okay, we know that it's important for carbon and water, but now trying to understand it, then how is it important for nitrogen cycle?Saintsing:All right, is there actually nitrogen being cycled down there?Crutchfield:I use this unique system called the beta stone monitoring system where I sample water, um, from different depths going down to about 16 meters and right at about a meter and a half, we get into weathered bedrock. So the sampling system is sampling the profile of weathered bedrock for water and gasses. And so this is really important. So I can collect that water and do the chemistry on that water and look at available nitrogen. And what I've found so far is that in terms of the total nitrogen, which is comprised of both organic nitrogen and then ammonium to nitrate, we have concentrations that are on the same order of magnitude as some temperate forest soils. So the way I think about this is that it's an ecologically significant amount of nitrogen in the weathered bedrock in plant accessible in microbes accessible forms. And that was a really cool finding because at first you're like, oh, rock, it's not like a nutrient rich.Crutchfield:It's not, I think a lot of people think about rocks as being biologically inert. And the really cool thing about biogeochemistry is that we were looking at these interactions and we understand that both the physical or the abiotic and the biotic are intrinsically linked through these cycles and at our site, it's actually interesting because the rock, the bedrock at our site has relatively high nitrogen content. And that comes from the fact that way back in the day, there was nitrogen deposited in near shore marine environments and the organic nitrogen from the algae, from the micro, the organisms that were living in these near shore environments that nitrogen got trapped in the rock when it was sediment. And then it got, metamorphose pushed up onto land. And now as that rock is being weathered over time, that nitrogen can be released from that rock and become available in ecosystems. And so this is cool, is that, there's this cool question that I have is not only how much nitrogen is down there, but where's it coming from? Is it coming from weathered bedrock or is it being fixed? Like we discussed earlier from the atmosphere, um, by microbes in the soil and then being leached, which is the process where water carries, salutes downward from soil horizons into the weathered bedrock.Saintsing:So in either case it's, uh, an organism that was ultimately like a living organism was responsible for the fixation, but you're interested in like how old, how long ago kind of that nitrogen was fixed.Crutchfield:I'm not necessarily asking when the nitrogen was fixed per se, but one of the really cool tools that I use to address these kinds of questions is stable isotope analysis. And so stable isotope analysis is basically a method where different processes. So if you're biologically fixed this spring, your nitrogen signal is probably is going to be different than the nitrogen that was biologically fixed thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years ago and then put into rock and then since transformed both physically and chemically over time. So stable isotope analysis takes advantage of the natural isotopes that occur in different materials. So like you might think about isotopes of carbon or isotopes of nitrogen. And if you recall, isotopes are chemically identical atoms in the sense of like they're both carbon and they behave like carbon electrochemically when they interact. But you might have in the case of carbon of carbon 12 and carbon 13, right?Crutchfield:Carbon 12 is abundant isotope of carbon versus carbon 13 is the rare isotope of carbon. And in nature they have specific ratios in which they occur and depending on different processes, um, like if you have an enzyme that's processing that carbon, like when plants are doing photosynthesis, they discriminate differently against the two. So the lighter isotope will often be integrated more rapidly because it's easier to break that bond in like a CO2 molecule, for example, um, by rabickow the enzyme that's doing the majority of carbon fixation in plants, um, and then fixing it in the form of glucose into the plant. So over time you can say like, oh, based off of the isotopic ratio that I see in this material is primarily plant derived or based off of the isotopic ratio. I see in this material, it's primarily from weathering of rock and rock derived carbon, for example, um, the same can be true for nitrogen, but the cool thing about the cycle that I find is that it's extremely, extremely complex and kind of the isotopic effects of processes are really large. And so what happens is this kind of this complex mess. Sometimes if you try to apply these methods, but it requires kind of like a nuance and a lot of like creativity for trying to, um, use new methods to investigate, like where's the nitrogen coming from? What processes driving it cycling? Is it being taken up and utilized by plants and microbes?Saintsing:So you're, uh, taking samples, uh, at various steps and you're trying to get at, are you, are you looking at different isotopes at the different depths? Are you trying to see if there's that like how you're trying to see where the nitrogen is coming from in these different locations? Totally.Crutchfield:Totally yeah. So my first chapter is kind of describing what I talked about earlier, where we were looking at, like I was looking at how much nitrogens there is it ecologically significant what forms are dominant? And then the next part is now saying like, where's it coming from? And so from that first piece of my work, I found that organic nitrogen was the dominant form of nitrogen and that ammonium nitrate are there and they're being cycled as well, but they're an order of magnitude less, all of which are on the same order of magnitude as many forest soils. So they're all ecologically significant concentrations. But the interesting thing about the site is that it's underlaying by this metta sedimentary rock that I described earlier, which is, um, this C4 sediments and that rock holding nitrogen in it often has it in the form of ammonium cat ions.Crutchfield:And so when it's released, you would expect it to be ammonium, um, in the form of ammonium. Now it can also be stored as organic nitrogen. And so I'm an hour asking this question, can I use stable isotopes to look at the isotopic signature of nitrogen and rock versus the isotopic signature of soils. Um, and then also look at the isotopic signatures of nitrogen. That's dissolved in the water through the whole profile of the subsurface from soil into the weather bedrock, and then also looking at groundwater and say, can you use these tools to try and differentiate where the nitrogen is coming from? And potentially even looking at the extent of contribution of the two, probably not one or the other, right? Like it's probably a combination because this is again, these, when you have water present, it's going to be driving all of these chemical reactions, both in the soil and in the rock.Crutchfield:I have not done the analysis yet on the water, but I'm just submitting those in the next month or so I'm really looking forward to seeing the data come back because so far the way I've looked at it, you can tell the difference between the soil and the rock, but it's subtle. And so whether or not the actually plays out in what I see in my water samples, which is what is the nitrogen that is available to the plants and the microbes and the dissolved phase. Um, that will be kind of the key to saying like which one, which pool is more important for the ecosystem.Saintsing:Would you say when you're like, thinking about this research, when you get the results back, does it look kind of like you have a corkboard and you have a bunch of like pictures and you got like a whole conspiracy thing going on with all the threads it's pointing to different. Is it like, is it that level of like trying to piece together things like, is that kind of how complicated it feels?Crutchfield:Yeah. So actually it's kind of cool. You say that. So something that we often use in biogeochemistry are mixing models. You can use mixing models as ways to estimate the fraction of different pools that are arriving in your mixture, right? So say you have like a red bucket of paint and a blue bucket of paint, right? Depending on the fraction of each you'll have like purple or you'll have like magenta or you'll have like indigo, you know, you might have different shades and the relative amounts of mixtures will give you a similar thing for isotopes where let's say you have a really distinct isotopic signature here versus here, and you have a line drawn between those two points. You can be anywhere along that line. Now let's say you add a third mixture and you have a, like, now you have somewhat of like three points and you're in this like triangular space.Crutchfield:Right. And, um, so you can kind of imagine how, like, once you have upwards of two sources in your mixture, it becomes really complicated to estimate which ones. And when you're looking at something like nitrogen cycling, I have like my whole nitrogen cycle. Right. Which is like making the atmosphere being fixed is a form of ammonium nitrate. And those processes are separate. So there are different boxes. And then you have organic nitrogen, which is another box, and then it can get leached into ground water. And those are different boxes. And then it can be D gassed into the atmosphere. Again is nitrous oxide. And like, so there are all these boxes and lines. That's funny that you say that, cause I'm definitely kind of like staring at it sometimes. And I'm like, where is the nitrogen coming from? Where is it going?Saintsing:Yeah. Big aha moments.Crutchfield:You know, it's like always those like moments where you don't expect, you're like on a run or something and like, oh wait, what about this? You know? Or like, you have a weird dream. And you're like, thinking of that, actually work.Saintsing:Wait, do you like dream about the nitrogen cycle at this point?Crutchfield:I definitely have similar dreams. I've had dreams about being in the field digging. Um, maybe I have it from the more like upsetting times where you're like digging in a hole in the dark and it's like below freezing, which has happened before. And your field assistant dedicated field assistants. I have to say the best field assistance, this student of mine. So Mithra was out there with me a few years ago. Now we were doing some pits for an experiment and it was like blow, freezing. It was dark. We were wet. We had just excavated like two or three meters squared of soil and rock by hand andSaintsing:Two or three meters square. Okay. Dang. Yeah.Crutchfield:That's cubic.Saintsing:Yeah. Well that's a lot of digging. Yeah. Wait, how are you doing the digging?Crutchfield:So I, I often will use like a pickax. Um, sometimes I core soils, so I'll have like a metal, um, cylindrical sleeve, basically that camera the ground and can pull the core out, um, and then separate it based off of depth. But sometimes my questions like last summer, I was doing an experiment that is another component of my dissertation, which is saying like, okay, now we know that nitrogen is present. And whether bedrock is probably being cycled, I'm starting to look at where it's coming from, but is it actually being used by the plants and microbes? The instinctual answer is like, yes, of course, if it's present and roots are present and they're functioning, they're going to take up, what's available to them. Right. But my question in this experiment, I did where I dug these deep pits. And this time I had the help of a tractor that had like a backhoe on it and it could dig for me.Crutchfield:I went out and I sampled, find roots, both in the weathered bedrock and in the soil. And I compared their ability to take up the different forms of nitrogen. And I also sub sampled then them. And I'm going to do RNA analysis and some DNA analysis to look at which microbes and microrisal fungi are present in the soil versus the weather bedrock. Are there the same or are they different? And then are there differences in their ability to take up different forms of estrogen and like how at what rate? So are the, is the nutrient physiology of these roots different basically based off of growing and weathered bedrock or soil?Saintsing:Well, I want to go back to the story you had about digging in the dark and the below freezing, but I'm also interested in what we were just what you were just saying, but I'm going to go back first. When you said you were digging in the dark and in the, uh, below freezing, was, were those necessary conditions or did that just happen to be like, were you looking for something that specifically depended on a certain time or did you just happen to be digging in the dark?Crutchfield:Yeah, it just happened to be a long day which can happen. When you're, we kind of committed, we were doing a tracer experiment, a mock tracer experiment, where basically we dripped dye into the subsurface and excavated it to see where it went. So this was in preparation for another experiment that I didn't actually end up doing. So it's also kind of hilarious that I spent all this time doing this and then didn't actually end up doing anything. So it was part of a larger collaboration eventually, which was great. So anyways, we were out there and we we'd done this, we dripped this dye down into the rock and then we're like, okay, now we want to see where does it go? Does it go really far over the time that we dripped it? And then we'll plan to be able to access whatever we were to introduce to the soil. The die was just to visualize where it went. So we had to like excavate it. And by the time we finished, we were like finished adding the dye. It was like two or three o'clock and this was like January. So the sun was going down at like, I don't know, five or six, right. So we started excavating. And then by the time we got down and actually found that out, it was dark freezing cold. And we had like, we're like we have to finish. It was quite an experience.Crutchfield:I've also climbed trees in the dark before for similar reasons. So sometimes when I'm trying to sample foliage, one of the other cool tools, my labs, my lab, the Dawson lab uses is tree climbing, where we like put anchors into the tops of trees. In my case, this was Douglas fir trees. Some of which are over 30 meters tall where we put the anchor and you're climbing up into these trees. And then we were sampling foliage in the canopy for carbon and nitrogen analysis. And, you know, I spent all day doing this, but I was in the tree and the sun was setting and it was beautiful for a little bit. But then eventually you're in the dark on a rope in the tree with your headlamp, with like clipping sheers. And you're like, where did my shoes go? I hope they're nowhere near my rope. Um, of course it was fine and safe, but there are times in the field. I think you realize you're like, oh, I'm pushing myself a little bit too far.Saintsing:Yeah. You need somebody an impartial observer there to be like, Nope, you gotta go. Yeah. So then I'm interested, you were talking about the trees and how you really comparing how different, uh, or a roots, like from the same tree, right. Where they were in terms of depth might be able to take up nutrients in different ways. So this, uh, a single plant is modulating its cells, depending on like feedback from the depth of the soil it's in, is what you're saying.Crutchfield:Absolutely. That, um, plant cells like any cells of an organism, right. Are kind of engaging with these environments and have a certain amount of plasticity in their ability to respond. Right. And we can test those questions about which genes perhaps are being turned on, um, versus those that are not, which ones are being expressed more in these different environments. And though I'm still kind of waiting to hear back on this data. I haven't had the process right now going through the extractions before I send them the data. Um, the question or the hypothesis is that because soil versus rock is so different, both in terms of its density, um, in terms of the organic matter content of soil being higher than you would see in rock, um, the chemical environments being different, the water storage capacity and kind of like that environment. And also just the physical environment.Crutchfield:If you can imagine, like if you're growing through soil roots can kind of expand in this three-dimensional space and fill up this space in a way that kind of like maximizes their access to the nutrients and the water in that surface, in that reservoir. If you're growing in rock, you're in a fracture, which is like a planar existence, right? You have this like split between the rocks, you grow into this little crack and what's really cool and what I've become obsessed with on hiking trips and backpacking trips. And like anywhere I go is even driving down roads. When you have like a road cut into the rock, cause you can see roots just shooting through fractures. And it's really cool because they become super compressed. And so their physiology or their morphology is changing as well. So they can become really flattened out, which changes the surface area. That's interacting with the environment. And because of all these characteristics that are different too, it's also potentially selecting for different microbes that are going to associate with those roots. So my hypotheses are that because these two environments are very different, perhaps they're having different gene expression and different micro microrisal and microbial symbionts that are growing with them, um, that changes their ability to take up nutrients. And also probably is altering other physiology as well.Saintsing:I was just thinking about, you know, like trees around a house or in a city. And they, you know, I, I don't know about their bedrock interactions, but then they're encountering like surface level interactions right. Or where they're meeting asphalt and concrete and stuff. And so do you, I don't know. Do you think that is like you would see it would be more similar to where it's in bedrock or less or more similar to soil or like yeah. W what do you think? Do you have any thoughts onCrutchfield:That? Yeah, so I think it's really, it's an interesting question because people have studied soils and urban environments in agricultural environments and natural forest ecosystems, et cetera. And then when you're thinking about the role of rock and like plants interacting with rock, you can definitely, you know, you see that root split sidewalks, you know, you can see that that happens with rock as well. Um, I've seen rocks where like SAP sandstone outcrops, for example, in the Santa Cruz mountains that are, there was this really amazing old Madrone that grown into this was growing out of this fracture and the kind of exposed bedrock. And there was this kind of crack that looked like it had formed because of the pressure that the tree put on the rock and in the critical zone science research that I do tons of really cool collaborators that are studying atmosphere, chemistry and how it relates to this critical zone region.Crutchfield:I told you about, of the earth surface, soil, chemistry, rock geomorphology and like geophysics. And there's one person who studied how plants are breaking rock and creating soil. And so my imagining always is that, you know, plants are extremely adaptable, right? You can see the Daisy growing out of the crack in the sidewalk. You know, I'm a climber like rock climber as well. And I'll be climbing sometimes on these big what, like you're on these big walls, like in Yosemite, for example. And there are these like little Oaks growing out of just a fracture where they have effectively no soil available to them. And so certainly I think you can go out into the world and imagine what, what is the subsurface environment that this roots, the roots of this planner interacting with? Um, is it concrete? Is it asphalt? Is it growing underneath and out the other side to get to the light, a little patch of soil over there? Like it's really cool. Cause even in the forest that I'm in, you can see roots that are growing tens of meters away from the tree. Some of these really big old growth Douglas fir can have these really long roots exposed at the surface or along the road cut that are really far away from the tree. So I think kind of responding to what your question was is that plant root systems are really adaptable and that's probably one of the things that's really interesting. That's one of the things that I find most interesting.Saintsing:You mentioned, um, at the beginning, how, you know, those nitrogen could be coming from these rocks that contain organisms or the remains of organisms that died a long time ago. Does that kind of specific to coastal regions like that availability of nitrogenCrutchfield:Sedimentary rock is really that, so that's the type of property we're talking about in the Marine systems. And so it's cool because I'm entering our cover is 73% of the Earth's current lands are sorts. So it's estimated so about 70% of the land surface can be estimated to be sedentary rock. And whether it's coming from these near shore marine environments or river freshwater river systems, or like old, um, like one of the questions I'm curious about is like the old, um, inland seas, right? Like on continents, like where you have, you know, you're going to have algae and you're going to have, um, zooplankton and these organisms living in getting trapped potentially larger or larger organisms as well. And there's some really cool research done on this by Ben Fulton's group, uh, looking at rock drive nitrogen in their paper in 2018, Benjamin Holton's group found that rock nitrogen across the whole globe is a really important reservoir nitrogen and has actually alters our understanding of the nitrogen cycle globally.Crutchfield:So for my research, and I think for anyone out there, you can go around and think about like, oh, the rock that I'm walking on is likely, or the rock that I live on is likely to be the sedentary. Rocket could have high nitrogen content and certainly California in the coastal belt, um, where I do my research and the Franciscan complex, there's a lot of this mediset of interior rock. Um, and it's an important, and their group has shown that it's been an important resource for coniferous forest in California. So it's pretty cool. Actually the realization you're like, wow, rock is a really important resource for nutrients to environments.Saintsing:Well, it's like we're unfortunately running out of time in the interview. Is there anything like you'd like to leave us with? ICrutchfield:Think when people are out in the world, if I were to ask somebody, um, or anyone to imagine something new, um, like with my students, for example, or when I give talks to classes, is that when you walk out into the world, the tree that you're walking past has assimilated matter and just appeared, right? Like this concept that I think we just like take for granted, um, sometimes is that, you know, it's come out of all of the matter that it's managed to acquire from the air and the soil and to become a new being. And that's kind of the cool thing. And as a biogeochemist, I'm just really fascinated and kind of perpetually in awe of the fact that all living organisms are just matter. That's being constantly recycled between both living and non-living things on our planet.Saintsing:Yeah, for sure. Today, we've been talking to Kelsey Crutchfield Peters from the department of integrated biology about her research on the nitrogen cycling near the weathered bedrock. Thanks so much for being on the show. Kelsey.Crutchfield:Thank you so much. Andrew is great to talk to you.Saintsing:Tune in, in two weeks for the next episode of the graduate.
3/30/2021

Kevin Roberts

Saintsing:Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM. KALX Berkeley, I'm Andrew Saintsing. And this is the graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Kevin Roberts from the department of integrative biology, open to the show Kevin.Roberts:Thanks for having me.Saintsing:It's great to have you here, we were kind of like almost lab mates, honestly, even at that point. Yeah. We know each other's stuff pretty well. So I know that you're a, a, you're a book guy, right?Roberts:Yeah. Yeah. I would say, oh, you know, it sounds a little weird, but yeah, I guess it's fair to call myself a bug guy.Saintsing:Why is it sound weird?Roberts:I guess you sort of are a picture comes to mind where it's kind of like Spiderman, but slightly, maybe six legs instead and less webs. ButSaintsing:Yeah. I want to be like a weird bug guy. You're like a cool book guy.Roberts:That'd be like most bug guys would be pretty cool though. Cause yeah, bugs are cool.Saintsing:So you've always like insects.Roberts:Um, no, no. So I actually used to, uh, really like or dislike them and, well, no, I was neutral towards insects. I really disliked spiders and I still am lukewarm about spiders. Um, but I kinda got into them in college or like, I guess undergrad, we had to take an organismal biology class and it was in the peak recession times. So they like cut a lot of classes and they weren't, it wasn't a lot available. And my like advisor, counselor person, um, was the professor of the entomology class. And he was like, why don't you just take this? We could make it count for that. Um, and I had never considered it. I think I kind of wanted to work on like amphibians or something and I thought they were interesting and I took it and it, yeah, they're just crazy. They're just like little aliens. They breathe through holes in their body, like the side of their body and just do everything like turn into completely different forms.Roberts:Liquified their bodies fly. It says, yeah, it's all there. Cool.Saintsing:What did you study about bugs?Roberts:One of the other things I guess I should say that I find most interesting about insects really is how wide a range of environment they can tolerate. So like a lot of what I work on involves cold and one really cool thing that a lot of insects can do is tolerate, freezing and not die, which is, it's not like a unique to insect phenomenon, but there's like only a handful of vertebrates that can do that. And it just, yeah, it just seems so crazy to me. Cause like I grew up in California where like, you know, uh, 50 Fahrenheit seems cold and there's these beetles that are tolerating like zero.Saintsing:Just kind of like go into deep freeze and then just come back when it's they go like offline and then come back online when it warms back up. Yup.Roberts:Yeah. So I guess there's a few different approaches to kind of call that insects deal with. Well, like a big aspect of my research is mostly focused around seasonality. So there's these like seasonally prepared states that they can be in hibernation would be an example for mammals insects it's typically called dialogues or it could be quiescent. So basically they go into dormancy. So there's this long period of preparations. They can tolerate cold, but they're already inactive when they have the cold, like experienced the cold temperatures. So active insects can also, when they're exposed to cold, a lot of times they lose the ability to coordinate or I would like to still, I guess, maintain muscle function and they just kind of fall on their backs or like fall over and they just sit there and until they come back and its called "chill coma" and say are essentially in a coma from being cold.Saintsing:So there's a difference sometimes insects, all of a sudden, like if this were happening in a lab, they wouldn't really prep for being cold, but in the wild they kind of know seasonal cues. And so they kind of prepare for the cold. And is there a difference in that end experience for insects?Roberts:Yeah. Well, yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, I guess they can get a bit more complicated. So partially also what I work on is seasonal. Oh yeah. So I work on a winter, like how, what insects do in winter. And there is still acute cold exposures that can occur in winter. And I do partially work on that. Um, so there's still see seasonal preparedness and then cold that happens in that time that they deal with. And yeah, I guess the mechanisms are a little bit different just in terms of time that they have to maintain or a lot of what happens when they're in this chill coma, not seasonally induced cold is they lose like that. They're unable to maintain ion balances. So their nerves basically just don't function. So they can't like coordinate a lot of stuff and they just can't move, I'm really sure how you deal with that.Roberts:There's like subtle adjustments you can do to like fix your cellular membranes and stuff to prevent leakiness of the ions. But typically with the seasonal shifts that insects do, at least the ones that I work on, I'll speak specifically about the one I work on.Saintsing:What is that?Roberts:It is a Sierra Willow beetle. So it's just this little automobile that eats Willow in the Sierra Nevada as well. It is distributed across semester in the United States and yeah, it's, it's a high elevation in the Sierras and it just looks like a little lady bug, but reverse colors. Um, so this is black with red pattern a little bit. It's really cute for, for a bug, you know? And they, they don't really do anything particularly interesting in terms of what people normally think of. It's not like, um, pine beetles that are this large like pest, I guess they're just really interesting because they live in these really variable environment and the CRS because California is fairly drought, drought prone. So there's a lot of variation in snow that happens, which impacts like temperature and stuff like that too.Saintsing:And then, sorry, you were about a, what, uh, I'm gonna say in the context of your Willow beetles.Roberts:Yeah. So what these Beatles end up doing is they just put a bunch of like, oh they, so they specifically use glycerol, but basically they just pump a bunch of stuff into this open fluid that's floating around them to increase just how much stuff is in there. Cause that disrupts ice crystals from forming, or it controls the rate at which it does, but it disrupts it typically. And yeah, so they, they do that. I think there's a lot of equivalents of like frogs have a similar strategy. They can freeze, but they use sugar, they just put glucose all over themselves to prevent it. And some insects do that as well. But yeah, they pretty much just like decrease the water to stuff's ratio in their blood.Saintsing:So they just don't. So the ice doesn't kind of like, you know, like a situation at a soda can in the freezer, like the ice would kind of just pop their selves.Roberts:Yeah, yeah, exactly. Especially as on that scale, the ice crystals are like a lot more stabby kind of grow like little pyramids. Yeah. And so that's actually an interesting problem that I did mention earlier that some insects can freeze, um, and survive. But as to the ones that, that want to freeze and survive, don't want to suppress what temperature they cool or like what temperature they freeze that. So, um, if you get it too low by adding a bunch of these like Saul Utes and they're like glucose or glycerol, once the crystal formation starts, it like goes fast. So it like expands really rapidly. So typically what they try to do is initiate. And when I say they try and it's not like they're making the conscious decision, but they have this strategy of trying to initiate, freezing at higher temperatures so that they can control the rate of growth. So it doesn't like damage as much. Yeah. And that's, that's uh, my, the Beatles I work on do.Saintsing:Cool. So they're uh, the water in their cells is freezing above zero is what you're saying above zero degrees Celsius?Roberts:I think it's, it's typically the water outside of the cells person that it's freezing. I think it's, it's very problematic, problematic if it's inside the cell and it so usually like, I guess seawater has a lower freezing temperature than fresh water because there's a salt in there and stuff. Right. It's, it's a similar, I guess, phenomenon to what, what I was talking about inside the beetle. So just like most living organisms are going to have a freezing point below, I guess zero Celsius would be the freezing point of just water in a room. And the temperature you go below that is called your super cooling point. It's like the ability to cool below zero. And there's some insects that can, you know, uh, delay freezing until minus 20 Celsius. And then like beetles, I work on that, do control the ice freezing or dies crystal growth rate, uh, and survive, freezing do it about minus five degrees. And then they can tolerate down to minus 15 before they die. Yeah. So they're kind of like doing it. I say warmer temperatures, but it's still cold, relatively warm.Saintsing:And so these insects at some point, what, what kind of what's their life like? Are they like how much time did they actually spend as like active living things? I mean, you know, they're always living when they're alive, they're always living things, but you know, sort of life.Roberts:Yeah. So they live for one year, they have one full life cycle and then typically at least the Sierra populations that I work on spend about eight to nine months dormant. So two-thirds to three-quarters of their life, just, yeah. Dormant. There are a couple of populations of these beetles that live on the Mendocino and Sonoma coast. And I think they get a little bit more time because it's just less seasonal there. Well nicer or all year, but yeah, Sierras are pretty cold until they're not, you know, like usually June to like August or something, they're, they're pretty yeah. Trying to fit in, I guess, reproducing and growing and then preparing for winter. Yeah. It's pretty crazy. There's actually one, uh, there's a species of, oh, I'm probably gonna mess this up in some sort of caterpillar, like moth that lives in the Arctic. And I think the specific example I was reading about was in Greenland and it, it takes like seven years for it to become an adult. So it like molts and then spins winter and then comes like comes around again and then maybe molts again. Yeah. So it takes seven years to actually finally get there.Saintsing:And it's like for that caterpillar, I guess it would be like, it would have a time period of like a month or something. Just be a larva. It's a, I dunno know, is there fine grass to eat there?Roberts:Yeah. I mean there's like little shrubby things that they can eat. Yeah. Yeah. So they're probably living well, I guess if it is like a month of growing season, it's, uh, 11 and 12, so it kind of lives in dormant, you know? And then I, I mean most of the terrestrial habitat, well I guess most of the gestural habitat in the, world's not most a big portion of it is in the Northern hemisphere, a pretty high latitude too. I mean like Canada, Russia, these huge landmasses and they get really cold. So a lot of insects just have to deal with this. Um,Saintsing:It's just the reality for a lot of living things that you got to spend a lot of your life, not actually living it.Roberts:Yeah. Or I guess the other strategy of like being able to tolerate winter and what the insects I work on too, a lot of birds just kind of avoid winter and leave. And I guess there's a lot of insects that migrate as well. Right? Like this is just something we're kind of getting an idea of how much they do, but like monarchs are pretty classic example. Right. So you just have to either avoid it or tolerate it or not survive it.Saintsing:So you're, you're generally studying how these insects tolerate the winter. And so is there a kind of like a specific thing that you're studying in that? Like, is there a main question that you're interested in around how these insects are toleranting winter?Roberts:Yeah. Yeah. So I guess most of my dissertation work is really looking at the role that snow plays in how insects survive winter or what stresses they experience over winter, which I kind of alluded to a little bit, there's a lot of variability in snow, in the Sierras and these Beatles, that experience. But, um, yeah, so snow is a really good insulator that can buffer, I guess, everything, but let us know from the really cold air temperatures. So usually temperatures below snow don't really go below freezing much. Yeah, at least soil surface, if there's enough snow. So a lot of insects, a lot of organisms use this space to kind of survive winter, but there's increasing prevalence of drought and decreased winter snow cover in California, at least, or in the Sierras. So they're going to kind of be winters in the future may start to shift a little bit, less snowy and more cold. So as kind of climate or the world in general has increasing mean temperatures. There's actually an increasing cold that insects that rely on snow, but don't have it, but we're going to be experiencing. And there there's really cool paper, I think in 2003, that called it colder soils in a warmer world. Peter Grossman. That is, yeah. I think it's a really interesting like paradoxical thing, climate change. So yeah, I'm interested in like what that looks like across the mountain.Saintsing:So like, um, how it varies as you get higher up the mountain.Roberts:If you just think of a typical mountain or even like a cartoon caricature of a mountain, right. There's always snow at the peak. And then it goes away a little bit as you go down and temperature also changes across the elevation where highest elevations are cold. So kind of this like changing environment where there's increasing snow in colder temperatures as you go up. So the role that snow is going to play in kind of blocking the cold is going to depend on where you are on the mountain. So I'm trying to kind of tease apart what, what that means.Saintsing:So you've been going to the Sierras and kind of like checking out what's going on with these beetles.Roberts:Yeah. Yeah. So I work in the Eastern Sierra is right around Bishop between Bishop and Mammoth and there's populations of these beetles that have been monitored for a long time by, um, a couple of our collaborators, Nathan Rink and Elizabeth Doll Hoff. Yeah. So I have, I actually started working on this system around these beetles when I was in my undergrad since now, quite a while. And I actually started after I took that entomolgoy class that I mentioned earlier, like an yeah. Yeah. I mean, I, so yeah, I grew up in Fresno, which is like, you can see some mountains from it. Most days, you know, we would go up there sometimes like up to Yosemite when people come visit and stuff, but I'd never like gone back back in or gone in to the Eastern Sierra since I started working out there and it was, yeah, it was like experiencing it for the first time when I started doing that. So, uh, in a way it kind of was life changing. And then I guess the science part kind of was life changing as well. Yeah.Saintsing:Have you, uh, have you yourself, like experientially noticed changes in how much snow there's been out there over the time you've been going up to the Sierras?Roberts:Yeah, absolutely. Well, I guess the most obvious one, one or the most obvious change, I guess was 2012 to like 2000, maybe it's 2011 to 2014. There's like the biggest drought in California history. Um, that occurred in the time that I worked up there. So there's like this, this period of long minimal snow cover that occurred. And, um, I think one of the things that is most striking that it's noticed by going to these populations for a decade now is how many of them have just gone locally extinct. And like, there's, I remember my first year out working there, there's a site that we do a lot of like surveys where you just walk around counting needles for, for some time. And it was the first one that I ever, I think I counted like 310 minutes. And then, uh, this is 2009 was the first summer I worked out there and then 2020, there are no beetles at that site anymore. Like almost that entire mountain drainage is completely yeah. It's almost beetle free, which is, yeah. It's crazy to see change over. I mean, that's, that's a while, but like not really. So it has changed quite a bit since I started.Saintsing:Yeah. That's uh, you think, uh, that's step, or do you think that's a, um, kind of a product of like maybe short term variation to see so few beetles? Or do you think that's really like, I don't know, like, are they're not going to be those beetles there anymore?Roberts:Um, I think that this has happened before, maybe not to the same extent where, so they're, they're completely gone in that drainage except for one site, which I think they've constricted about the same amount before, um, in the late eighties, I believe, but, and they, they did come back. So I think as possible, but that's kind of relying on, I guess, something like a normal few normal years for them to be able to recover. And it doesn't seem, I mean, that's one of the biggest changes that have really been happening in the Sierra is, is that it just, it's extreme more often you see just extreme drought or extremely snowy ears. Yeah. So I think they could come back, but it's going to take a good few years of good weather, I guess. Yeah. Hopefully they come back.Saintsing:Okay. Well, so that's kind of a, a bummer, but, um, soRoberts:I'm going with that, but that's kind of why we try to study this stuff too. Right. If it's going to happen, you want to at least try to understand why it's happening so that you maybe, somebody can do something about it in the future or someplace else and yeah. Cause yeah, I mean, understanding what is happening is, is key and trying to help or mitigate it, I guess.Saintsing:So. Right. So then what are you doing to study it, to try to help or to help mitigate, um, what what's like actually doing, uh, experimental work to figure out more about this? Like, yeah. SoRoberts:It's a pretty wide range of stuff. Like part of like part of what I do is collect beetles and then get them to enjoy dormancy and then simulate winter by, or like overwintering for them by burying them. And I, I try to do this or I do this in 2.2 areas, one that keeps snow off of it. Um, so they can like, there's a group of beetles experiencing a no snow winter. And then it is a separate group that is just out in the open. So it gets ambient snowfall. So, um, yeah, part of it is burying beetles alive and then coming back and checking on them. And then I try to do some aspect of like, like you can't do everything in the field. It's just not, it's difficult to get out there, especially when there is no. Um, so I do a lot of like mimicking conditions and lab incubators and like do some that's where I do like cold tolerance acids, which is, um, basically take a beetle, put it in a tube and then put it into a bath of ethylene glycol, some liquid that doesn't freeze until really low temperatures.Roberts:And it will just cool them down. You can kind of like precisely control what temperature they're experiencing. So yeah, that also doesn't yeah. The list of stuff I'm saying no burying beetles freezing beetles.Saintsing:It just sounds, it sounds weird to us because when you say three, a person frees the person that's, you know, it sounds like really bad for the person, but these, yeah. These are, this is part of their lives, right? Yeah,Roberts:Yeah, yeah. So they can, well, they can tolerate most of it. Like, I, I don't, it's not like seeking to, um, expose them to anything they wouldn't do their natural environment, but, um, I'm just trying to understand what events in the natural environment, how that impacts your survival. Yeah. So I, yeah, and not baring humans out there, but, um, and then I, I guess one of the other things that, that I think you and I have a lot of overlap in our interests then is, um, like energetic costs. And I'm really interested in energetic cost of winter. And what changing temperatures will mean because energy use rates in insects is determined, like temperature dependent. So changing temperature means you change, uh, energy use and, and overwintering organisms, can't just get up and just need, they're kind of operating off of like a limited amount of energy. So, um, and a lot of how I study this is by measuring respiration rates of beetles or, and this sounds, I think way cooler than it actually is in process, but like, I think you quantify CO2 production and beetles by using lasers. So sometimes I say like, I measure beetle breathes using lasers, which make this sound like a really cool, um, when really I just kind of inject some gas into a box and yeah. Um,Saintsing:Honestly injecting gas into a box sounds complicated too.Roberts:Okay. It can't be, it take, it took me awhile to figure out exactly how to do it. Right. But, um, yeah. Yeah. And that's, that's a big, big thing of what I've done is spent so long, just measuring respiration rates, which I think you can relate to that as well.Saintsing:Yeah. It's uh, you got, you got animals doing their thing and you got the machine doing, its the thing, you got you doing your thing and you know, occasionally, sometimes everything lines up and you get a good reading.Roberts:Yep. And at least with overwintering organisms, they don't have their own behaviors really. You know, they're kind of just like dormant. So it's, it's easier to work on them than it could be otherwise. Yeah. Which is helpful for a lot of stuff. And also it decreases the animal care you have to do because you kind of want to not disturb them when they're wintering. So yeah. So I guess this is like really like the main, main things of what I've done quantified I guess how much storage limit or in beetles as well, a big one that I've done to cause it, yeah,Saintsing:Because that's kind of what they use. They get, they store a bunch of fat when they're eating in the summer and then they use that during the winter. Yeah.Roberts:Yeah. And I think like you can get a pretty good idea of how much energy is currently being used by using respiration rates, but it really isn't, it's like acute what they're feeling at the moment or what the temperature is that they're in, where I'm looking at weather stores gives you kind of this summary of everything that I've experienced. So yeah, a lot of the work I've done kind of compares and tries to predict how much energy would be used based off of temperature and respiration rates. And then compare that to what we actually see with these lipid measurements.Saintsing:How's how, how have things gone? Have you, uh, found any like really cool results or uh, like w where are you at?Roberts:Yeah. Uh, so I guess the goal of trying to kind of predict what the energetic cost of winter is, goes back to this question of what snow does across elevation, like how it regulates that and regulates yeah. Stress, which in this case it's energy, stress or cold stress. And, um, yeah, so I I've, I've used weather or I guess micro climate data across elevation or Beatles over winter and kind of looked at energy use across elevation. And w what we see is that increasing well, as you go up in elevation and the energetic cost of winter is lower, which is weird because it's longer as well. But I think what a big thing of what people typically haven't thought about when they're thinking about snow cover is that it buffers not only from cold, but from warm as well. And these like spring warm temperatures, temperatures are also depleting energy source, um, before the deals are emerging. So at low elevation, we're having more of that, um, exposure to warmer temperatures. So that's kind of one of like sorta interesting findings.Saintsing:Yeah. And like, uh, oh, sorry. But just about that, you're kind of saying like, the Beatles might be going along well. And like, I got plenty, I got plenty of storage and then all of a sudden the warm weather, um, starts making them just go into overdrive then reserves plummet.Roberts:Yeah, exactly. Yeah. They're, I'm making, I'm so close to the finish line and then potentially that's where all of the cost is. So, um, I mean, just not make it, and I think that this is going to be particularly interesting. Oh. So if there's earlier snow melts and exposure to these warm temperatures, there's still like a spring has a lot of fluctuating, hot and cold too. So they're also been exposed to cold temperatures and warm temperatures. Um, so they get kind of the worst of both worlds with that too. And that is another thing with snow that is happening, I guess this is more like broad pattern, but snow melt is starting earlier and then onset of snowfall and starting later due. So this season just kind of shrinking. Yeah. So, yeah, that's an interesting finding for that reason. And then I, I didn't mention anything about the difference between when snow is, I mean in a snow year versus a dry year, but, um, in snow years, the energetic cost is just overall higher across the elevation.Roberts:So it's kind of what we had predicted. Um, but at high elevations, they seem to be this site where they it's just so similar. There's just always a little bit of snow. And I think this kind of says that, like this may be a good site that is resistant to decreasing still too. So they may be able to move up in elevation if conditions become difficult, otherwise, which is a pattern then we're seeing otherwise inactive seasons, um, a bit more so like ranges of butterflies and see them move up, um, you know, elevation and plants move up in elevation response to increasing warm temperatures, but there may be this benefit in winter as well.Saintsing:So you're going to see more and more things just kind of restricted to the top of the mountain.Roberts:Yep. And at some point you've run out a mountain and you can keep going up too. So there's kind of a limit this why mountains are interesting besides getting to go hike around mountains, um, as a job basically. But yeah, they're, they're interesting because there is so much change over such a short scale, and then they eventually just kind of stopped.Saintsing:Does uh, has doing fieldwork changed how you experience? I dunno, the outdoors when you're not doing field work. Yeah. Yeah.Roberts:Well, I, it's hard to tell, I guess, what is yield work and what it is like biology or being a scientist for me, I guess, um, because the kind of started at the same time basically. And, um, so yeah, like my initial answer was going to be, you know, going someplace, I like will always look on plants or bugs and like, I don't know, just kind of notice the environment, environmental conditions, just weird stuff like that, that I probably wouldn't have if I didn't do field work. And then also didn't study biology as well. So, um, yeah, I mean, I guess it kind of changes the way you see the world in general. Right. But I also don't know what changed from then, but also a lot of stuff has changed since I was pre science. So, um, who knows what's responsible for what?Saintsing:Well, this has been a lot of fun, but I think, uh, we are running out of time on the interview, but yeah. Do you have anything that you want to leave the audience with before we go?Roberts:We're faced with this existential crisis in terms of climate change. Right. And there's a lot of negative emotions, I think that are associated with that. And I, I think it's a, it's easy to get kind of get really far into that. And I guess what I'm trying to get at is is that, Hey, you don't have to be a PhD student to, to notice a bug in the environment or yeah. It's just, um, it all fits together in such a cool way. It's I think it's really important to kind of get out and go experience those environments and things are changing, but they still are how they are now.Saintsing:Yeah. Today I've been speaking to Kevin Roberts from the department of integrative biology. We've talked about his work on beetles and the Sierras and how they survive the winter. Thanks so much for being on the show, Kevin.Roberts:Yeah. Thanks for having me here. It's been great.Saintsing:Tune in, in two weeks for the next episode of the graduate.